Review of Coates, ed., Canadian Countercultures and the Environment

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Review of Colin M. Coates, ed., Canadian Countercultures and the Environment. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2016. 320 pgs, ISBN 978-1-55238-814-3. Available for free download here.

Reviewed by J.I. Little, Professor Emeritus, History Department, Simon Fraser University

Given the contrast of the current political climate with that of the 1960s and 70s, it is not surprising that interest in that liberalizing era has been growing among younger generations of historians. This wide-ranging collection of articles is the first to focus on the link between what became known as the youth counterculture and the growth of environmentalism in Canada. Having originated as a workshop, its uneven geographic coverage is unavoidable. There are five chapters on BC and two on Prince Edward Island, but only one on Ontario, one on Quebec, and none on the Prairie region, though the North is represented with a chapter on the Yukon. The back-to-the-land movement is the main theme of all the chapters except for two about central Canadian cities. The central thesis is that the counterculture’s rejection of consumer-oriented urban society was intimately connected to a growing environmentalist consciousness. As Coates states in the introduction, “countercultural support helped to popularize organic farming, controls on harmful chemicals, new attitudes to the body (particularly in relation to childbirth), concerns about pollution and environmental sustainability, and a critique of technology” (20).

In her chapter on BC’s Denman Island during the late 1970s, Sharon Weaver argues that because resource depletion quickly becomes evident on small islands, their ecologies have long been at the cutting edge of environmental concerns. And because Denman, like the other Gulf Islands, lies in the rain shadow of Vancouver Island’s mountains, concerns about water shortages and logging’s impact on water quality were particularly acute. Like the back-to-the-landers examined in several other chapters, Denman’s recent arrivals were “attempting to flee the impacts of industrial capitalism ­­– only to discover that, instead of flight, their only choice was to stand and fight” (51).

Water issues united most Denman Islanders behind an environmental group known as Alternatives for Community and Environment. A similar accommodation between hippie newcomers and long-time settlers also took place in BC’s Slocan Valley in the 1970s. There, as Nancy Janovicek explains, logging was the issue. In demanding local control over natural resources as a means of reducing dependency on the logging industry, young newcomers built on a dissenting local political culture established by Doukhobors, unions, and old left politics. A 1976 report drafted by the Slocan Valley Community Forest Management Project demanded that a local resource committee be given control over the annual $545,000 in district stumpage fees. This was rejected as too radical by BC’s NDP government, but a measure of local control was introduced in the early 1990s to end the so-called War in the Woods. Kathleen Rodgers examines two West Kootenay protests that were more exclusively environmentalist in nature, involving civil disobedience against uranium mineral exploration in the late 1970s and herbicide/pesticide spraying in the late 1980s. Here again, local residents were mobilized by countercultural newcomers, with Rodgers stressing the contribution made by the thousands of Americans who migrated to the region during the Vietnam War.

Well-educated young newcomers had a talent for winning government funds, such as the federal LEAP grants that funded initiatives examined by Rodgers and Janovicek. This irritated many long-time community members. In his chapter titled “Dollars for ‘Deadbeats,’” Matt Cavers focuses on hostile local reactions to the Pierre Trudeau government awarding Opportunities for Youth (OFY) grants for 21 back-to-the-land projects on BC’s Sunshine Coast in summer 1971. As Henry Trim’s chapter points out, PEI residents were initially supportive of the substantial government subsidies for the Ark for the Future project a few years later. Designed and built by scientists from the Massachusetts-based New Alchemy Institute, the Ark was an experiment intended to “incorporate man, machine, and nature within a single sustainable structure,” thereby protecting the environment as well as realizing “the counterculture’s goal of a participatory society” (157). The Ark was a natural fit for a small province facing an energy crisis, but technical problems led to disappointment and criticism. The New Alchemists abandoned the Ark in 1978 following the withdrawal of government funding, but Trim argues the project led to important technical advances for ecologically sustainable urban farming and waste management systems, and helped popularize the concepts of renewable energy and sustainability among Canadians.

If the Ark is an example of the counterculture’s embrace of science and technology, the “new midwifery” that flourished among back-to-the-landers in the Kootenay region reflected the rejection of childbirth as a medical event (though midwives did apply standard medical procedures) and an engagement with what Megan Davies refers to as “the natural, collective, female, and spiritual aspects of reproduction” (230). While scholars have recently stressed the gender conservatism of the counterculture movement, Davies argues that homebirth can be “interpreted as a place where women claimed power, albeit in traditional spheres” (236-7). She also argues that because midwifery was “alegal” in Canada at that time, homebirth advocates were “deeply political, taking counterculture women to the same margins of legality as early environmental activists” (232).

As for the children raised by the back-to-landers, Alan MacEachern’s chapter is based on interviews with a number who grew up in PEI. Not surprisingly, these children found it difficult to fit in when they first enrolled in local schools, but they also became immersed in mainstream society – moreso, quite likely, than in larger countercultural communities such as those in the Kootenays. That said, the small-scale farmers of PEI must have sympathized with the romantic rural outlook of the back-to-the-landers, and MacEachern argues that countercultural values did permeate into the broader culture through friendships made in school.

David Neufeld’s chapter relates how a small number of back-to-the-landers who were unable to afford land even in agriculturally marginal communities to the South were attracted to the Yukon Territory, where they became squatters. There they also came into contact with what Neufeld refers to as the Aboriginal counterculture, working together to challenge the prevailing pro-development colonialist mindset. Their influence was reflected in the election of Tony Penikett’s NDP government in 1985, with four of eight legislators being Aboriginal.

Not all members of the counterculture went back to the land. Two chapters recount how effective urban-based movements were in implementing important environmental projects (funded by federal grants) in Toronto and Montreal. The internationally successful blue box curbside recycling program examined by Ryan O’Connor was initiated in 1974 by Toronto’s Is Five Foundation, which had been founded on co-operative principles. Montreal’s more radical Le Monde à Bicyclette – examined by Daniel Ross – challenged car culture and consumer capitalism with bicycle parades, guerilla lane-painting, street theatre (cyclo-dramas), and mass die-ins. As a result, and despite the challenges of winter, Montreal boasts one of North America’s largest networks of bike lanes and paths (over 600 km) and a very popular system of 5,000 public bicycles (BIXI) that has been exported to cities around the world. In short, this interesting and important collection of essays demonstrates that in bringing the values of consumption-oriented mainstream society into question, the youthful countercultural movement – including those who attempted to create their own utopias ­­­­­­­­­­­–­ made­ an important and lasting contribution to the environmental movement in Canada and further afield.


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Jack Little

Jack Little is a Professor Emeritus in the Simon Fraser University History Department. He currently lives on Salt Spring Island, and his two most recent books are At the Wilderness Edge: The Rise of the Antidevelopment Movement on Canada’s West Coast (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), and Fashioning the Canadian Landscape: Essays on Travel Writing, Tourism and National Identity in the Pre-Automobile Era (University of Toronto Press, 2018).

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