Early Canadian Environmental History Series: Editorial Introduction and Essential Reading

Head of the Lake, Lake Ontario by Elizabeth Simcoe, 1796. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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By Sean Kheraj and Denis McKim

Welcome to a series on early Canadian environmental history, jointly hosted by Borealia and The Otter ~ La Loutre, the blog of The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). This series provides environmental historians of Canada the opportunity to reflect upon the state of so-called “pre-Confederation” history in the field. As was evident from the discussion at a panel on the subject of pre-Confederation Canadian history at the 2015 annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association, the field has not vanished. It goes by other names and it no longer focuses on the framework of the nation-state. Many historians of Indigenous peoples of North America, for instance, focus on chronologies that pre-date 1867. Historians of the Atlantic World examine aspects of what might have once been called “pre-Confederation Canadian history,” but now fall within a transnational framework.

Environmental historians of Canada often examine the deep past, but do not necessarily adopt pre- and post-Confederation as a rubric for periodization. Instead, environmental history spans broad periods of time marked by different kinds of transitions:

  • pre-industrial/industrial
  • organic energy regime/mineral energy regime
  • conservation movement/environmental movement
  • age of miasmas/bacteriological revolution/new ecology
  • pedestrian era/equestrian era/ automobile era
  • holocene/anthropocene

The field of pre-Confederation environmental history is varied and vibrant, as the essays featured in the NiCHE-Borealia collaboration demonstrate. Anya Zilberstein’s contribution, “Jamaican Maroons in Nova Scotia: The Politics of Climate and Race,” will appear on May 18th. It discusses the experiences of the Maroons, ex-slaves who were expelled from Jamaica and migrated to Nova Scotia in the 1790s. Zilbertstein reveals that while certain figures welcomed them – John Wentworth, the colony’s Lieutenant-Governor, felt the Maroons could accelerate Nova Scotia’s sluggish growth – other figures objected to their migration due, in large part, to the belief that peoples of African descent were ill equipped to thrive amid northern environmental circumstances.  

Appearing on May 20th, Jason Hall’s essay, “The Environmental and Cultural History of the St. John River,” is a distillation of his doctoral dissertation on the relationships among three groups of people – the Maliseet (Wolastoqiyik), the French, and the British – and one of northeastern North America’s principal bodies of water from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Among other things, Hall’s essay highlights similarities and differences between the groups’ interactions with the river, and concludes with a heartening message for readers interested in securing its long-term conservation.

Colin M. Coates’s essay will appear on May 23rd. Entitled “Who Was the King of the Beasts in New France?,” it examines a “natural history” of New France written in the seventeenth century by the Jesuit priest, Louis Nicolas, and dedicated to Louis XIV. Given the dedication, readers may not be surprised to learn that Nicolas’s work devoted considerable attention to North American species that were thought to possess majestic characteristics. Yet readers might be surprised by at least one of the species that supposedly displayed such traits … although they will need to read Coates’s essay to find out what the species was! Additionally, as Coates shows, the species included in Nicolas’s natural history and the way in which they are described arguably tell us as much about the work’s author and its audience as they do about the species themselves.

On May 25th, the series will conclude with a dialogue between all three authors – Zilberstein, Hall, and Coates – who will have the opportunity to reflect on their own and each other’s scholarship, and comment on the varied, vibrant field to which they have contributed.

Scholarship on early North America is critical for understanding Canadian environmental history. These are a few of the primary works in early North American environmental history that stand out as essential readings for Canadian historians (please add further suggestions below):

Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

ecologicalimperialismThis is, in fact, a global history of European imperialism, but one that is fundamental to understanding the environmental history of Canada. Canada is one of Crosby’s so-called Neo-Europes or “Lands of demographic takeover,” the places where Europeans, their plants, their animals, and their microbes thrived at the expense of Indigenous peoples and other indigenous organisms. As Liza Piper and John Sandlos argue, however, Subarctic and Arctic Canada do not entirely fit within Crosby’s framework. Nevertheless, ecological imperialism is a powerful explanatory framework for understanding European colonial expansion and therefore essential for understanding societies, such as Canada, that were born from colonialism. [1]

Binnema, Theodore. Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Spanning an enormous geographic area that straddles what would become the international border between Canada and the United States, this expansive history of the Northwestern Plains traces numerous transformations of this region: environmental, economic, political, diplomatic, technological. Binnema explores the history of the plains looking from the continent outward rather than from the coasts inward. In doing so, he situates Indigenous peoples at the centre of this narrative and shows the ways in which their histories intersected with European colonial expansion, but were not necessarily dominated by the interests of Europeans.

Coates, Colin M. The Metamorphoses of Landscape and Community in Early Quebec. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000.

metamorphosesMuch like Jason Hall’s article in this series, Coates’s book traces landscape change over time in a single place as different human communities engaged with the natural environment. In this case, the setting is two seigneuries, one along the Batiscan River and the other along the Sainte-Anne River. The book follows changes in the landscape over the course of changes in human regimes: Aboriginal, French, English. It confronts both material transformations to the environment and the evolution of human perceptions of nature.

Hackett, Paul. “A Very Remarkable Sickness”: Epidemics in the Petit Nord, 1670-1846. Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press, 2002.

Building upon Crosby’s analysis of the role of microbes in European colonial expansion, Hackett’s research provides a precise examination of the spread and impact of European diseases on Indigenous North Americans from the late decades of the seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. This book is not only significant for Canadian environmental history, but it is critical for understanding Canadian history more broadly. “Given its impact on the Aboriginal population and the fur trade,” writes Hackett, “the smallpox epidemic of 1779-1783 can arguably be called one of the most significant events in pre-confederation, western Canadian history.” (pg. 94)

Forkey, Neil. Shaping the Upper Canadian Frontier: Environment, Society, and Culture in the Trent Valley. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2003.

shapingtheUCfrontierHere we have another case study that examines environmental change in a single place over the course of a long period of time with a focus on the impact of European colonization and the displacement of Indigenous people. Forkey chronicles the environmental history of the Trent Valley from the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. Sharing common themes from William Cronon’s groundbreaking work Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, this book similarly seeks to explain how European imperialism transformed North American environments. [2] Forkey sees the Trent Valley as “a microcosm for much wider human and environmental changes that were occurring throughout North America as the transplantation of European peoples sparked new relationships between humans and the new environments that they encounters.” (pgs. 1-2)

Trigger, Bruce G. The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1976.

While this book was not written as environmental history, it is of tremendous importance for understanding the environmental history of Canada. Trigger’s history of the Wendat (Huron) confederacy has recently been updated by the work of Kathryn Magee Labelle, but its detailed evidence concerning the impact of introduced diseases on the subsequent breakdown of the confederacy is a critical component of the environmental history of European imperial expansion into what would subsequently become southern Ontario. [3]

Harris, R. C. The Reluctant Land: Society, Space, and Environment in Canada Before Confederation. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009.

reluctantlandWritten by one of the leading historical geographers of Canada, The Reluctant Land is a broad, synthetic work suitable as a textbook for specialized courses in early Canadian environmental history but also a critical overview of historical transformations in space and environment in northern North America. This lengthy analysis focuses mainly on the period after the arrival of Europeans with an interest in how European colonists settled the land and transformed the environment. Harris concludes with observations of patterns in European settlement. He articulates some of this argument in a provocative and insightful 2010 article in Canadian Historical Review that is also worth reading. [4]

This reading list is, of course, not exhaustive. It is, however, indicative of the breadth of scholarship in early Canadian environmental history. Certainly much of the scholarship in Canadian environmental history focuses on the modern period or “post-Confederation” but there is a strong early modern field and there is much more to be explored. We hope this series shows some of the possibilities.

Sean Kheraj is an associate professor of Canadian and environmental history in the Department of History at York University in Toronto, Ontario. He is also director and editor-in-chief of the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE) where he hosts and produces Nature’s Past: Canadian Environmental History Podcast.

Denis McKim teaches Canadian and American history at Douglas College, BC. His research explores the intellectual, political, and religious history of British North America. He is also a founding co-editor, with Keith Grant, of Borealia.


[1] Piper, Liza and John Sandlos. “A Broken Frontier: Ecological Imperialism in the Canadian North.” Environmental History 12, no. 4 (2007): 759–95.

[2] William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983).

[3] Kathryn Magee Labelle, Dispersed but not Destroyed: A History of the Seventeenth Century Wendat People (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013).

[4] R. Cole Harris, “The Spaces of Early Canada.” Canadian Historical Review 91, no. 4 (December 2010): 725–59.


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