Review of Little, At the Wilderness Edge

Squamish river estuary and waterfront from above. Photo: Ben Bradley

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J.I. Little, At the Wilderness Edge: The Rise of the Anti-Development Movement on Canada’s West Coast. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019. 216 pgs, ISBN 9780773556300

Reviewed by Matthew Evenden.

The title of this book references W.L. Morton’s observation in The Canadian Identity that “The line which marks off the frontier from the farmstead, the wilderness from the baseland, the frontier from the metropolis, runs through every Canadian psyche.” At the Wilderness Edge explores how, over time, British Columbians re-imagined such lines, negotiated and contested them. Treating Vancouver and the Howe Sound region, extending as far north as Squamish and encompassing Bowen and Gambier Islands, Little examines several development flashpoints: moments when local groups coalesced to question and protest new or proposed developments that would impact cherished places, put a building or a mine where before there was none, and change the character of an established recreational landscape. Ultimately, proposed developments challenged a boundary between what people thought was properly in or out of place on the continuum of urban and wild. The book’s cover art by Tom Carter of an imagined Vancouver c.1952 shows the city starkly drawn against a misty, forest-clad North Shore. Little’s book turns on such imaginative contrasts and their powerful pull on social and political action.

While some of Little’s cases have roots reaching back to the inter-war period, most erupted in the 1960s and early 1970s, sometimes anticipating environmental protest. This was a period of considerable transition in British Columbia, with the consolidation of the resource economy and the expansion of leisure and mobility, the peak of Social Credit power, followed quickly by its fall, the growth of urban centres as well as continental linkages. Environmental ideas were in circulation, as well as New Left critiques of capitalism. A new NDP government came to power in 1972 wanting to shake things up. While we now have a reasonably developed scholarship on the growth of environmentalism in these years, much of it focuses on federal or provincial parks or environmental organizations. We know much less about what Little calls “grass-roots” activity, which might be described as spontaneous organization at the local level, outside of a national or international campaign, and deploying languages of place and value more than ecology and environment. As Little’s work demonstrates, such local campaigns involved interesting cross-sections of society and addressed larger social and political values.

At the Wilderness Edge is in some ways a collection of local histories along a theme, each with their own cast of characters, few of whom, interestingly, cross from one episode to the next. The first is Devonian Park, a small sliver of a protected space at the doorstep of Stanley Park carved out of a parking lot under threat from hotel development in the late 1960s. The debate over the park included a succession of eager and then disappointed developers, municipal politicians seeking some kind of accommodation, and an interesting coalition of opponents from young hippies to Social Credit MLAs, West End property owners to the then-youthful architect, Arthur Erickson. While civic politicians wrung their hands over the cost of creating yet another west side park, Alberta’s Devonian foundation finally came to the rescue in the early 1980s to foot the bill. And so, after much sturm und drang, plebiscites and protests, a charity, drawing on the legacies of oil money in another province, helped to settle where to draw the line between city and protected space.

Historical footage of the “All Season Park” set up in 1971 by anti-development activists on what would become the site of Devonian Park.

In the second chapter, Little moves out of the city towards the North Shore mountains to examine the debate over Hollyburn Ridge. Helpfully, he offers readers a capsule history of the incorporation of this area into local recreational landscapes in the inter-war period, as local skiers, many of Scandinavian background, hiked the North Shore mountains in search of snow and slopes. The launch of a commercially-oriented resort in the mid-1960s did not immediately provoke a backlash, but when the rough appearance of felled trees spoiled the landscape and allegations of corporate corruption circulated, opposition emerged. This embroiled the Social Credit government which was suspected of too close a relationship with the development interests. The municipal government of West Vancouver inserted itself, complaining of the ill treatment of its backyard and the potential effects on the water supply. Eventually the Social Credit government pulled back, reverting to a more modest proposal (championed by the opposition NDP) to create a smaller downhill recreational area under public ownership. When the NDP came to power in 1972, they restricted the proposal further to avoid more tree cutting, and created Cypress Bowl Provincial Park. While this was a significant shift it was not the end of the story, as a later Social Credit provincial government sold off the ski resort to private ownership in 1984. Nevertheless, critics of the original development kept the downhill resort within certain bounds, even as the downhill ski economy expanded across the region.

Hollyburn Ski Club float in Pacific National Exhibition parade, 1953. Courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 180-1883.

Little moves up Howe Sound in the following chapters, treating in turn Bowen Island and the struggle to create a community plan to restrict large developments; an estuary development and coal port proposal for Squamish which provoked a new awareness of and concern about pollution and ecological consequences; and a mining development on Gambier Island which led islanders to organize locally and provincially to exclude the large, intrusive project. In each case, he notes similarities and contrasts. In both the case of Devonian Park and Bowen Island, protracted opposition created space for new visions to come forward. Women led both the Devonian Park case and the Gambier Island mine opposition. At Hollyburn Ridge, Bowen Island, and Gambier Island, a common goal included preserving space for wilderness recreation. Of all his cases, Devonian Park and Squamish sit at metaphorical and geographical ends of the story—one an urban story about leisure space and park values; the other at the head of Howe Sound, and situated in a small resource dependent community becoming aware of the environmental consequences of development.

While Little is cautious about making overarching theoretical claims, he integrates and interrogates Canadian environmental historiography when connections can be made and offers tight, closely researched case studies that will be of interest to local historians as well as those looking for wider, comparative trends across Canada and internationally. I would have appreciated a bit more explanation about how and why he chose his cases, while excluding other possibilities, and also wondered whether a broader discussion of just what wilderness meant in the region during this period could have provided important context for the individual cases. While it would no doubt involve another study, I also suspect that there may be opportunities to consider further how these development disputes related to indigenous rights and land claims in these years. Finally, a small quibble: every story has to start somewhere, but I would have appreciated a longer view on the Devonian Park site, which previously hosted the Georgia Auditorium, a major entertainment hub in early twentieth century Vancouver, on the doorstep of Stanley Park, and beloved all the same. More generally, how did this era of anti-development compare with that which preceded and followed it?

As a Vancouver-based and -bred environmental historian, I enjoyed this book enormously and learned a great deal about paths I’ve trodden and slopes I’ve skied. I expect At the Wilderness Edge will gain a considerable audience in the region, and deservedly so. It will be interesting to see if other environmental historians address this important, proto-environmental phase in Canadian development politics to allow for wider comparative insights to emerge.

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Matthew Evenden is a professor in the Department of Geography and the Associate Vice-President, Research & Innovation at the University of British Columbia. His research lies in environmental history and water history and focuses on the history and politics of large rivers, particularly in Canada.

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