Review of Peyton, Unbuilt Environments

Pilings for the BC Rail grade crossing at Tsetia Creek, south of Iskut Village, BC. Photo: Tad McIlwraith, 2002.

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Jonathan Peyton. Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017. 245 pgs, ISBN 9780774833059.

Reviewed by Gordon Hak.

In Unbuilt Environments, Jonathan Peyton takes us into British Columbia’s Stikine River country. The monograph is part of a UBC Press series that publishes books dealing with the connections between nature, history, and society, and Peyton’s well-written work fits nicely into this agenda, investigating industrial development in a relatively isolated region. With this topic, the book could have gone in a number of directions. It could have focused on entrepreneurship and the opening of the region to world markets. It could have examined the environmental, social, and cultural impacts associated with producing resources for external markets. It could have more fully explored the perspective of local Indigenous people. Other possibilities include the role of the state in shaping economic development and the importance of transportation links. While all these themes are present, Peyton is most interested in exploring the underlying framework that provides the ground for development: the discourse of development.

Working within an unstable postmodern context where “places are unbounded, fragmentary, and fluid” (12) and “resources … are historical and social as much as biophysical fact” (13), Peyton investigates both projects that failed to reached fruition and those that were realized but lasted only temporarily. Notably, failures are not contrasted to successes; rather, they are seen as part of the same process: “Failure and success are two sides of the same coin; in terms of development they are simply different outcomes of the same process” (169). Moreover, argues Peyton, even failures have long-term consequences; they change the way people think about geographical areas, and create new knowledge that can later be used in designing other projects. And physical changes are made in the on-the-ground preparatory activities that explore the feasibility of projects, such as the construction of new roads, and these alter behaviours for humans and animals.

The book consists of five case studies. An asbestos mine operated at Cassiar from 1952 to 1992, supporting a vibrant, if isolated, community. By the 1970s environmental and health concerns had infiltrated the development discourse, contributing to economic failure: “Cassiar was built … and was then deconstructed,” says Peyton. However, the community lives on in archives and online, where former Cassiarites now scattered across Canada retain a geographically extended cyber community. Still, there remain dreams of a new community, especially to exploit the jade and manganese of the area.

A plan to build a railway through the region—the Dease Lake Extension—was explored in the 1960s and prosecuted in the 1970s before being abandoned in 1977. A poorly chosen route, an authoritarian managerial culture in BC Rail, and the inflation of the 1970s contributed to the failure. But the construction that was actually done opened up areas to hunters and recreationists and led to a surge in mineral exploration. Moreover, the dream did not disappear, and hopes for jobs and economic expansion were even more entrenched, only awaiting opportune circumstances. Another project that was explored in the 1970s was the plan to dam the Stikine and Iskut Rivers to provide hydro-electric power that government officials and mining interests hoped would open up the region to industrial exploitation. In the context of the 1970s, BC Hydro, the force behind the proposal, was very aware of the importance of the growing environmental movement, as well as the voice of Indigenous people in the development discourse. In the many studies undertaken, the language and concepts of science were imposed on the region, challenging the authority of existing local knowledge. The project failed because of the complexity of the issue: “The Stikine and Iskut Rivers have remained undammed precisely because of the disagreement about what the river means and how it can be best understood” (112).

Abandoned BC Rail Grade Bridge at Stikine River, south of Dease Lake, BC. Photo: Tad McIlwraith, 2002.

Peyton’s fourth and fifth case studies are also about energy development. The desire to move natural gas into the region and transform it into liquefied natural gas was first aggressively pursued by Dome Petroleum in the 1980s. Jobs, investment, and the ‘greenness’ of natural gas as opposed to coal were all part of the debate, which ended, perhaps temporarily, due to changing economic circumstances. In the 21st century another project, with the goal of bringing electric power into the area to provide power for mines and processors, was put forward. In this case, First Nations, backed by court decisions, had a prominent role in the debate. The Northwest Transmission Line was finally completed in August 2014, and, says Peyton, we will have to wait to see if the “field of dreams” approach will work and industry will follow (166).

Unbuilt Environments provides an even-handed discussion of development in a region that remains relatively aloof from capital investment and integration into the global economy. But the cascading, tumbling effects of earlier projects are shown to have had significant environmental and social impacts, and development remains a key part of the discourse that frames the region. Still, concludes Peyton, in this fluid environment of changing social meanings and economic imperatives, there remains the opportunity to “create a vision of the future that is not simply subject to development dreams,” a vision “informed by the Stikine’ s difficult past of development failure and … mindful of the possibilities for a prosperous and just future” (172).


Gordon Hak is Professor Emeritus in the History Department at Vancouver Island University. His writings on the history of natural resource industries in Canada include Turning Trees into Dollars: The British Columbia Coastal Lumber Industry, 1858-1913 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000) and Capital and Labour in the British Columbia Forest Industry, 1934-74 (UBC Press, 2007). His most recent book is entitled Locating the Left in Difficult Times: Framing a Political Discourse for the Present (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


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