A Cold Kingdom

<a href="https://flic.kr/p/9pWAeU">Evelyn Berg, "Sunny Window," Flickr</a>

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“…I am one and none, pin and pine, snow and slow,
America’s attic, an empty room,
a something possible, a chance, a dance
that is not danced. A cold kingdom.”

Patrick Anderson (1946) [1]

*

Fifteen years ago, Ken Coates and Kerry Abel lamented the curious lack of historical scholarship on winter in Canada. Given the season’s length across northern North America, and its centrality to Indigenous and settler experiences from sea to sea to sea, they felt that “learning how to live with winter should be one of the basic themes in the historical understanding of Canada.” [2] A decade and a half later, few scholars have answered their call. Is winter simply too obvious, too humdrum, too—well—depressing a subject to merit the attention of Canadian historians? Summer in Canada often seems all too short. Perhaps we compensate, subconsciously, by gravitating toward research topics that preserve summer’s light and warmth throughout the long months of darkness and cold. We may live in a cold kingdom, but the Canada that emerges from our articles and books remains overwhelmingly clement.

This “vernal” bias holds true in North American environmental history too, as Thomas Wickman has noted. In the northern United States, as in Canada, winter lasts a good portion of the year. It has shaped human and non-human encounters with those lands in important ways. Yet environmental historians have treated winter not only scantily, but also harshly in their narratives, casting it predominantly as a time of scarcity, want, and hardship. Wickman asks us to take a fresh look at winter. He reminds us that for many inhabitants of North America, this was “a season of abundance, a season of independence, a season of resilience, or a season of power.” [3] Pointing to surging interest in cold weather and environments among climate historians, Wickman wonders if we are experiencing a “light blue” turn—so called for the white, grey, or light-blue jackets that invariably adorn books on snowy, icy, or just plain cold subjects. [4]

If recent activity on The Otter ~ La Loutre is any indication, Canadian environmental history has embarked upon such a turn. Over the last eighteen months or so, and without any explicit intent to do so, we’ve amassed a body of work that examines Canadians’ social, material, and imaginative engagements with winter, both in its quotidian and extreme forms. I have gathered these posts under the tag “A Cold Kingdom.” Together, they comprise The Otter’s third series, and its first “found” (as opposed to commissioned) series.

What can these posts tell us so far about “winter environmental power” in Canadian history? [5] As I read through them, two common themes emerged: mobility and energy. [6] Forrest Picher and Teresa Devor remind us that historically, the coming of winter often eased the movements of people and goods in Atlantic Canada, whether over frozen ground or water. Indeed, Canada’s first controlled powered flight touched down on the icy surface of Lake Bras d’Or on February 23, 1909. The wintertime setting of this event enhances its Canadian character, as Blair Stein has written recently. Other authors describe attempts to control or circumscribe human and non-human peregrinations through wintry spaces. Contemplating the winter history of national parks in Canada, Merle Massie wonders why snowmobiles have been explicitly excluded from these sites. Daniel Macfarlane memorializes the ice bridges that used to form at the base of Niagara Falls in the wintertime, but which may never do so again. The Niagara River Ice Boom was installed in 1964 to safeguard the Falls’ complex hydraulic engineering systems against such powerful, sharp-toothed ice jams and lumbering blockages.

Although energy thrums through many of these posts, it comes most to the fore in Josh MacFadyen’s contributions. He reminds us that it is all too easy to overlook cold bodies, just like cold seasons and places, in Canadian history. The people most at risk of freezing to death, whether in the past or present, are those already pushed to the edges of society: the elderly, the impoverished, the disabled, and, perhaps most unconscionably, Aboriginal peoples subjected to “starlight tours.” It seems unimaginable, Josh writes, that anyone should die from cold in an energy-rich country like Canada. But Judith Fingard revealed long ago that winter in nineteenth-century British North America was no “poor man’s country.” [7] Scholars like Josh and Forrest are now extending her insights into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A more inclusive history of seasonality in Canada may help to bring marginalized bodies in from the cold, whether situated in the past, present, or future. As Josh concludes, we should “warm up to the idea of becoming communities who refuse to leave anyone out in the cold.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s taken Canadian environmental historians a while to warm up to the idea of studying winter. As Blair Stein notes, Canadians have long viewed this season with ambivalence. As a “northern” people, we laud our ability to withstand the cold. But since the mid-twentieth century, many Canadians have also become “snowbirds,” seeking out warm-weather destinations when the mercury in our thermometers is at its nadir. Blair argues that snowbirding is an act of extending summer. Whether consciously or not, Canadian historians may be snowbirding in the archives; we may be privileging warm-weather experiences in our environmental histories of Canada. But now this looks to be changing, and we can look forward (I hope) to more local, regional, national, and transnational studies of Canadian winters. I’ll leave you, now, with Sean Kheraj’s note-perfect take on the light blue turn.

Notes:

[1] Anderson, “Poem on Canada,” in The White Centre (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1946).

[2] Abel and Coates, “Introduction: The North and the Nation,” in Abel and Coates, eds., Northern Visions: New Perspectives on the North in Canadian History (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2001), 10. See also Ken S. Coates and William R. Morrison, “Winter and the Shaping of Northern History: Reflections from the Canadian North,” in the same volume.

[3] Thomas Wickman, “‘Winters Embittered with Hardships’: Severe Cold, Wabanaki Power, and English Adjustments, 1690-1710,” The William and Mary Quarterly 72, no. 1 (2015): 93.

[4] Thomas Wickman, “Light Blue Books: Reading about Winter Ecology and Climate History,” Uncommon Sense (blog), Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, February 4, 2015.

[5] Cf. Megan K. Prins, “Winters in America: Cities and Environment, 1870-1930” (PhD dissertation, University of Arizona, 2015), 25.

[6] It’s surely no coincidence that edited collections on both these subjects, to which a good many Canadian environmental historians contributed, are due out soon from Canadian university presses.

[7] Judith Fingard, “The Winter’s Tale: The Seasonal Contours of Pre-industrial Poverty in British North America, 1815-1860,” Historical Papers / Communications historiques 9, no. 1 (1974): 86.

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Assistant professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. I research and teach Canadian and environmental history, with a special focus on the Arctic and Subarctic.

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