The Dominion of Nature ~ Inspirations & Motivations

Sir John A Macdonald, Charlottetown. Photo: Canada Alive

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The Speech from the Throne last month concluded by recalling that “our founding Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald said of Canada’s future that he saw ‘a great nation – great in action, great in hope, and great in position.’” Unmentioned is the fact that the Canada to which Macdonald was referring was the United Province of Canada, not a broader nation composed of all or many of the British North American colonies. Macdonald was speaking in Toronto in 1861 or so, impressing upon his audience why the union of the two Canadas must be maintained. Lower Canada, Macdonald stated,

possesses splendid water communication and all the advantages which fit it for union with the Upper Province. Nature has joined the two together, and that man is no lover of his country who would sever the bonds that unite them. Lower Canada is certain to become a manufacturing country. The climate and population are both favorable to the promotion of manufactures. This being the case, Upper Canada will have a home market for its produce, and Lower Canada will supply it with manufactured goods. … By becoming one great country, by having a large population of manufacturers in Lower Canada and farmers in Upper Canada, we shall have a domestic market and be sure to get a good reward for our labor.

Language and cultural differences existed, but they could and should be overcome. The two Canadas simply fit together, by virtue of their distinct and shared physiographies, climates, and arability – that is, by their natures.

Next July on Prince Edward Island, Edward MacDonald and I are hosting a workshop called The Dominion of Nature: Environmental Histories of the Confederation Era. Here is the call for papers. We aim to bring together scholars interested in exploring the ways nature figured into Confederation. We don’t know what we’ll find – which is entirely the point. We want to see how bringing the methods, practices, and sources of environmental history to bear on the standard Canadian history narrative can help enrich that narrative, and enrich the emergent national environmental history narrative along the way.

Ed and I believe that the workshop speaks to the historiographical moment. The workshop’s title draws some inspiration, of course, from The Republic of Nature, Mark Fiege’s recent reinterpretation of classic episodes in American history through an environmental history lens. But it’s an idea that’s been percolating for some time; my participant statement at EH+ in 2011 asked whether Canadian environmental historians should consider “An environmental history of Confederation? Would exploring how the environment figured in episodes in the standard Canadian history narrative expand our understanding of such episodes, and introduce new methods, sources, etc. to a broader Canadian academic and public audience – or would it just reinforce existing notions of what’s important in Canadian history?” (Darn you, new NiCHE website, for not having migrated that content yet.) More generally, it feels as if environmental history has matured to the point that its practitioners are figuring out how their work integrates best with existing literatures.

We hope that the workshop speaks to the historical moment, too. Immediately prior to quoting Macdonald, the Throne Speech discusses the plans to commemorate a series of upcoming national anniversaries, foremost among them the 2017 sesquicentennial of Confederation. Perhaps The Dominion of Nature will encourage environmental historians to think early about this and other forthcoming anniversaries, if only to remember that such occasions make it a little easier to generate and hold public interest in history. We all draw inspiration where we can. 

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I am the author of Becoming Green Gables (spring 2024), The Summer Trade (with Edward MacDonald, 2022), & The Miramichi Fire (2020), & the editor of the print/open-access Canadian History & Environment series at University of Calgary Press. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. Contact me at

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