Seeing the Forest (Workers) for the Trees: Environmental and Labour History in New Brunswick’s Forests

Environmental historians inspect a decommissioned, all-in-one mechanical harvester at the Central New Brunswick Woodsmen's Museum in Boiestown.

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Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts considering the intersection between environmental history and labour and working-class histories. The entire series is available here.

We scholars can sometimes be our own worst enemies. Take, for example, how we often establish rigid theoretical distinctions between academic disciplines, fields, and subfields, thereby possibly limiting opportunities for interdisciplinary scholarship. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that we should abandon theoretical distinctions entirely. But a lot can be gained from focusing a bit less on areas of divergence, and more on areas of intersection.

In my opinion, environmental history is particularly well suited for this sort of approach to scholarship. One of the common concerns that environmental historians voice about their field is that it is too theoretically imprecise, that it needs clearer theoretical distinctions. I tend to disagree. Of course, environmental historians need some sort of shared understanding of what it is that we do. But I prefer to err on the side of more general definitions, something to the effect of “the study of past interactions between humans and nature.” The beauty of such a general definition is that it leaves lots of room under environmental history’s theoretical tent for the inclusion of other fields and disciplines.

The logo of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.
The international union logo of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

One example of the field’s theoretical inclusiveness in action is my own research combining environmental history and labour history. My book manuscript, based on but moving beyond my doctoral research, examines how the New Brunswick government attempted to rationalize the province’s forests and forest industries through the introduction of various modernization policies in the post-Second World War period. One of the chapters explores organized labour’s response to these modernization plans. New Brunswick woods workers and their union, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBCJA) Local 3012, disagreed with the provincial government that the future of the Crown (public) forests, and the forestry sector in general, increasingly depended on the unilateral success of the pulp and paper industry and the use of certain industrial forest management practices on Crown lands. But the woods workers did not simply oppose the government’s modernization plans. Rather, they put forward their own ideas as to how the Crown forests should be utilized—what Miriam Wright has referred to as competing “visions of development,” or what Tina Loo has called “expressions of an alternative modernity.” [1]

To gain a deeper understanding of how the woods workers thought the Crown forests should be developed, let me offer a couple of anecdotes. In the 1950s, New Brunswick’s pulp and paper companies frequently attempted to block access to woods camps to halt unionization efforts. Union officials were particularly upset by this obstructionism, given that most of the companies’ harvesting operations were on Crown lands. Andrew Cooper, a representative for the international UBCJA, was quoted in the newspaper L’Évangéline as saying the following at the September 1955 annual meeting of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour:

Les forêts appartiennent à la population de la province, a dit M. Cooper, et non pas à des employeurs qui coupent a mème une source naturelle. Les bûcherons paient leur pension dans les camps et ceux-ci peuvent donc être considéré comme leurs foyers, a dit M. Cooper. Pour cette raison, le patronat n’a aucun droit de dire qui peut ou ne peut pas leur rendre visite. [2]

UBCJA Local 3012 conceived of the Crown forests as a public resource, one that should be used for the benefit of New Brunswick workers, and not solely for the interests of large, international pulp and paper companies. Woods workers had laboured in the province’s forests for generations. The forests, according to the union, could almost be considered their hearth, their second home. Workers had cut the trees and yarded the logs, not the pulp and paper companies. The companies had no right to dictate who could visit the woods camps, especially those located on Crown lands. Union officials considered their efforts to unionize woods workers and negotiate better wages and working conditions to be an extension of the notion of the Crown forests as public resource, there to generate economic returns for New Brunswick workers.

Environmental historians inspect a decommissioned, all-in-one mechanical harvester at the Central New Brunswick Woodsmen's Museum in Boiestown.
Environmental historians inspect a decommissioned, all-in-one mechanical harvester at the Central New Brunswick Woodsmen’s Museum in Boiestown.

Here’s another instance that highlights this conception of the Crown forests as public resource. Woods workers across New Brunswick adopted militant tactics in the second half of the 1970s to oppose the introduction of all-in-one mechanical harvesters. Each harvester could replace as many as 30 workers. It was particularly galling to the province’s woods workers that in most cases jobs were lost due to the harvesters being used on Crown lands. On one occasion in July 1978, over 200 unemployed woods workers in the Miramichi region attended a meeting with the provincial minister of natural resources about five harvesters that had been recently introduced in the area. After the meeting, approximately 100 of them, frustrated by what was perceived as government acquiescence to the pulp and paper industry, went to the site where the harvesters were located. Their original intention was to simply block the road before the morning shift started, but the situation quickly intensified. An unknown number of individuals released their frustrations on the machines. By the following morning, one machine had been completely destroyed and two others had been severely damaged. Replacement costs ran upwards of $200,000. [3]

The point of these two anecdotes is to demonstrate that, despite initial appearances, environmental history and labour history often intersect more than you might realize. Indeed, for a more comprehensive interpretation of these past events, you have to avoid separating the workers from the forests. New Brunswick woods workers viewed the Crown forests as a public resource that, first and foremost, should be used for providing local employment and facilitating local economic development. Inextricably linked with the workers’ vision of development were notions of class, a commitment to community, and a sense of pride in their craft. Furthermore, the wood workers’ conception of their craft and their identities as workers was greatly influenced by the forests that surrounded them on a daily basis. Forest environments were like their second home. This interaction between workers and forests, and forests and workers, can be best understood through a combination of the practices of environmental history and labour history. Overall, many areas of divergence will remain, but undoubtedly our scholarship as environmental historians can only benefit by seeking out areas of intersection with other disciplines and fields.


[1] Miriam Wright, A Fishery for Modern Times: The State and the Industrialization of the Newfoundland Fishery, 1934-1968 (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2001), 3 and Tina Loo, “People in the Way: Modernity, Environment, and Society on the Arrow Lakes,” BC Studies, no. 142/143 (Summer/Autumn 2004): 196.

[2] L’Évangeline (Moncton), 14 September 1955.

[3] The Daily Gleaner (Fredericton), 7 and 8 July 1978, Telegraph-Journal (Saint John), 7 and 8 July 1978, and The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 7 July 1978.

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I am an Assistant Professor of History and Canadian Studies, a cross-appointment with the Department of History and the Canadian-American Center at the University of Maine in Orono. I have research interests in the history of forestry, resource management and science, modern environmentalism, and government comics in Canada.


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