Historicizing the Great Green North

photo: Pauline Harder, Piece of Cake Communications 2012

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Trent University recently hosted a thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable workshop on the Canadian environmental movement. Organized by Ryan O’Connor and Stephen Bocking and funded by NiCHE, the workshop drew an interdisciplinary gathering of fourteen scholars from across the country. We spent two days – August 27-28 – constrained in a small room and promised release only after solving the major quandaries in studying the Canadian environmental movement. We raised a lot of questions and even arrived at some conclusions. Ryan has since posted his own take on this workshop on his blog, titled “The Great Green North.” Rather than repeating the details which he has included there, the rest of this article briefly touches upon some of the major themes and topics of debate that arose during the event.

1) The periodization of the Canadian environmental movement (or movements), and its “waves,” is bound to be contested. While most scholars have situated the modern Canadian environmental movement in the 1960s, a number of the workshop participants problematized this generalization and argued for the need to turn the clock back decades.

2) The Canadian environmental movement is marked by change as much as continuity, and by diversity as much as unity. As the regional differences across the country are immense, it should come as no surprise that the character of environmentalism in Canada has always been in flux across space and over time. Further, while the environmental movement is often described in dichotomous terms – environmentalists and their supporters (on the political “left”) on one side engaged in a battle with anti-environmentalists (on the political “right”) on the other – the reality is much more fluid, and divisions within each need greater academic attention.

3) Governments (at federal, provincial and municipal levels) have demonstrated not simply an ignorance of environmental damage that it and the industry which it is often aligned causes, but have repeatedly sought to stifle such criticism. Examining this process reveals where power to control the environment is nested, and how it is contested.

4) Academics are activists, whether conscious of the fact or not. Nearly all the articles discussed at the workshop emphasized the vital role that university research and activist-academics has played in framing and fuelling debates over the environment. In turn, proponents and opponents of environmentalism have played a role in directing to some extent what research occurs in universities and elsewhere.

5) The power of borders and the process of boundary making and boundary maintenance – both physical and ideological – are key to understanding the Canadian environmental movement. Provincial-federal, international, and regional boundaries, and especially the movement of people and pollution across them, have all influenced environmentalism within Canada. Equally important has been the creation of identities and the way in which these have been deployed in creating both the national and local character of environmental activism.

These themes, and others, will be further addressed in the (ca. 2014) edited collection resulting from the workshop,but we encourage scholars of the Canadian environmental movement to engage with them in the present.

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Jonathan Clapperton

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