Hope in the Barrenlands: Sustainability’s Canadian History

Dennis Cowals, U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 412-DA-8010. [Flickr commons]

Dennis Cowals, U.S. National Archives’ Local Identifier: 412-DA-8010. [Flickr commons]

Writing in 1970, Liverpool-born Jim Lotz, who worked for the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources during its early days, reflected on what he had learned – not just about bureaucracy, but about the country he had chosen to make home. “[T]he further north we go in Canada,” he mused, “the more national we become.”[1] The north was where people would encounter those things that were truly national in scale, and which defined the country: boreal forest, shield, and indigenous peoples.

But Lotz did more than reiterate a truism; that “the north is Canada.” He wanted to make a point about the history of the region and country, underscoring how entangled they were, and not just with each other, but with the world. “The further north we go in Canada, the more national we become, and yet, strangely, the more international the problems tend to be,” he wrote. “The north awakens our own humanity and makes us consider the humanity of others.” For Lotz, working in Canada’s north called on people to be citizens of the world.

Canada’s “Barrenlands” in the 1960s are a case in point. In the aftermath of starvation in the Keewatin region of the central arctic, the federal government brought new people, new ideas, and a new optimism to bear on achieving social security for northerners. Arguments about how to do so turned on questions of how to make populations ecologically and socially enduring. Some in Ottawa believed it could be achieved by relocation, others by local or regional development. For still others, it was through a combination of both. These were the Department’s “freewheeling, ‘elastic-band-off-the-bundle’ days,” when everything seemed possible.[2] Informed by international debates, alive to the challenges of working cross-culturally, and armed with the insights of social work and anthropology, civil servants approached the problem of the north as one of sustainable development. The arguments they offered and the tradeoffs they engaged in reveal sustainability’s deeper history, one that stretches back beyond the mid-1980s when the UN’s Brundtland Report first used the term.

Putting the Keewatin on an environmentally and socially-enduring footing was, for Northern Affairs, an issue of “capacity”; that of the land and its peoples. Development was the “management of a promise,” one inherent in people and place.[3] It was largely a technical matter; one requiring expertise to unleash what was already there. As such, sustainable development was a moral project, but one oddly beyond politics. Its technical and apolitical character was what ultimately limited its effectiveness, preventing recognition of the larger structural forces that posed a fundamental challenge to the ongoing viability of the north. If sustainability’s Canadian history has any lessons for us, it is that its achievement is a matter of structure as well as agency, of engaging capitalism as well as capacity.

Tina Loo, University of British Columbia

Photo credit: Richard Harrington, Starving Padleimiut woman at camp on South Henik Lake near Padlei, N.W.T. [Nunavut] ca. February 1950. Library and Archives Canada, PA-112083.

Photo credit: Richard Harrington, Starving Padleimiut woman at camp on South Henik Lake near Padlei, N.W.T. [Nunavut] ca. February 1950. Library and Archives Canada, PA-112083.

[1] Jim Lotz, Northern Realities: the Future of Northern Development in Canada (Toronto: New Press, 1970), 31.
[2] R.G. Williamson, “A Personal Retrospective on Anthropology Applied in the Arctic” (1988). 48. University of Saskatchewan Archives, Robert G. Williamson Fonds, MG 216, Box 4.
[3] Jan Nederveen Pieterse, “After Post-Development,” Third World Quarterly 21, 2 (2000): 176.

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Tina Loo

Professor at University of British Columbia
Tina Loo teaches Canadian history and environmental history at the University of British Columbia. She's written on wildlife management and the social and environmental impacts of hydroelectric development. Her current project is an examination of forced relocations in postwar Canada.

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