ASEH 2020: A Reading List

Overlooking the Ottawa River, December 2007. Credit: Tina Adcock.

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts leading up to the ASEH’s annual meeting in Ottawa in March 2020 that aims to introduce visitors to the environmental histories and historical geographies of this place, and of Canada more broadly.

In March 2020, the American Society for Environmental History will meet in Canada for the first time since 2013. The nation’s capital city, Ottawa, will host a meeting with the theme of Reparative Environmental History, inviting delegates to consider “the possibility of making amends to those whose legal rights, health, livelihoods, and access to nature were denied through others’ exercise of power.” To help visitors, especially foreign ones, situate themselves in this place, four of NiCHE’s editors have drawn up a reading list of recent, or relevant, work in Canadian environmental history and historical geography. We encourage you to make some time to read these books and articles before arriving on the banks of the Ottawa and the Rideau next spring.


Tina Adcock
(Simon Fraser University)

Emilie Cameron, Far Off Metal River: Inuit Lands, Settler Stories, and the Making of the Contemporary Arctic (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015).

Ottawa rests on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg people, but other Indigenous peoples live there today as well, including a sizable community of Inuit. This seems as good a reason as any to place Far Off Metal River, the first book by Ottawa-based historical geographer Emilie Cameron, on this reading list. It is—or was, for me, anyway—that rarest of books: one that finds you a different person at its end than you were at its beginning, replete with new knowledge that entails new responsibilities. Far Off Metal River is a sensitive, passionate, and utterly brilliant meditation on one historical event and its manifold afterlives: the so-called Bloody Falls Massacre on the banks of the Coppermine River in present-day western Nunavut, a supposed clash between Inuit and Dene that the English trader-explorer Samuel Hearne claimed to have witnessed in 1771. For Cameron, this story, told and retold for centuries by people outside the Arctic, “is fundamentally about locating, claiming, and extracting resources in the name of empire” (174). Her wide-ranging exegesis of it is therefore of great relevance and interest to environmental historians.

The cover of Far Off Metal River, based on Mathieu Dumond’s photo of the Coppermine River.

Cameron’s interpretive approach resonates well with a field long concerned both with story and materiality. She argues that stories are “material, relational practices through which we order our relationships with each other and with the land” (11). Deftly, she connects Samuel Hearne’s tears to histories of white masculinity and the supposedly “neutral” observation of racialized violence; the black-tipped groundsel (Senecio lugens) to entwined botanical and emotional cultures of nineteenth-century Britain; copper to long histories and wide networks of Indigenous trade and imperial extraction, not to mention discussions about who benefits from mining, and modernization more generally, in and out of the settlement of Kugluktuk (Coppermine), then and now. While the Bloody Falls Massacre story appears to be about Indigenous northerners, Cameron reveals that it is really a story about Qallunaat and the ways in which they have sought to make sense of and lay claim to this space.

Who are Qallunaat, then? Well, most likely you yourself are, and this is so whether or not you realize it. Even if you have never been north yourself, in the eyes of Inuit you are still part of a “named, relationally constituted, historically and geographically specific people”: you are Qallunaaq, the Inuktut term for a person who is not Inuk (16). Arctic peoples and lands have interacted with and have been influenced by non-Arctic peoples and phenomena for millennia, something that historians of the North and of the environment are increasingly foregrounding as climate emergency is presently and radically remaking this region, and through it, the planet. It is a truism that people living south of the Arctic Circle (albeit in the global North) bear a heavy responsibility for this emergency. Cameron calls upon Qallunaat to acknowledge this and the other ongoing responsibilities that come with being in relation with this place, a relationship both embodied by and forged and reforged through settler stories such as the Bloody Falls Massacre. She calls upon Qallunaat “to attend to the relations that have made us and to begin to work toward relations that are more just, more kind, more humble, and more life giving” (17). This is a call that, once heard, is difficult to ignore. You know, now, and you are changed, and you must change how you move through the world, even though you may not yet know exactly how.


Jamie Murton
(Nipissing University)

Gilbert Allardyce, “‘The Vexed Question of Sawdust’: River Pollution in Nineteenth-Century New Brunswick,” Dalhousie Review 52 (1972): 177–90; reprinted in Pam & Chad Gaffield, eds., Consuming Canada: Readings in Environmental History (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1995): 119–30. https://bit.ly/2NLdQp4

P.G. Anderson, “Grasses Tame and Wild: Imperial Entanglements in Settler Colonial Cereal Breeding and Botany,” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 1, no. 4 (2018): 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1177/2514848618792233.

See also: 

John P.S. McLaren, “The Tribulations of Antoine Ratté: A Case Study of the Environmental Regulation of the Canadian Lumbering Industry in the Nineteenth Century,” University of New Brunswick Law Journal 33 (1984): 203–59.

R. Peter Gillis, “Rivers of Sawdust: The Battle over Industrial Pollution in Canada, 1865–1903,” Journal of Canadian Studies 21, no. 1 (1986): 84–103.

For the benefit of international guests visiting Ottawa for ASEH 2020, I’ve chosen readings designed to highlight the role of our host city in Canadian environmental history.

Whereas Americans and Australians created capitals by designing them from the ground up, Canadians took a different approach. In 1857 Ottawa was a small lumber town when it was selected by Queen Victoria as the capital of the then-colony of the United Province of Canada. The neo-Gothic piles intended to house Canada’s government rose on Parliament Hill above a city of sawmills and worker’s houses and overlooking the Ottawa River, which every fall was busy with logs being rafted out of the forests that lined the upper reaches of the Ottawa.

“Timber Slide on the Ottawa River (Looking Toward Parliament Hill),” William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-008440, after 1880. Public Domain.

The lumber industry was for many years the largest non-agricultural industry in Canada. It was also a major industrial polluter. Wood waste impeded navigation; sawdust lining the bottoms of the Ottawa and other waterways choked out aquatic life, while mats of the stuff on the surface led to methane explosions. The resulting “vexed question of sawdust” was therefore an early environmental controversy, and in the seventies and eighties the rise of environmentalism brought three articles chronicling its history. Gilbert Allardyce’s was established as a classic of Canadian environmental history when it was featured in Pam and Chad Gaffield’s early collection, Consuming Canada, in 1995. Allardyce’s article is not about Ottawa (that story is told by Gillis and McLaren); it is concerned with another centre of lumbering, the eastern province of New Brunswick. But the themes are the same and Allardyce’s is the liveliest of the three. It is also, to my mind, the one that most rewards a re-reading, as it most clearly shows what was at stake: the reshaping of Canadians’ means of subsistence itself as sawmills destroyed, in the name of economic growth, places where people were accustomed to getting fish for food. In their defence, sawmill owners trotted out a series of claims that still resonate today. They could not possibly afford to not dump wastes; there were not many fish in the rivers anyway; and mill owners were practical men while their opponents were concerned with mere aesthetics. In this fight, Ottawa-as-a-place mattered: the Canadian government was moved to bring in regulation partly out of embarrassment at the destruction taking place literally within view of Parliament itself. 

Another piece of national infrastructure that put Ottawa at the centre of environmental change in Canada was the Central Experimental Farm (CEF), founded just south of the city to conduct practical scientific research in the service of agriculture. In Canadian historical lore the CEF is best known for developing Marquis wheat. This plant had the crucial advantage of maturing within the short growing season of the Canadian prairies; it was therefore a crucial tool in the overrunning of Indigenous lands and their transformation into wheat farms. In a fascinating recent article, the CEF’s historian, Pete Anderson (who will be leading a field trip to the CEF during the conference), complicates this story by contrasting the CEF’s development of Marquis wheat with its dealings with Manoomin. Commonly known as wild rice, Manoomin was a crucial food cultivated in swampy lake edges by Anishinabeg of the Great Lakes region. The CEF treated it as strictly an ornamental plant or as food for birds, while its English name hid its status as a food plant, leading to ongoing disputes between Anishinabeg cultivators and cottagers eager to clear a plant they see as gumming up recreational lakes. Thus, as Anderson says, the CEF was not simply engaged in “using plants to replace one ecological and human community with another; [rather] the movement of wild rice shows how the discursive redefinition of a single species can be used to redefine land that was important for Indigenous food production, yet marginal to Western agriculture, towards exclusively recreational ends” (11).


Blair Stein
(Clarkson University)

Caroline Desbiens, Power from the North: Territory, Identity, and the Culture of Hydroelectricity in Quebec (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013)

Matthew Evenden, Allied Power: Mobilizing Hydroelectricity during Canada’s Second World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015)

Edward Jones-Imhotep, The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017).

A WWII-era poster advertising Canadian hydroelectricity. Canadian War Museum Collections: https://www.warmuseum.ca/collections/artifact/1030442/

My ASEH 2020 recommendations focus on “envirotech” scholarship in Canada. Envirotechnicality runs deep in constructions of Canadian settler identity; the intersections between aspects of Canadian “nature”—the nation’s size, its perceived cold climate, its imagined “inexhaustible” natural resources—and the technological systems used to make sense of that “nature” are deeply intertwined with one another and with settler Canadian nationhood. All three of these books explore those intersections and how they have been used to support, dismantle, or create various aspects of what it means to “belong” in Canada.

Allied Power and Power From the North are both about hydroelectricity. Canada is a hydro nation and hydroelectricity has long been part of the settler construction of drawing literal and figurative power from Canadian natures. Desbiens in particular is interested in how hydroelectric development in the northern part of Quebec allowed for the emergence of a new sort of provincial identity in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Hydro development in James Bay helped southern Quebecois imagine themselves as connected to the far-distant North by applying “Quebecois ideals of land, nature, and identity” to a region that is historically inhabited by Crees, whom she argues have a very different construction of what water symbolizes and what it is for (6). Desbiens works mostly with cultural and literary sources—her chapter on romans de la terre is a particular treat—to show that settler Quebecois felt what she calls an “aboriginality” on Quebecois land, which coloured their responses to claims of Indigenous sovereignty and northern development. In Allied Power, Evenden deals with similar themes—hydro development, literal nation-building, and the mobilization of resources—but instead looks at the expansion of state control over hydroelectric development during the Second World War. The war “changed the scale and scope of hydro development,” and Evenden works with this scale and scope by examining the intersecting federal, provincial, and municipal politics of hydroelectricity as well as the human and environmental impact of development (14). Hydroelectric dams literally changed the shape of rivers, but also figuratively changed the shape of Canada inside the political and cultural imagination; power, the land, and nationalism were seen through the lens of electricity.

Like Desbiens, Jones-Imhotep is concerned with Canada’s north as an imagined place in the settler imagination in his book The Unreliable Nation. However, Jones-Imhotep is instead interested in satellite technologies and upper-ionospheric research, and how the failure of these systems in the apparently exceptional environment of the North shook national myths about Canadian envirotechnicality. State agents, scientists, and engineers saw extreme Canadian environments as responsible for a breakdown in both technological and “natural” orders; the North was not a place in which technologies behaved as they should, and Jones-Imhotep uses these breakdowns to expose the limits of envirotechnical nation-building in Canada. “Nature and machines give the abstract nation specificity and substance,” Jones-Imhotep argues (215). All three of these books show us the ways in which both natures and machines have been used to define Canada and Canadian-ness.

Also, I assign all three of these books in various ways to my history of science and technology students. It’s frequently the first exposure they get to Canadian history of any sort!


Andrew Watson
(University of Saskatchewan)

I don’t think it’s too often that American environmental historians read Canadian environmental history literature. There is amazing scholarship coming out every year. I thought I’d highlight a sampling of my favourites from 2019.

Heather Green and Matt Papai, “Advertising for Beer: Local Identity and the Klondike Brewery, 1900–1920,” The Northern Review 49 (2019), 49pp. (in press). https://doi.org/10.22584/nr49.2019.001.

In the 1995 Michael Moore film Canadian Bacon, Niagara County Sheriff Bud Boomer (played by John Candy) gets his ass kicked by a bunch of Canucks when he blurts out “this beer sucks” at a hockey game in Canada. Apparently Canadians are proud of their beer. So, I think it’s fitting to highlight an article by Heather Green and Matt Papai that explores beer and cultural identity in Dawson City, Yukon in the years immediately following the Klondike Gold Rush. Environmental history has quenched its thirst with food history in many ways. Beverages have received lots of attention; beer and alcohol, not so much. As Green and Papai point out, local breweries and beer helped hold small communities like Dawson City together during times of change. No doubt the ASEH crowd will pack the local public houses to imbibe the many local beers that hold Ottawa together.

Hereward Longley, “Conflicting Interests: Development Politics and the Environmental Regulation of the Alberta Oil Sands Industry, 1970–1980,” Environment and History (April 2019), 29pp. (in press, but available online). https://doi.org/10.3197/096734019X15463432086919.

At the 2013 ASEH meeting in Toronto, an American attendee asked how he could visit the Alberta oil sands. He was rather disappointed when I told him they were roughly 4000 kilometres from Toronto. They aren’t any closer to Ottawa, but sometimes it seems that way… The fate of the oil sands and the pipelines that carry bitumen to refineries was an important issue in the recent federal election. Hereward Longley’s article on how oil sands development influenced environmental regulation by the Alberta government is a great primer on some of these tensions. During the 1970s, Alberta invested in oil sands development, which reduced the provincial government’s desire to regulate the industry in any meaningful way. Then, as today, the economic interests of oil sands development trumped all other interests, including environmental protection and Indigenous rights.

Jessica Dunkin, Canoe and Canvas: Life at the Encampments of the American Canoe Association, 18801910 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019).

In 1973, Canadian writer Pierre Berton is claimed to have remarked that “a Canadian is somebody who knows how to make love in a canoe.” If anyone had told this to the founders of the American Canoe Association when the club was created in 1880, Canadians might not have been permitted to join… As Jessica Dunkin explains, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Americans and Canadians had a love affair with the canoe, and gathered by the hundreds in annual encampments to race boats and socialize in various settings close to nature. Organizers attempted to impose a structure and order that reflected Victorian social relations, but members negotiated these expectations to satisfy their own desires and enjoyment at the camps. Drawing on club records, personal memoirs, periodicals, artifacts, and photographs, Dunkin illustrates how race, class, and gender shaped landscapes of leisure, recreation, and sport, and in turn how these environments mediated social relations at a time when making love in a canoe definitely “rocked the boat.”

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