The Canadian Reindeer Project: Experimenting with Science and Development in Northern Environmental History

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Reindeer Station, Northwest Territories. This now abandoned community might be considered the Canadian government's first Arctic hub. From
Reindeer Station, Northwest Territories. This now abandoned community might be considered the Canadian government’s first Arctic hub. From

On December 8th, 1948, a motley crew of civil servants, military officials, and academics huddled together at the Royal Canadian Air Force mess on Gloucester Street in Ottawa. Calling themselves “The Arctic Circle,” they formed to confront matters of national importance in the north. At this inaugural meeting, botanist A.E. Porsild reported on the reindeer experiment in the Mackenzie Delta, a government program he helped establish in the 1930s. Admitting some difficulties in recruiting local Inuit as herders, Porsild boasted that the Canadian Reindeer Project had demonstrated “considerable and sustained progress.”[1]

This scene hints at several themes I will explore in my contribution to this collection. Consider first the interplay between expertise and administration embodied in A.E. Porsild. Hired by the Department of Interior to study the Alaskan reindeer industry in the mid 1920s, Porsild had no academic training in botany nor experience managing reindeer. He was selected as the man for the job despite internal grumblings in a nascent northern bureaucracy—a so-called systematic botanist was no match for a “practical reindeer man” who could travel in the remote, unforgiving north. Yet by the 1940s, Porsild was hailed as an authority on Arctic vegetation, partly because of his tenure with the body assembled to manage the Canadian Reindeer Project, the Interdepartmental Reindeer Committee. His career is a rich case study for understanding the conditions by which professional scientists entered the realm of Arctic leadership.

At the center of Porsild’s report to The Arctic Circle sat reindeer, an animal he had grown to know well. The story of reindeer has heretofore been confined to popular accounts of the drive from Alaska or presented as a corollary to histories of game management. Thanks to historians of game management, we understand reindeer as representative of conservation politics in the early 1900s and as emblematic of a pastoral Arctic ideal. Emerging from a Royal Commission on developing muskox and reindeer industries, the reindeer experiment created a 7,000 acre Reindeer Grazing Preserve, protected by permits for trapping or hunting within its boundaries. Yet the introduction of a foreign species to the Western Arctic has more nuances to unpack, beyond the ways officials used reindeer to regulate northern life and landscapes.

At play with the Canadian Reindeer Project was not just a politics of conservation, but also a politics of conversion. We glimpse this as Porsild bemoans the issue of attracting Inuit from the trapping economy to the grueling practice of herding. Enchanted by the animal’s innate abilities to transform barrenlands into grazing pastures, bureaucrats hoped the animals would convert primitive hunters to domesticated herders—creating Canadian citizens who, by their labor in a new reindeer economy, demonstrated sovereignty in the Western Arctic. Here, in the reindeer, we witness a tool capable of restricting the “wanton slaughter” of caribou—and establishing a wholly different commerce among bureaucrats, Saami, and Inuit. The Reindeer Project thus begs for contextualization alongside other Canadian imperial gestures in a post-Depression era push for low-cost paternalism and high-value development.

The timing of this first meeting of The Arctic Circle presents a final riddle, for my chapter and for northern environmental historians. One of the grand narratives of northern historiography postulates that Ottawa neglected northern territories until mid-century, when defense needs provoked unprecedented intervention into Arctic life. That The Arctic Circle would convene in 1948 to consider a twenty-year-old development scheme may then seem out of place. Building on recent scholarship that challenges the simplicity of this narrative, I argue that relationships between the government and the north should not be measured with post-World War II characteristics as a baseline. Rather, we must situate manifestations of science and development, as has been achieved with the idea of “the North,” in historical, geographical, intellectual, and political contexts. Doing so yields a complex, if more complicated, picture of northern environmental history.

Indeed, as native northerners, scientists, and civil servants made sense of the federal presence in the Western Arctic in the 1950s, they turned to the reindeer for guidance. Like Porsild above, officials in Ottawa found in the animal hope for a happy union among science, enterprise, and government. In contrast, for Inuit in Aklavik and Inuvik, reindeer epitomized governmental exploitation of and experimentation with northern lands and people. Reindeer had not suddenly appeared as symbols of progress or control. Rather, these meanings were imbued in the animals because of a deep history and despite a radically changing present. For those at mid-century and for us today, then, the Canadian Reindeer Project brings into focus textures of northern environmental history that might otherwise be overshadowed.

[1] A.E. Porsild, “The Mackenzie Delta Reindeer Experiment,” The Arctic Circular 1, No.1, (Jan 1948), 5.

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