Introducing “Ice Blink”

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We’ve invited the editors of the six new titles in the Canadian History & Environment series at University of Calgary Press to introduce the book they’ve edited. In this post, Stephen Bocking — co-editor with Brad Martin — introduces Ice Blink: Navigating Northern Environmental History, forthcoming December 2016).

Ice Blink presents original research  by a remarkable array of authors. Their focus is on the north throughout the twentieth century: all the way from the Klondike Gold Rush to the events and forces experienced today by northern peoples and environments.ib1

Ice blinks – natural features that gain their meaning through their use by humans living and travelling in the north – exemplify our authors’ concern with the links between people and nature. Some of the stories they tell are of newcomers: railway promoters capitalizing on Klondike fever, surveyors seeking mineral deposits, pilots tracing transportation routes, technicians installing surveillance systems, miners exploiting landscapes, scientists tracking contaminants. Several authors consider the Canadian state: its efforts to impose a pastoral economy, supermarket food in place of fresh meat, or community economic development in place of traditional ways of life. Others discuss Indigenous people: their identities, ways of life, and evolving relations with the land, the state, scientists, and the wider world. Our authors have pursued these stories across the north: from Quebec and British Columbia to the territories and the High Arctic, while considering the links between these places and the rest of the world.

We organized the book into three sections. Each presents particular themes and time periods in northern environmental history.

Forming Northern Colonial Environments

Four of our authors consider northern environmental history during the early decades of the twentieth century. Jonathan Peyton presents a novel perspective on the Klondike, from the point of view of aspiring capitalists and miners in the Stikine region of northern British Columbia. Competing interests proposed railroads to the gold fields, and governments granted concessions, imagining an all-Canadian route. But these plans failed, as did those of most travellers. Yet these schemes had historical significance, as surveys and practical experience eventually catalyzed new ways of linking the Stikine to the world.

As Andrew Stuhl explains, domesticating northern wildlife implied not only a new view of northern landscapes but a novel interest in scientific advice. In 1926, Robert and Alf Erling Porsild arrived from Denmark to begin the Canadian Reindeer Project. They travelled to Alaska to learn about its reindeer industry, and then surveyed the north to identify a suitable range. Their project itself became an experiment in both applied botany and a new role for the state: managing the relations between northerners and their landscape. National policy was now expressed through an animal peculiarly suited to both the environment and the state’s priorities. Their work illustrates how science could become the basis not only for surveying but manipulating resources, a task rendered feasible by reducing the landscape to just a few variables.

Tina Adcock examines another aspect of the sense of change that overtook the north during the interwar era. Guy Blanchet and George Douglas—two seasoned northern travellers—worked as prospectors and geological surveyors, helping to build the new resource economy. Yet they regretted the passing of another north: remote from the modern world, where hard travel on land and water could preserve one’s vital spirit. Their thoughts and experiences illustrate the complexity of responses to technological and environmental change: while many welcomed faster and easier travel and new economic opportunities, this also provoked disquiet, doubt, and a sense of loss.

Even as airplanes became essential to northern travel and transformation, aviators and their machines had to adapt to environmental realities. Marionne Cronin examines how pilots and other employees of Canadian Airways translated experience in the northern environment into technological change. Her view of northern aviation focuses on the technology itself, as material articulations of values, ideas, and power. Northern geography, including rivers and lakes, determined flying routes and landing sites, and weather and other challenges required airplanes to be modified if they were to work properly. The north did not simply receive, but actively reshaped technology from elsewhere.

Transformations and the Modern North

During the Second World War and the postwar era northern environments were transformed. Nevertheless, the hunting and sharing of country foods remained central to Indigenous ways of life. So did uncertainty: wildlife migrations, and variations in climate and other aspects of the environment, led to hunger, particularly when accompanied by disease. As Liza Piper explains, food has also been essential to relations between Indigenous communities and newcomers. Depletion of musk ox, caribou, and walrus by explorers, whalers, trappers, and traders justified conservation initiatives that complicated and often criminalized food gathering. The mid-century state also engaged in “food colonialism.” Health initiatives guided by nutritional science, social programs, and education encouraged northerners to adopt southern food ways: gardening rather than trapping, canned food in place of fresh meat, residential school cafeterias instead of family hunting trips. Piper’s account demonstrates how food links bodies to environments, and people to the politics of colonialism.

Tina Loo begins her chapter with a witness to starvation. In the early 1950s, reports of desperation, including Richard Harington’s photos of dying Inuit and Farley Mowat’s People of the Deer, provoked the Canadian government to take responsibility for northern social conditions. Its mandate expanded to include transformation of the north into a modern society, populated by citizens amenable to administration. Concepts of sustainable community development that had gained currency elsewhere linked northern economic priorities to issues of power and poverty, with expert knowledge applied to improving peoples’ lives. Loo presents this history of northern development as a history of hope. Yet these efforts also fell short of their promise: defining development as a technical matter, they failed to challenge the political and economic forces and structures that defined northern existence.

The DEW Line was the most ambitious element of the postwar militarization of the north. As Matt Farish and Whitney Lackenbauer explain, this fusion of science and security demanded a new form of expertise, embodied in the Western Electric engineers and technicians who conceived, assembled, and tested this complex system. Like dams and other projects, the DEW Line epitomized the ideology of high modernism, in which military and corporate forms of power are embodied in technology. But while this system reconfigured the north as part of continental defence, the region imposed its own requirements: getting southern technology to work in northern environments demanded improvisation and local knowledge.

Environmental History and the Contemporary North

Five chapters examine more recent episodes in northern environmental history. We begin in northern Quebec, where a lengthy history of exploitation of furs, forests, minerals, and rivers has reflected both global resource demands and Quebec nationalism. Hans Carlson takes us on his travels here with the Cree. His companions’ stories record the ties between place, livelihood, and culture, and their efforts to negotiate their past, present, and uncertain future. In 1975, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement provided the legal basis for the Cree to pursue their own way of life. Development has nevertheless transformed their relations with the land, creating a new politics in which they have both adapted to and challenged change. These travels are also, as Carlson explains, an opportunity to reflect on the ties between personal history and the history of a place, stories of the past and present events, and memory, meaning, and the land.

From Quebec, we travel west to the Yukon. Land claims and self-government agreements under the 1993 Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement established Indigenous authority over much of the territory and its resources. But as Paul Nadasdy explains, these agreements have also reshaped how people relate to the land, to animals, and to each other. Because they are based on territorial jurisdiction—the foundation of modern states—they have required Aboriginal people to think territorially: to become managers and to create bureaucracies framed in the language of maps. But in doing so they risk neglecting the social relations between people and animals that once formed the basis of land-use practices.

ice-blink-pine-point-waste-rockMines have a finite lifespan, and scores of abandoned sites now lie scattered across the north—sixty-four in the Yellowknife region alone. Many still release contaminants, forming a toxic “landscape of exposure”. As Arn Keeling and John Sandlos explain, understanding this legacy requires linking the histories of labour and of landscape to form a perspective on mining more elaborate than simple cycles of boom and bust. Such a view also accommodates distinctive features of the industry in the north, including remote locations and the presence of Indigenous people, whose ways of life render them more vulnerable to contaminants and to damage to local living resources. Today, efforts to reopen or remediate some mines illustrate the continuing influence of the past on the future of northern mining: when these “zombie” mines are brought back to life, so too are memories of the conflicts they once provoked.

Northern contaminants come not only from mines and other local sources, but from more distant places. In my chapter, I explain how radioactive fallout, particulates, and pesticides and other persistent organic pollutants have encouraged new scientific perspectives and methods, novel environmental and health initiatives, and a new relationship between Indigenous peoples, scientists, and governments. This is partly a story of surprise; the discovery of contaminants in northern ecosystems, animals, and food confounded assumptions about what “belongs” in the northern environment. While contaminants gave scientists an opportunity to extend their historical role as interpreters of the northern environment, Indigenous communities and institutions have asserted their own perspectives on these substances and their significance to food, health, and knowledge.

Images of melting sea ice have made climate change the most obvious link between the north and the rest of the planet. Emilie Cameron considers its implications for northerners, their livelihoods, and their “right to be cold.” Climate science implies certain ideas about time, space, and action: it focuses on the future, seeks prediction and adaptation, and assumes that local places are self-evident. However, a more critical perspective can open up other ways of understanding northern climate change. One way is by encouraging an awareness of the history of climate science itself, including its formation in the context of colonization, and the local character of its “global” perspective. As Cameron explains, this awareness can also provide a basis for enabling northerners to contribute to a more inclusive understanding of the consequences of global change for the north.

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Stephen Bocking

Professor, Trent School of the Environment at Trent University
Professor of environmental history and policy in the Trent School of the Environment, Trent University. Teaches courses on environmental history, science and politics, and environmental issues in the Global South. His website is:

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