6 New Articles in Canadian Environmental History: From High Modernism to Ducks

Great Falls Power Plant on Winnipeg River, 1927. Source: Library and Archives Canada, 3381560.

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While we highlight new books in Canadian environmental history through our book reviews, our annual BookLook, and the podcast, we do not devote much attention to scholarship in Canadian environmental history published each year in journal articles. Without a single journal devoted toward Canadian environmental history, scholars publish in a wide range of journals both in Canada and abroad. We want to highlight some of that work and draw attention to its contributions.

This will be the first of an ongoing series of posts that provide mini-reviews of recent journal articles in Canadian environmental history. We’ve asked three NiCHE editors (Sean Kheraj, Jessica DeWitt, and Daniel Macfarlane) to select two journal articles from the past couple years to review.

Sean’s Picks

Loo, Tina. “High Modernism, Conflict, and the Nature of Change in Canada: A Look at Seeing Like a State Canadian Historical Review, 97, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 34-58.

In this provocative forum article, Tina Loo challenges Canadian environmental historians to pause for a moment and think critically about James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State. As she writes, in much of the work of Canadian environmental historians, “high modernism is taken as a given. Rather than being analyzed, it is applied as a label to connect particular events to a larger transnational historical moment” (p. 38). Loo offers three critiques of Scott’s arguments:

  1. State-sponsored mega projects also rely on a type of local knowledge. Local knowledge is not limited to the “metis” Scott describes in Seeing Like a State. Making reference to her 2011 co-authored article in Canadian Historical Review, Loo makes the case for thinking about the kind of local knowledge generated by engineers who often spent long periods of time engaging with the environments they sought to transform through the application of brute-force technologies. The distinctions between embedded local knowledge and the abstract knowledge of the state are not as clear as Scott suggests.
  2. Environmental historians should think ecologically about high modernism. Recent scholarship in disturbance ecology stresses the central role of disruption in ecological processes and discourages emphasis on equilibrium or balance. Ecological disturbance is historically persistent and it results in a multitude of effects. For instance, when humans burn gasoline, they produce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to anthropogenic global warming, a harmful ecological effect. However, the burning of gasoline also produces the kinetic energy to move an automobile, a technology that brought many benefits to human societies. As Loo argues, the changes high modernism wrought were not solely destructive, “they were also productive of new environments and relationships that shaped the physical, economic, and political landscapes we live in and contend with now” (p. 57).
  3. “While the will to improve rested on a synoptic vision of the future that reduced and ultimately denied the complexity of social life, seeing like a state was not, by itself, inherently harmful” (pg.57). Loo challenges environmental historians to also consider the ecologically-beneficial uses of a synoptic vision of the environment. The concept of the flyway, for instance, gave conservationists the ability to think about wildfowl habitat in an interconnected manner spanning national borders. Ecology emphasizes thinking about interconnections between systems. Solely privileging local ecological knowledge potentially undermines the possibility of thinking about how nature operates at broader scales. How we protect wildfowl habitat in California has ecological implications for the wildfowl of British Columbia and Alaska. This is what made the flyway concept so powerful. This synoptic vision is also critical for understanding anthropogenic global warming today.

This article is important. Canadian environmental historians should read it, debate it, and integrate its arguments into their future work.


McQuarrie, Jonathan. ““Tobacco has Blossomed like the Rose in the Desert”: Technology, Trees, and Tobacco in the Norfolk Sand Plain, c. 1920-1940” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 25, no. 1 (2014): 33-62.

Tobacco has been historically destructive to human health. The rise of tobacco as a mass consumer product has a fascinating Canadian history that touches on the histories of agriculture, environment, health, economy and much more. Jonathan McQuarrie’s 2014 article examines the productive tobacco-growing region of the Norfolk Sand Plain in southern Ontario where tobacco seemed to miraculously bloom from land Ontarians had long considered waste. McQuarrie traces the interconnections between forest conservation and tobacco agriculture in this seemingly marginal landscape. In the 1920s and 1930s, forest conservation efforts, tobacco dry-farming techniques, and the heavy application of chemical fertilizer transformed Norkfolk County into one of the most productive regions of Canada for the cultivation of flue-cured tobacco. This article shows how people used trees and tobacco as biotechnologies under a capitalist logic for the production of a mass consumer product. It also reveals some of the environmental consequences of these processes. McQuarrie’s work is an excellent contribution to scholarship in a number of different fields, but I think it is an especially useful case study for thinking about the broader environmental histories of consumer commodities, in this case, cigarettes.

Jessica’s Picks

Bradley, Ben. “Lucerne No Longer Has an Excuse to Exist”: Mobility and Landscape in Yellowhead Pass.” BC Studies, no. 189 (Spring 2016): 59-74.

Both of my article picks deal with the manipulation and marketing of park aesthetics. In this article, Ben Bradley examines the history of Lucerne, a ghost town since 1923, located within British Columbia’s Mount Robson Provincial Park. Bradley argues that the example of Lucerne highlights how “mobility, the tourist gaze, and park aesthetics” often intersect in park landscapes and that the experiences of tourists in parks are affected by the means of transportation they take to get to the park. Lucerne was originally founded along a railway line that ran through the park. The provincial government hoped that it would become a focal point for tourism development. However, when this initiative failed and the town was vacated, the abandoned and dilapidated buildings became an issue for the government. Bradley emphasizes the fact that the government was only interested in cleaning up or hiding those town remnants that were visible from the main transportation arteries. Bradley discusses how most of the buildings were razed in the 1940s, and how the abandoned town site was of explicit interest in the 1960s and 1970s due to a general trend in Canada to obscure evidence of prior human activity in parks during these decades. Bradley’s article is an important contribution to non-national park historiography, as it connects provincial parks to general Canadian trends usually associated with national parks only. Bradley also draws an important connection to the need for further exploration of the ways in which governments take an active role in what he refers to as the manipulation of the material landscape.


Saari, Paula Johanna. “Marketing Nature: The Canadian National Parks Branch and Constructing the Portrayal of National Parks in Promotional Brochures, 1936-1970” Environment and History, 21, no. 3 (August 2015): 401-446.

In contrast to Bradley’s article, which deals with the material environment and park aesthetics, Paula Saari examines media representation of parks, specifically Canadian National Parks Branch promotional brochures. Saari argues that ideal national park landscapes were created to sell Canada’s national parks to Canadians and international visitors. Park booklets were designed to inform, create expectations, and advertise suitable park activities. Saari identifies three major periods of national park promotion. From 1911 to the 1930s, the fledgling National Parks Branch was focused on publicizing their existence and proving park usefulness to Canadians. Similarly to Bradley’s article, Saari connects the upswing of automobile travel to a change in national park priorities. The 1940s and 1950s park booklets were focused on promoting the idea that national parks were playgrounds. During this period, Saari notes that booklets were focused on human activities and the blending of the cultural and natural. Saari contends that the 1960s marked a turn to a third period of park promotion focused on preservation or what Saari refers to as the “wilderness museum” ideal. Saari’s article adds two major contributions to park historiography. Firstly, it provides an alternative or more complicated way to look at park promotional material. Secondly, Saari adds to a growing conversation about the transnational nature of the national park concept and the way in which Canada fits into this exchange of ideas.


Daniel’s Picks

Luby, Brittany. “From Milk-Medicine to Public (Re)Education Programs: An Examination of Anishinabek Mother’s Response to Hydroelectric Flooding in the Treaty #3 District, 1900-1975.” CBMH/BCHM, Volume 32:2 (2015): 363-389.

In this article Brittany Luby makes an interesting contribution to the literature on the environmental and Indigenous health impacts of hydro dams and their reservoirs. This study of one northwestern Ontario Anishinabek reserve (Dalles 38C) combines an oral history approach with a focus on maternal and infant health in the post-Second World War period. Luby shows how the damming of the Winnipeg River for hydro-electricity led to ecological changes, particularly raised mercury levels in fish that the reserve relied upon. This toxin bioaccumulated its way up the food chain, ultimately disrupting women’s reproductive health. After providing a sophisticated demonstration of the ways that the dam changed the local ecology, and the attendant health effects, the author traces the resulting social ramifications. The need to avoid contaminated fish infringed upon or disrupted traditional maternal and mothering traditions such as breastfeeding. Luby concludes that the loss of a traditional food source and the connected inability, or unwillingness, to breastfeed children made parents more amenable to sending their children to residential schools.


Dance, Anne. “Dikes, Ducks, and Dams: Reclamation, Politics, and Environmental Change at Creston Flats, 1882-2014.” BC Studies 184 (Winter 2015): 11-44.

This article is a case study centering on debates about resource distribution and extraction around a particular hydro-electric waterscape – Creston Flats on the Kootenay River – between 1882 and 2014. Extending her past work on reclamation (e.g., northern mines and Canadian tar sands), Anne Dance engages agriculture, dikes, wetlands, and hydro production. Creston Flats has a history of dikes that dates back to the nineteenth century – the purpose was to prevent flooding on profitable crop and fruit lands. Subsequent twentieth century dike undertakings had to balance competing desires, chiefly agricultural producers, fishing interests, and wildlife conservation. This had implications for local views towards the construction of Libby Dam, and the power dam in turn had surprising ecological consequences for Creston Flats, with erosion chief among them. Though the Columbia River Treaty and the resulting engineered works have received attention from other scholars, the emphasis here is on local, place-based perceptions. Dance consciously adopts a “cultural landscape” approach, a methodology that could be profitably used by more environmental historians. The Creston Flats case appears to involve a reversal of many other similar dam mega projects where the state’s ‘modernization’ goals involved directing people away from agriculture and towards industry.

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