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:
- organic energy regime/mineral energy regime
- conservation movement/environmental movement
- age of miasmas/bacteriological revolution/new ecology
- pedestrian era/equestrian era/ automobile era
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.
This 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. 
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.
Much 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.
Here 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.  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. 
Harris, R. C. The Reluctant Land: Society, Space, and Environment in Canada Before Confederation. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009.
Written 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. 
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.
 Piper, Liza and John Sandlos. “A Broken Frontier: Ecological Imperialism in the Canadian North.” Environmental History 12, no. 4 (2007): 759–95.
 William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983).
 Kathryn Magee Labelle, Dispersed but not Destroyed: A History of the Seventeenth Century Wendat People (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013).
 R. Cole Harris, “The Spaces of Early Canada.” Canadian Historical Review 91, no. 4 (December 2010): 725–59.
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Drs. Kheraj and McKim,
This is a good idea for a series. Last year, I wrote a piece for active history.ca looking at the decline of Pre-Confederation History (http://activehistory.ca/2015/08/is-pre-confederation-history-actually-declining-a-response-to-thomas-peace-and-robert-englebert/). While preparing the piece, I was struck by how few books or dissertations covered periods both before 1865 and after 1870. This applied as much to environmental, social, cultural and economic historians as to political ones. In the early part of this piece, you proposed a set of alternative periodisations to pre-Confederation/post-Confederation. I expect that most of those would still divide Canadian History into pre ~1870/post ~1870. The division into pre-industrial/industrial eras would periodize around 1870 (which Europeanists refer to as the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution and Americanists also use as a periodization). A periodization between organic and mineral eras could also lead to 1870 as the break. Meanwhile, one of the largest changes in Canadian economic/environmental history was the expansion of rail and development of global trades in staple commodities, which took off in the early 1870s.
Non-Canadian historians also tend to periodize work in ways that see the decade between 1865 and 1875 as central. American historians often periodize their field around 1865 or 1876, while 1870 is common for European historians.
Thanks for your response and I hope you enjoy the series. Regarding periodization, I can only partially agree. Industrialization in Canada was regionally variable. In southern Ontario and the St. Lawrence Valley, industrialization pre-dates Confederation. In Western Canada, it occurs much later and in variable forms. In the North, as Liza Piper’s Industrialization of Subarctic Canada shows, industrialization awaited the arrival of machinery powered by high-energy fossil fuels in the twentieth century. Many parts of the country remained rural and agricultural for much of Canada’s history, as Ruth Sandwell’s recent book, Canada’s Rural Majority shows:
Similarly, the energy transition from organic to mineral energy does not nearly fit with a pre- and post-Confederation rubric. Unger and Thistle show that the energy transition in Canada was much later than other Western industrialized nation-states and it was also regionally variable:
Finally, Canada’s railway expansion began in the 1850s, prior to Confederation. Canadian historians have long argued that railway expansion prior to the 1860s precipitated the Confederation debates.
The other possible periodizations I listed do not fit with pre- and post-Confederation. For instance “Age of Misasma/Bacteriological Revolution/New Ecology” is drawn from Martin Melosi’s work in The Sanitary City. This is a model for thinking about ideas of sanitation, environment, and health that spans the pre- and post-Confederation period.
If we borrow John McNeill’s arguments in Something New Under the Sun, then Canadian environmental historians should eschew Confederation altogether and focus instead on the distinctions between the period before and after 1900.
I want to strongly agree with your initial statement concerning environmental histories that span pre- and post-Confederation Canadian history. I did not include those in this list of essential readings, but there are plenty of books in Canadian environmental that span long periods of time. My own book on Stanley Park explores the park’s history from its geological origins to the near present (albeit mainly focused on the modern period). Jennifer Bonnell’s book on the Don River Valley takes a similar approach. James Daschuk’s award-winning book, Clearing the Plains, straddles the pre- and post-Confederation periods with almost half the book devoted to early North American history prior to 1867.
Obviously, there are a lot of issues in early Canadian history that are highly relevant to environmental historians of Canada. I hope this series triggers further discussion.
An important, useful discussion broke out on Twitter concerning this recommended reading list of early Canadian environmental history. First, I should note that I made the list, not Denis. All the selections were my own.
Earlier today, @AdelePerry pointed out the obvious gender imbalance in my selection: all the books were written by men! Why didn’t my list include any women? “Caveats out of the way,” Adele wrote, “I think whenever our answers turn up lists of all-one-kind-of-people, we need to think about the question.” Adele’s intervention, I think, is a call for environmental historians to engage with questions of gender and selection in historiography.
This list partially reflects my own bibliographic blinders and partially reflects the field itself. I tried to pick books that I have used most in my teaching and research and those that appear with some frequency in the scholarship. As such, it represents all the gendered filters that have influenced my own education and my own scholarship. It highlights the significance and the politics of citations.  It also points to continued issues of low representation of women, Indigenous people, and persons of colour in the environmental history field more generally.
First, I completely neglected to include Douglas Deur and Nancy Turner’s seminal edited collection, Keeping it Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America, one of the most significant works for rethinking the history of Indigenous North Americans and agriculture. I should have included a superb article by Victoria Dickenson on Cartier’s and Champlain’s views of New World plants and animals and Irene Spry’s classic article on the loss of the commons in Western Canada (although that is mainly focused on the period after Confederation). 
Had I expanded the parameters of my view of “early Canadian environmental history,” I might also have included Carolyn Podruchny’s book, Making the Voyageur World on voyageurs in the fur trade. I made reference to Kathryn Labelle’s recent book on the Wendat but instead chose Trigger’s 1976 book. Labelle addresses introduced diseases in her book, but Trigger’s analysis is more comprehensive. Still, that was my choice. I also could have considered Ruth Sandwell’s Contesting Rural Space: Land Policy and Practices of Resettlement on Saltspring Island, 1859-1891 or Béatrice Craig’s Backwoods Consumers and Homespun Capitalists: The Rise of a Market Culture in Eastern Canada. As many of the replies to Adele’s comments suggested, expanding or changing the ways we categorize scholarship can open our view to different work and, perhaps, address categorization that excludes women scholars.
The category of “early Canadian environmental history” set geographic restrictions on my view of the field. I included Ecological Imperialism as a global history that incorporates Canada or at least has immediate relevance for the history of northern North America, but I could have included works that do not focus on northern North America at all. Many of the women in the field of early North American environmental history who I use most in my own teaching and research do not write with much focus on northern North America (Carolyn Merchant, Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Elizabeth Fenn, Elinor Melville, and others). Their work is important for understanding developments that would affect Canadian environmental history, and therefore should have been included, but they fell outside my, perhaps, narrow parameters. And there are, of course, many women historians who research and publish in the general field of Canadian environmental history, but with a focus mainly on the period since the late nineteenth century (Tina Adcock, Jennifer Bonnell, Claire Campbell, Keri Cronin, Michèle Dagenais, Joanna Dean, Tina Loo, Liza Piper, Shannon Stunden Bower, and others).
With that said, it is also worth highlighting the significant lack of representation of women, people of colour, and Indigenous people in the field of environmental history (in Canada and elsewhere). While such underrepresentation is found, I think, in many subfields of history, it is especially pronounced in environmental history. The American Society of Environmental History has had sub-committees devoted to addressing issues of representation for women and people of colour. This raises much bigger questions about undergraduate training, graduate student recruitment, faculty equity hiring policies, and much more.
 See Sara Ahmed, “Making Feminist Points” https://feministkilljoys.com/2013/09/11/making-feminist-points/
 Victoria Dickenson, “Cartier, Champlain, and the Fruits of the New World: Botanical Exchange in the 16th and 17th Centuries.” Scientia Canadensis 31, no. 1 (2008): 227–47; Spry, Irene. “The Great Transformation: The Disappearance of the Commons in Western Canada.” In Canadian Plains Studies 6: Man and Nature on the Prairies, edited by Richard Allen (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1976).
1. I have all the zeal of the convert and all the insecurity of the fraud complex with this, being relatively new to teaching the colonial period. But this is just so interesting, so I’m really glad to see this discussion – here, on Borealia, etc. Academic culture tends to discourage reinvention or even much expansion beyond one’s original ‘expertise’* so posts like this are great for those of us curious and hoping to expand …
2. Sean, this:
“With that said, it is also worth highlighting the significant lack of representation of women, people of colour, and Indigenous people in the field of environmental history (in Canada and elsewhere). While such underrepresentation is found, I think, in many subfields of history, it is especially pronounced in environmental history. The American Society of Environmental History has had sub-committees devoted to addressing issues of representation for women and people of colour. This raises much bigger questions about undergraduate training, graduate student recruitment, faculty equity hiring policies, and much more.”
Adele’s comment about ‘all of a kind’ fits here, especially in terms of whiteness. It may have been said before, but never so frankly and so publicly, especially in the Canadian context, so thank you for saying it.
*What the hell is this, anyway? We’re always learning more, and we never have all the answers :).