New Articles in Canadian Environmental History: From Adventurous Tourists to Experimental Farms

The R. M. S. Nascopie anchored in Pangnirtung Fjord off the coast of Baffin Island, Nunavut, August 1946. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3842294.

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From time to time we like to highlight new research in the fields of Canadian environmental history and historical geography that appears in journal articles. This is an ongoing series, in which NiCHE editors write short reviews of recent articles that they have been reading. Here are our picks:

Sean Kheraj, NiCHE Director and Editor-in-Chief

Sean’s Pick

Adcock, Tina. “The Maximum of Mishap: Adventurous Tourists and the State in the Northwest Territories, 1926-1948” Histoire Sociale/Social History, 49, no. 99 (June 2016): 431-452.

Surprise! My pick for our latest round-up of mini-reviews of journal articles in Canadian environmental history comes from one of our own NiCHE editors, Tina Adcock.

Earlier this year, Adcock published a wonderful new article in a special issue of Histoire Sociale/Social History on the history of tourism. Her article offers a unique case study that underlines the significance of the environmental and geographic contexts of tourism. Unlike in many other parts of Canada in the interwar period, government administrators for the Northwest Territories did not welcome the advent of modern tourism. Whereas governments in the southern provinces were turning toward tourism (especially in parts of the country suffering from low industrial employment) as a new modern industry, administrators in the Northwest Territories struggled to develop adequate policies to manage the problem of what Adcock refers to as “adventurous tourists.” I love this term. It accurately captures a particular type of tourist we might call an adventure tourist today. These were the progenitors of the rock climbers, skydivers, and other “extreme” or “adventure” tourists of the present. My uncle once operated a hotel in the Arctic so I’m familiar with the descriptions Adcock provides of wealthy adventurers (particularly wealthy Americans) who came to the Northwest Territories in search of wild, dangerous experiences.

The trouble, of course, for administrators in the Northwest Territories was that these tourists did not bring economic benefits to the region. Instead, they were economic liabilities. Who was responsible for rescuing the overly enthusiastic, but under prepared adventurer? Who would save these Arctic explorer imitators? Rather than attempting to weed out the phoney “scientific” expeditions, administrators sought new policies to deter would-be tourists and limit the government’s liability.

The unusual approach to tourism policy in the Northwest Territories was governed, in part, by environmental and geographic factors that set the territories apart from the south. Tourism in the north, as Adcock shows, occurred under different environmental conditions and as a result drew a different type of tourist, the troublesome adventurous tourist.

Claire Campbell, NiCHE Editor

Claire’s Pick

Teresa Devor, “The Explanatory Power of Climate History for the 19th-Century Maritimes and Newfoundland: A Prospectus,” Acadiensis 43:2 (2014) 57-78

Jason Hall, “Maliseet Cultivation and Climatic Resilience on the Wolastokw/St. John River During the Little Ice Age,” Acadiensis 44:2 (2015) 3-25.

I’ve had to turn on my space heater and start wearing socks, so it seemed fitting that I was drawn to two articles about climate, cold, and adaptation. I’m cheating here a bit by articlesmushing, but these pieces by Teresa Devor and Jason Hall are such a wonderful match that I couldn’t resist. It’s terrific to see such good environmental history coming out of the Atlantic region, for one, and such a useful pairing in the burgeoning field of climate history.

These two pieces would make an excellent combination for teaching. Climate history is still quite new to most of our students (my seminar was blown away by the idea that the Vikings experienced global warming). Devor gives us a useful overview of climate history in the north Atlantic, but it’s the erratic seasonality of the Little Ice Age that really humanizes the story. She shows how different intensities of winter affected agriculture and transportation over the decades of the nineteenth century. (L.M. Montgomery insisted that the Island was never “frozen up” until February, responding to a [American, no doubt] perception of the Island as remote and ice-bound.) Then Devor lays these oscillations atop other regional features like topography to show how climate exacerbated frost, isolation, and poverty. While she notes some strategies used by farmers to adapt to these limitations, it is Hall’s account of Maliseet farming that really underscores the usefulness of local knowledge in protecting cultivation through chilly climates. The fields (plural) along the mid-St. John River or Wəlastəkw reflected Maliseet knowledge of growing seasons, flood patterns, and intervale microclimates, and the targeted use of certain varieties, harvesting, and storage practices adapted to the strict growing season.

These articles also are explicitly about historical methods and, even better, historical blind-spots – how we know what we know, and that there are plenty of things we don’t know. Devor runs through “the sources, methods, and groundwork for regional climate history,” from ice cores to ocean patterns like El Niño (I admit some of this went over my head). Hall, on the other hand, begins by pointing out a fundamental historiographical oversight: that historians failed to recognize the extensive cultivation of maize and other crops because they took their (mis)cues from the reports of observers who did not travel into the interior; did not recognize certain cultivars; and did not see the seasonal and gendered work of cultivation adapted to the regional climate. (Thus maize appears in history only when Europeans notice it.) This resonates with the exciting scholarship appearing on the First Peoples and older landscapes of the northeast.

My students couldn’t really understand eighteenth-century weather diarists; why did they keep writing this stuff down, they asked. We may be vulnerable to climate change, but we’re so insulated to weather that it can be difficult to reinhabit the early modern proximity to, dependency on, curiosity about, changes in temperature. I wonder, too, if we can gauge how much human intervention added to what Devor calls the “tumult” of climatic change. (With the Anthropocene, of course, it’s much easier to make that correlation). In discussing Maliseet agriculture, Hall supplies another way of both accessing this past and situating ourselves in it. Here plants become artifacts and landmarks. The Maliseet planted a new diversity of food and medicinal crops in close proximity. These plants and the fields in which they sat later signaled to colonists the location of good farmland – and thus enabled the success of settler agriculture. If only we would heed some of their other acquired wisdoms.

Tina Adcock, NiCHE Editor
Tina Adcock, NiCHE Editor

Tina’s Pick

Trimble, Sabina. “Storying Swí:lhcha: Place Making and Power at a Stó:lō Landmark,” BC Studies no. 190 (Summer 2016): 39-66.

This impressive article (which, even more impressively, began life as an Honours thesis) joins a small, but rapidly growing body of work about parks as colonial tools of dispossession: or, how the creation of municipal, provincial, and national parks displaced Indigenous peoples throughout Canada from their traditional territories. This scholarship straddles the increasingly energetic boundary between environmental history and the history of settler colonialism, and uses various means to unearth the voices and perspectives of Indigenous peoples from settler colonial records. By going one step further and placing Stó:lō understandings of place and environment front and centre, Trimble’s research arguably sets a new benchmark for future environmental historical research in this vein.

Trimble explores how Indigenous and non-Indigenous stories about Cultus Lake/Swí:lhcha, located in what is today southwestern British Columbia, have served to confirm the rights of certain peoples to use and access this space, and to deny the rights of others to do so. Noting that Indigenous and settler place-making stories are often deemed “irreconcilable in content and tone” (41), she neatly bridges this cultural chasm by grouping these narratives into three overarching genres: origin stories; stories about conduits of movement (trails, tunnels, and pathways); and “keep-out” or boundary-making stories. This epistemologically symmetrical approach effectively illuminates cross-cultural similarities: in the situation and subsequent significance of The’wá:lí village and later pioneer villages (real and replica) on the lake’s shores, the parallel infrastructures of underwater tunnels between far-flung Coast Salish settlements and recreational roads that connected Cultus Lake to urban spaces, and the material and rhetorical lines drawn to bar spiritually unprepared or economically voracious actors from the lake’s waters and shorelines.

For me, anyway, Trimble’s article underscores the need to bring Indigenous worldviews more fully into environmental historical analyses. Coast Salish peoples understand “humans and sentient non-human beings [to] coexist in a living, unpredictable environment, where shifts and transformation are to be expected” (47). This is not a world away, intellectually speaking, from ecological models that likewise consider the fates of humans and non-humans as conjoined, and that similarly interpret multispecies relationships and environments as dynamic and ever-changing.

Moreover, Trimble’s category of “keep-out” narratives, including those told by conservationists to hasten the protection of beautiful and “wild” spaces, has me mentally revisiting older articles about the removal of Indigenous peoples from settler colonial parks with new questions in mind. What kinds of keep-out narratives might the Keeseekoowenin Ojibway have told about the space that became Riding Mountain National Park? Or the Stoney Nakoda about the place that became Banff National Park? These kinds of questions are easy to pose, but often difficult for environmental historians to answer, at least through recourse to archival documents alone. More collaboration with ethnohistorians, Indigenous historians, and Indigenous elders, knowledge-holders, and communities, however, might enable future investigations of this kind. This, in turn, might yield valuable new stories about the entangled cultural and environmental histories of contested spaces such as Cultus Lake/Swí:lhcha.

Josh MacFadyen, NiCHE Editor
Josh MacFadyen, NiCHE Editor

Josh’s Pick

Loewen, Royden. ““Come Watch This Spider”: Animals, Mennonites, and Indices of Modernity.” Canadian Historical Review 96, no. 1 (2015): 61-90.

In “Come Watch This Spider,” Canadian historian and Chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg Royden Loewen offers a highly original analysis of the changing relationship between people and animals during Canada’s transition to modernity. Loewen is well known for his larger research agenda which covers Mennonites in settler societies across the Western hemisphere, and indeed this article pairs perfectly with his latest book Horse-and-Buggy Genius: Listening to Mennonites Contest the Modern World from the University of Manitoba Press (2016). “Come Watch This Spider” will be of particular interest to readers of The Otter ~ La loutre, however, because of his focus on Mennonites and animals (mainly livestock) in Canada. The article situates these subjects within the larger context of Canadian liberalism or what Ian McKay has called the “liberal order” in modern Canadian history.

Mennonite history is a fascinating lens through which to view Canadians’ relationships with the natural world in this period. Anyone who has shopped at the St. Jacob’s farmers market or slowed to stare at horse-and-buggy Mennonites in Southwestern Ontario knows the juxtaposition between these traditional and modern worlds. Surely there must be folk lessons for our fossil-fuel-addicted and individualist society in these seemingly bucolic settings. This Anabaptist culture is typically associated with a commitment to rural livelihoods, traditional technologies, and communal interests, whereas Liberalism is associated, in Loewen’s terms, with the “idea of the unfettered individual as the foundation of” an urban and industrial society. So how did Mennonites experience nature during this transition? Did their relationship with animals resist, or reflect, what Loewen called this “form of modernity that alienated the individual from nature” (66-7)?

In this erudite article, as elsewhere in his work, Loewen complicates the image of Mennonites and the natural world. “Come Watch This Spider” focuses on references to animals in three sets of Mennonite texts – diaries, memoirs, and recent literature – which reflect “the sequence of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern societies” (61). Examined in order they reveal how Mennonites like many other Canadian groups have “experienced animals in sequential ways – as farmers, as urban dwellers, as social critics.” To Loewen, the broader Mennonite community had much in common with other parts of the country. Their records describe the “nature of a people’s journey into modernity” (68-9), and they provide a useful and comprehensive assemblage of rural testimonies and animal interactions.

In some ways, the sequential nature of the sources isn’t a clear indication or index of a transition to modernity. My one issue with the article is that I would like to see even more examples from the texts, and especially the nineteenth-century rural diaries that supposedly show evidence that the animal was “central to local society” and “respected by humans” (71). Some of the examples suggest a “concern with the well-being of livestock,” the importance of “sensitivity” to horses, and even an “underlying affection toward” cows, piglets, and chicks (74-5). However, it is difficult to tell from the excerpts how frequently this language occurred and whether the diarists protected livestock for any intrinsic (as opposed to economic) value placed on animals. I was frankly a little surprised by the lack of emotion or closeness in the early diary excerpts that discussed animals, but then again, I do not read a lot of Mennonite diaries, and perhaps this language was relatively sentimental compared to the quotidian entry.

Jessica DeWitt, NiCHE Social Media Editor
Jessica DeWitt, NiCHE Social Media Editor

Jessica’s Pick

Peter Grant Anderson, “Comparing Nineteenth and Twenty-first Century Ecological Imaginaries at Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm,” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 25, no. 1 (Summer 2016): 38-48.

This article by Pete Anderson stands out due to the way in which he uses Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm to connect seemingly disparate topics across time and space, connecting the present to the past, central Canada to the West, and the urban landscape to the rural. Anderson focuses on the origins of two gardens within the Central Experimental Farm: the Dominion Arboretum, created in 1889, and the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, founded in 1990.

These two highly managed landscapes represent, according to Anderson, two visions of science. The Dominion Arboretum was developed as a testing ground for trees to be used in the ecological colonialization of western Canada. Anderson demonstrates how this piece of land played a role in the imaginative and material creation of the Canadian state based on altering the “natural” environment. The Fletcher Wildlife Garden, on the other hand, is a piece of land that has been altered to return it to its original state. The politics and difficulties of restoration ecology efforts of this sort are illustrated by the management of invasive species within the Wildlife Garden. The differences between these two spaces are made clearer by Anderson’s description of their grounds: “Arboretum’s grass is regularly cut and undergrowth cleared away,” he writes, “while the volunteers who maintain the Wildlife Garden revel in its thick, unkempt groundcover.” (39)

Though the way in which Anderson connects the development of these gardens to colonialism is effective, I agree with Andrea Eidinger’s assertion that Anderson could have pushed this argument further and more critically assessed the rewilding agenda taking place in the Fletcher Wildlife Garden. The connection between late-nineteenth-century urban recreational desires and health concerns and the ecological manipulation of the rural Canadian prairie as represented by the Dominion Arboretum left me also wanting more information on the way in which recreation shaped both gardens. These concerns aside, Anderson’s article provides a succinct and persuasive comparative example that demonstrates the evolution of scientific thought and the way in which scientific knowledge directly affects the way in which we choose to shape our environment.


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