Fishing on the Skeena River, 1915. Source: William James Topley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why Subsistence?

Fishing on the Skeena River, 1915. Source: William James Topley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: This month The Otter will feature posts on issues in Canadian Environmental History written by historians attending the American Society of Environmental Historymeeting in Toronto 3-6 April, 2013. If you would like to join the conversation you can leave comments below or attend the panels in Toronto. The first post in this series asks the question: “Why Subsistence?” and panelists will explore the controversial role subsistence plays in environmental history at a roundtable discussion on Saturday, April 6 at 1:30 pm in the Quebec room.

Subsistence has a bad reputation. Say it and people hear “near starvation.” If I say “subsistence farm” you, environmental historian that you are, are now probably picturing scrawny children standing in the midst of some sort of storm-blasted hellscape, tattered calico dresses and torn knee breeches hanging from their emaciated frames. But lately a group of us have been devoting some serious scholarly attention to the subject of subsistence, and are finding a minimum of post-apocalytic hellscapes (though if you like that sort of thing I can recommend some good films, many of them starring Charlton Heston). Self-provisioning – grabbing your food directly from nature – was once ubiquitous and survives today in more places than even many scholars realize. The study of it is well established in anthropology and parts of geography and rural history, but environmental historians have much to offer to the discussion, and insights to gain into the intersections of capitalism, nature, and human survival in the modern world.

Part of subsistence’s reputation problem comes from differing ideas of what is meant by “subsistence.” The children in your head are hungry because they were part of a liberal capitalist system where their family was expected to fend for itself. Such individual self-reliance has little to do with how people have actually incorporated self-provisioning into their food systems. Medieval English peasants, North American First Nations people pre-and-post contact: these people practiced getting for themselves as a community or kin group, and usually combined it with trade of some sort, whether it was oolichan oil carried over the Coast Mountains or spices from Asia. Really only with the advent of capitalism came the idea that there were different ways of valuing things: according to what they could get in exchange for something else, and according to their use value. Capitalism proceeded by removing non-market access to the means of subsistence, by stripping away customary guarantees to land, forests or waters and making these things available instead through the market. English peasants, Scottish highlanders and the Secwepemc of British Columbia, amongst many others, had their land enclosed, their ancient right to access it for growing or gathering food cut off, the land turned instead to commercial crops of wheat, sheep, lumber or minerals. Inside Western economic thinking, amongst modernizers, development-minded governments, or those determined to help First Nations people adjust to colonialism, subsistence became something practiced by those unable or unwilling to engage with capitalist markets. Nature was to be accessed directly only for recreation (which might involve eating what was hooked or shot) or, in the case of First Nations people, for cultural or ceremonial reasons.

Yet subsistence as a serious form of self-provisioning continued. It continued because people found it to be vital. Take the Cree of northern Alberta, as studied by anthropologist Clint Westman. The Cree word that best translates into subsistence, pimâtisowin, also means the good life and, more generally, just “life.” A whole person, a person who is truly alive, is one who spends real time in the bush. Subsistence survives as well in the cracks of capitalism. In places like the outports of Newfoundland or northern Ontario self-provisioning kept fishing families alive to produce more salt cod, kept operating farms that could supply lumber camps. Subsistence lives in relationship to capitalist market exchange, and persists because, like the welfare state, it smoothes out the contradictions of capitalist markets.

It has been suggested to me that I am romanticizing subsistence. This may be. But when you live in northern Ontario, you notice some things. You notice that people really like to go out into the woods or out onto a lake (frozen or not) to find animals, kill them, and eat them. You also notice that that is about all they can do with the enormous amounts of the valuable stuff of nature around us, as opposed to the large companies that extract minerals or lumber and pay for them with unstable jobs and royalties that go south. You notice that the history of this place can be summed up with the phrase “other people got rich, us, not so much.” I’m not sure why northern Ontarians, and all the other people in all the other places like it in this country and abroad, should not be able to draw more directly on the nature around them for their subsistence, should not benefit more from the valuable resources that flow past our homes to speed down the sparkling new four-lane Highway 11 that the Ontario government has built for them.

Our conversations about subsistence began at a NiCHE-sponsored workshop in 2009. The workshop led to a book manuscript and will continue in a panel at the ASEH in Toronto(Saturday, April 6 at 1:30 pm in the Quebec room, if you’ll be there).

James Murton is Professor of History at Nipissing University where he writes about food.



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One Comment

  1. Sean Kheraj says:


    I am looking forward to this panel at the 2013 ASEH meeting in Toronto. This project is very important and I think it points to some promising new directions for Canadian environmental history. There is, as you suggest, existing literature on this topic in Canadian historiography and I would like to recommend three articles that have influenced my own thinking on the topic for environmental history:

    Ommer, Rosemary and Nancy J. Turner. “Informal Rural Economies in History.” Labour/Le Travail 53, (2004): 127-157.

    This article outlines some of the main points you make about continued subsistence practices in rural Canada, particularly in Newfoundland outports and rural British Columbia. Ommer and Turner describe these as informal economic activities whereby families continue to draw from “a range of ecological niches to provide year-round sustenance.” This they refer to as “ecological pluralism” and they contend that it has persisted in Canada even after European/Euroamerican colonization, the enclosure of land and resources, and the establishment of a pervasive capitalist economy.

    Bradbury, Bettina. “Pigs, Cows, and Boarders: Non-Wage Forms of Survival among Montreal Families, 1861-91.” Labour/Le Travail 14 (1984): 9-46.

    Bettina Bradbury’s now classic article on the keeping of livestock animals in nineteenth-century Montreal demonstrates that informal economic activities and the use of a variety of ecological niches for subsistence was not exclusive to rural environments. She clearly shows that the inadequacies of the working-class male breadwinner’s wage in industrial Montreal compelled women and children to perform necessary labour that fell outside of the formal wage economy in order for families to survive. This included the raising of vegetable gardens and small-scale animal livestock husbandry.

    Goldring, Philip. “Inuit Economic Responses to Euro-American Contacts: Southeast Baffin Island, 1824-1940.” Historical Papers 21.1 (1986): 146-172.

    I only recently re-discovered this article by Philip Goldring on the response of Inuit people to European/Euroamerican contact. Goldring’s article provides a remarkable case study of the environmental limits of capitalism and a market-based economy in the Arctic. In the 1930s the Inuit of Cumberland Sound near Pangnirtung seemed to annoy the local HBC manager because of their refusal to trap and trade Arctic Fox in large quantities. He blamed their low productivity on a lack of acquisitiveness: “they are more or less content to hunt seals, and the fur hunt is becoming of secondary importance. They appear to have little ambition to secure anything but ammunition and tobacco.” To the HBC manager, the Inuit were lazy. But, according to Goldring, “a distinctive environment and the whaling tradition helped the Inuit of Cumberland Sound retain a stubborn detachment from the values and preferences of the HBC post manager.” A cash-based market economy meant very little on an Arctic island isolated from central markets to the south. Inuit on Baffin Island in the 1930s lived in what Brian Donahue might refer to as “comfortable subsistence,” hunting seal and using Arctic Fox from time to time to acquire manufactured goods, such as ammunition, coffee, biscuits, and tobacco. The fur-bearing animal habitat essentially became an ATM and the seal habitat was a grocery store!

    Finally, I tried to draw together some of these points in an article I wrote for in the fall on environmental rights in Canada:

    Kheraj, Sean. “Environment and Citizenship in Canadian History” Active History, 20 November 2012.

    I hope readers find these sources useful and I look forward to this very interesting panel at this year’s ASEH meeting in Toronto.

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