Greatest Hits in Canadian Environmental History, Part II

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Which pre-1990 readings in Canadian environmental history are NiCHE editors still actively using in their courses? On Monday, we heard from Sean, Claire, and Alan. Today, Dan, Josh, and I offer our thoughts.

Daniel Macfarlane:

Looking back on the Canadian environmental history courses I’ve taught, I have used pre-1990 publications most often to get at the environmental history of transboundary North American resources. (Of course, that reflects my own preoccupations.) I’m going to cheat a bit here and list several books, in no particular order:

  • Briton Cooper Busch, The War Against Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery (1985)
  • Robert Spencer et al., eds., The International Joint Commission Seventy Years On (1981)
  • Neil Swainson, Conflict over the Columbia: The Canadian Background to an Historic Treaty (1979)
  • John E. Carroll, Environmental Diplomacy: An Examination and A Prospective of Canadian–U.S. Transboundary Environmental Relations (1983)
  • William Kilbourn, Pipeline (1970).

Now, most of these aren’t properly speaking “environmental history,” since they are either political science and/or don’t give environmental factors much agency. But that is instructive, I think, since I’d suggest that this points to two important trajectories within the inchoate era of Canadian environmental history scholarship. First, before the 1990s, and even before the 2000s, it was scholars writing in the “political economy” tradition that often explicitly addressed the environment in a Canadian context. A classic example would be H.V. Nelles’s The Politics of Development (1974), but we could go back further and cite the likes of Donald Creighton and Harold Innis, among others — though I haven’t really used them in the classroom. (Indeed, I address Creighton and the Laurentian Thesis in some detail in my book on the St. Lawrence Seaway.)

Second, something else the books I listed have in common is the role of the United States, which points to the influence of American environmental history scholarship on the evolution of the Canadian field. Might it be going too far to say that early Canadian environmental history writing predominantly took up questions raised by the Canadian political economy tradition and applied environmental history methodologies and approaches from our southern neighbour? Probably. Nonetheless, I think the tensions between these two trajectories has remained apparent, even as Canadian environmental history has proliferated and branched out in new directions.

Tina Adcock:

  • Gilbert Allardyce, “‘The Vexed Question of Sawdust’: River Pollution in Nineteenth-Century New Brunswick,” Dalhousie Review 52 (1972): 177-90
  • R. Peter Gillis, “Rivers of Sawdust: The Battle over Industrial Pollution in Canada, 1865-1903,” Journal of Canadian Studies 21, no. 1 (1986): 84-103
  • John P.S. McLaren, “The Tribulations of Antoine Ratté: A Case Study of the Environmental Regulation of the Canadian Lumbering Industry in the Nineteenth Century,” University of New Brunswick Law Journal 33 (1984): 203-259.

“Find good stories to tell,” a colleague said recently when I asked his advice on designing a 100-level environmental history course. Taken together, these articles tell a good story about industrial pollution, and one with plenty of contemporary resonance. The mystery embedded in their titles helps grip students’ attention from the outset. Why did sawdust vex nineteenth-century Canadians so? Who was Antoine Ratté, and what tribulations did he endure? As each story unfolds, parallels with the present day emerge: the early recognition of sawdust’s pernicious effects on riverine environments; the impossibly long time it took for politicians to take effective remedial action. (Anthropogenic global warming, anyone?) The striking juxtaposition of an increasingly befouled and pungent Ottawa River flowing beneath the very windows of Parliament underscores legislators’ paralysis and impotence in the face of powerful corporate interests. As a case study, the vexed question of sawdust is a deservedly classic entrée to the complex and heterogeneous milieu of Canada’s early conservation movement. And, having introduced lumber barons to students in the guise of Hyde, it’s then fun to present them with the Jekyll-type figures of the American Forestry Congress/Montreal Congress. (Plus, everything old is new again: lumber barons were apparently a hot topic at last year’s Quelques arpents de neige workshop! Or maybe they never stopped being hot.)

My favourite pre-1990 tale that I unearthed, but didn’t have time to tell in my Canadian environmental history course last term was the sad fate of the jitney-bus. A scant but intriguing footnote in the envirotechnical history of urban Canada, it directs our attention, quite literally, to the roads (and rides) not taken. Today, the emergence of the ride-sharing economy and the prospect of self-driving cars is leading us to reimagine our relationships with automobiles. Similarly, the case study of jitneys reminds us that early Canadian drivers and commuters constructed, and moved through cityscapes in ways that were anything but preordained.

Josh MacFadyen:

Food and energy systems are central to our study of human relationships with the natural world. Until recently, virtually all Canadians worked in some part of the agri-forestry sector, and this was the setting for most of our relationships with plants, animals, science, land use, and so on. When students want to study change over time in these standard areas of environmental history, I usually challenge them to look first for material baselines. Fortunately, Canadian historians have produced a lot. This pair of posts helps identify some “classics” that might be overlooked; some because they are getting long in the tooth, others because they are horses of a different colour. (Is it a mixed metaphor if it’s about the same species?) One of the best is the 3-volume Historical Atlas of Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, 1990, and 1993). This enormous research project and beautifully illustrated series remains a standard. Some of its plates are available online, which is helpful for teaching.

Another project from the 1980s is the Canadian Papers in Rural History, edited by Don Akenson. Parts of the series are easily recognizable to environmental historians, including papers by Alan MacEachern, Graeme Wynn, and Clinton Evans. But it also has papers on adapting to Western environments, Malin’s grassland thesis, land speculation in Upper Canada, and so on. It’s not in the regular journal indexes, but a compiled table of contents and some abstracts are available on the Rural History at the University of Guelph website. A new book series by McGill-Queen’s University Press, Rural, Wildland, and Resource Studies, was inspired by Akenson’s work, and it promises more overlap to come between themes in rural and environmental history. For instance, students who are new to agri-forestry in Canadian history could consult Peter A. Russell’s How Agriculture Made Canada: Farming in the Nineteenth Century. Its regional bibliography lists dozens of works that environmental history students would enjoy, and it means I can leave it at that!

Once again, I’ll ask you, readers: what are your favourite pre-1990 Canadian environmental history readings for classroom use? Let us know in the comments below!

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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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