Telling the Stories Staples Tell: Visualizing Data and a Call for Contributors

Timber raft below Parliament buildings, Ottawa River, 1882

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Andrew Watson and Jim Clifford

Are there still stories that Canadian staple histories can tell us? This was the theme of a panel called “The Stories Staples Tell” organized by Colin Coates at the 2016 Canadian Historical Association annual meeting in Calgary. In addition to excellent papers presented by Coates on the use of text mining to explore the importance of staples in Canadian history, and Anne Dance on the ways that abandoned mine sites and wastes have become a toxic legacy and a new Canadian staple in the twenty-first century, we presented our first version of a website devoted to the environmental history(ies) of Canadian staples commodities in the nineteenth century.

The Staples Thesis, which posits a particular path of economic and national development based on the export of certain staples commodities that Canada possessed in abundance (fur, cod, timber, wheat, etc), has been debated since 1930s when Harold Innis took up the idea from W.A. Mackintosh who introduced the theory in the 1920s. Canadian historians have reached some general consensus that the staples economy, while influential from a macroeconomic perspective, fails to nuance the patterns of regional economic growth and capital accumulation that unfolded in particular parts of the country. In addition to this synthesis of staples thesis criticism and revision, the rise of world, global, and transnational history has provided the context for a new approach to the stories staples tell. Rather than explaining the history of the entire country and its development, staples commodities serve as a vehicle for exploring the relationship between, on the one hand, industrialization, urbanization, and economic growth in places of major commodity imports, and on the other hand the particular social and environmental consequences of resource extraction in places of commodity exports.

During the late nineteenth century, even as the new Dominion joined the list of quickly industrializing countries around the world, Canada continued to participate in an increasingly globalized world economy as a major exporter of raw materials. Yet, Canada’s emerging industrial base meant exports also included a growing share of value-added manufactured products. With the help of versatile visualization tools developed by Quadrigram and Esri, we have begun to explore a number of environmental histories of Canadian exports during the nineteenth century.

You can explore the Quadrigram visualizations here and here.

Developed by the Spanish data visualization tech firm Bestiario_, Quadrigram makes it possible to quickly develop online data visualizations. Once you have a standardized dataset uploaded to Google Docs as a spreadsheet, you can use their web interface to create graphs, charts, and maps to illustrate the relationships contained in your data. Here are a few examples of how we’ve used a database* created using export statistics from the Tables of Trade and Navigation for the Dominion of Canada (available in the Canadian Sessional Papers) to populate Quadrigram visualizations.

Planks, boards, and deals:

Planks and boards exported from Canada, 1871
Planks and boards exported from Canada, 1871

One way to explore the Canadian exports data is by narrowing in on one commodity to explore staples thesis-related patterns over time. For example, identified by Innis as one of Canada’s defining staples, timber remained one of Canada’s largest exports, nearly all of which went to Britain. A more interesting story emerges when we examine the export of boards and planks. As the amount of timber sent to Britain diminished over the late nineteenth century, the amount of planks and boards exported to the U.S. increased. A shift toward more value-added wood products fed urbanization in cities around the Great Lakes. Visualizing the data not only illustrates the dominant position of Britain and the U.S. vis-à-vis Canadian exports, but more subtle trade connections as well. Whereas timber exports were sent overwhelmingly to Britain and smaller amounts to a handful of western European countries, planks and boards were exported to over a dozen Caribbean and South American destinations. Visualizing the data related to a specific commodity also allows us to track shifting patterns in the origins of these commodities. During the late nineteenth century, the Tables of Trade and Navigation recorded the province from which commodities were exported. In the case of planks and boards, this allows us to track the shift the centre of sawmilling operations from Quebec to Ontario between 1871 and 1881.

Nova Scotia:

Exports from Nova Scotia, 1871
Exports from Nova Scotia, 1871

Rather than focus on a particular commodity, however, staples-related research might instead be informed by an interest in how staples shaped a particular region or province in Canada. Quite predictably, throughout the nineteenth century, the vast majority of exports originating from Quebec and Ontario went to Britain and the U.S. In the case of Nova Scotia, however, the share of exports to Britain and the U.S. barely approached 50 percent. Rather, destinations such as the British West Indies, the Spanish West Indies, the French West Indies, and British Guiana all account for significant shares of Canadian exports. Nova Scotia exports to the Caribbean were mainly fish and lumber to support sugar plantations, the products of which were in turn exported to Britain.

Absent from the Canadian trade tables, however (and mostly overlooked by Innis himself despite his attention to furs and Newfoundland), is any detail about the exports from Newfoundland, which sent hundreds of thousands of seal skins to London’s industrial leather tanneries during the nineteenth century. For this, we had to use the data from Newfoundland’s own trade tables.

Exports of seal skins from Newfoundland, 1836-1897
Exports of seal skins from Newfoundland, 1836-1897

The Global Context:

Exports from Argentina, Canada, Australia, and South Africa, 1891
Exports from Argentina, Canada, Australia, and South Africa, 1891

The connections between Nova Scotia, the West Indies, and Britain are the kinds of relationships that quickly emerge with the help of tools that visualize large amounts of data. And once this type of relationship is identified, big data can help us answer questions at nested scales of analysis. How did staples exports shape Maritime history? What is the relationship between Maritimes staples exports and the trans-Atlantic sugar trade? How does Canada fit into the wider flow of global commodities during the nineteenth century? Although the Canadian trade tables helped us get to this last question, they could not help us answer it. It just so happens that our work exploring Canadian export data fits into our wider project, London’s Ghost Acres, which uses Britain’s trade tables to explore the environmental consequences of the global flow of commodities that fed London’s industrialization. Using the database assembled from this project, we place Canada in the global staples story. When compared with the other major settler lands of the late nineteenth century (Argentina, Australia, and South Africa), Canada’s contribution to industrialization came less from the raw materials that actually fed London’s industrialization, and more from the large amounts of agricultural products that fed the city’s population during that period.

As we assembled the data and generated these visualizations, it became apparent there are countless Canadian staples stories nested within many layers of social, economic, and environmental history. The literature is rich with debates about the role of staples in regional and national development. The stories that haven’t been told very well yet are those that explore the relationship between particular Canadian commodity exports and their global context. Attempting to identify and understand the stories that staples tell means working with other scholars who can help us piece together the history of particular Canadian commodities and their relationship with, for example, London’s industrialization or West Indies sugar plantation agriculture.

Below you will find our preliminary attempt to bring these compartmentalized commodity stories into a interactive map. We welcome any contributions to this project in the form of 500-word descriptions of a particular project and the places where its story unfolded. Ideally, these write-ups would be accompanied by an image or collections of images, but we would also welcome any graphs, charts, and other media, which we will use to populate the map. It is our hope that this website can become a starting place for researchers and a resource for educators on the story staples tell us about Canadian history.

Click on map for interactive version.
Click on map for interactive version.

The London’s Ghost Acres Project is SSHRC-funded by an Insight Development Grant, and is housed in the Historical GIS Laboratory at the University of Saskatchewan. We would also like to acknowledge and thank the work of Jon Bath at the Digital Research Centre at the U of S, as well as our team of undergraduate students, Danika Bonham, Steven Langlois, Elise Lehmann, and Kevin Winterhalt, who have helped the project by building and refining our database and wiki documents.

Further Reading:

Buxton, William J., ed. Harold Innis and the North: Appraisals and Contestations. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Innis, Harold. The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1930.

Innis, Harold. The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1940.

Mackintosh, W.A. “Economic Factors in Canadian History” Canadian Historical Review, Vol.4 (March 1923), 12-25.

McCalla, Douglas. Planting the Province: The Economic History of Upper Canada, 1784-1870. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking Penguin, 1985.

Wynn, Graeme. Timber Colony: A Historical Geography of Early Nineteenth-Century New Brunswick. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.

*We plan to release the database for other researchers to use once the the error checking process is complete.

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Andrew is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. His current research includes the history of sustainability and tourism on the Canadian Shield in Muskoka, Ontario; the environmental, social, and economic history of coal in Canada; and the role of energy in shaping agroecosystems on the Great Plains of the United States. His first book, Making Muskoka: Tourism, Rural Identity, and Sustainability, 1870-1920, was published in 2022 with UBC Press.


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