Subsistence and Access to Nature in Canada

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Editor’s note: This is the third post in an occasional series called Eddies, in which Tina Adcock chats with fellow NiCHE editors on a topic (or topics) of their choosing that’s been on their mind lately. In this post, Jamie Murton talks about the process of writing a new environmental history of Canada. You can find all the series’ posts here.


Tina Adcock: So, I understand you’re finishing up a book about the environmental history of Canada. Can you tell us a bit about this project, and what will set it apart from other books on this subject—by, e.g., Laurel Sefton MacDowell or Neil Forkey?

Jamie Murton: The book is a history of how people in the territory that is now Canada have interacted with all that is non-human since the last ice age. So it’s deliberately broad and inclusive. That said, what most clearly distinguishes it from what came before is that it develops an argument about Canadian environmental history itself, about the character and key elements of the relationship between humans and nature in Canada. I argue that the primary human interest in nature is getting the resources needed to survive: in other words, food and shelter. So concentrating on the ways in which societies in what we now call Canada have shaped access to nature in order to achieve subsistence (or survival, which will be somewhere in the title of the book), and the things that flow from that, will, I argue, allow us to understand much of the human–nature relationship in this place over time. I call this the subsistence framework, and for all the considerable strengths of MacDowell’s and Forkey’s and Graeme Wynn’s books, it makes this book distinct.

TA: Subsistence has been a key theme in your own research, I know. Could you tell us about how your long-standing interest in and work on this subject has informed, and perhaps inspired your choice of framework for this book?

JM: My interest in the history of subsistence flows from the idea that it can help us understand environmental histories. I was particularly inspired by the work of York University political scientist Ellen Meiksins Wood, who argues that agrarian capitalism developed in early modern England out of a process of removing peasants from the land, which she describes as cutting off their access to the means of subsistence. So access to nature, subsistence, and the development of capitalism (and capitalism seems to me to be undeniably crucial in understanding our impact on nature) are all tied together. All this looks very different in the Canadian context, of course. So the opportunity to do this book became an opportunity to figure out if, and how, thinking about the history of subsistence practices could serve as the centre of a book on Canadian environmental history.

TA: Your mention of survival brings to mind (at least for me) Margaret Atwood’s well-known book of the same name, in which she traces this theme’s prominence and influence over time in settler colonial literature about the territory that is now Canada. One thing I’ve noticed about synthetic works on Canadian environmental history such as those mentioned above is that they tend to focus much more strongly on material and economic relationships between humans and the non-human world than on people’s cultural and intellectual representations of that world and their interactions with it. How much attention does your book pay to this latter strand of environmental history?

JM: I do tend to think of environmental history as exploring the effects of the material on human history. But I don’t think that material things can shape history on their own. What I emphasize in the subsistence framework is the question of access: who gets to access nature, why, and for what purposes? And these are cultural, intellectual, and political questions. The eclipsing of subsistence fishing, for instance, involved redefining it as wasteful and responsible for declines in fish stocks. Fishing came to mean fishing with hook and line and—as Will Knight and other fisheries historians have shown—as good to the extent that it conformed to values of manliness and of giving the fish a sporting chance. [1] Sport fishing also brought in tourist dollars at a time when the idea was developing that “supporting the economy” was a positive public good. Places got redefined as sites of recreation (or of resource extraction or as sinks for wastes) rather than places for getting food or other means of survival. Nancy Bouchier and Ken Cruikshank’s work on Hamilton Harbour, where a controversy erupted over the spearing of fish by working-class people, is really great at showing all of this working together.

TA: Prior to this conversation, you said that a key challenge of writing this book was navigating through what has developed into a broad, heterogeneous field of study in a way that reflects its breadth, but that also tells a coherent story. Were there elements of the environmental history of what is today Canada that you wanted to feature, but that you found difficult to incorporate into your chosen framework?

JM: It might sound odd to say so, but no, not really. I got to talk about what I wanted to talk about and much more besides. I had great fun diving into the history of science, urban environmental history, the new history of the 1960s, and other areas. The framework concept of Ian McKay’s that I used is supposed to be inclusive, not exclusive; I was pleased that the version of it I set up did, I think, let me talk about a variety of topics while still keeping the book coherent. I’m looking forward to hearing, when the book is published, what is missing, though!

TA: When you talk about Ian McKay’s framework concept, would this be the liberal order framework? And if so, how does it figure in your book?

JM: I am referring to McKay’s liberal order framework, but I use it in a particular way. I’m not talking about liberalism or a liberal order; I do employ the concept of a framework of analysis that McKay develops in his liberal order article and articulates further in his book Rebels, Reds, Radicals. The “liberal” part of his argument has got a lot more attention, but McKay was also trying to develop an alternative to historical synthesis. Instead of trying for a grand synthesis “in which all the subaltern identities lose themselves in a new compound,” McKay argued that historians should embrace the more modest strategies of “mapping” and “reconnaissance.” This more “problem-centred approach … would entail … probing … logical and historical conditions of possibility … in a particular time and place.” [2] A framework of analysis, in other words, identifies a central historical dynamic which initiates and unites a series of complex and often contradictory changes; it seeks to encompass,while never claiming to be the whole story. In my book, the central historical dynamic is the fundamental shift in means of subsistence among people living in what is now Canada; I try to map and probe the always complex results.

TA: I would imagine that another challenge of writing a synthetic work, especially in our field, has to do with the depth of the time scale involved. Was it your decision to begin this book 20,000 years in the past? And what particular issues have you encountered, if any, in constructing a narrative that spans 20 millennia?

Lake Nipissing is a remnant of the former drainage of the northern Great Lakes, cut off by isostatic uplift just a few thousand years ago. Photo by Catherine Murton Stoehr.

JM: The time scale—starting with the end of the last glaciation—was my choice, yes, for several reasons. One, I like big histories that cover large periods of time; I have a course on food systems that starts with transitions to agriculture and ends in the twenty-first century. I think that one of the services that historians can provide students and the public is this sense of scope, of the continuing importance of both the deep and the more recent past. Two, it’s always nice to start at the beginning, and since the ice sheets obliterated most life in what is now Canada, this was about as close to starting at the beginning as a historian can get. And third, and this is really the main thing, for readers who were not environmental historians I really, really wanted to knock down the idea of a timeless, perfect nature that gets disturbed by humans. And a good way to do that, it seemed to me, was to show a nature that had changed radically not all that long ago, and that continued to be in motion. I wanted, as much as possible, to show humans as not in dialogue or relationship with a unitary or timeless nature, but as enmeshed in and acting within a web of life, to steal a phrase from Jason W. Moore. My main challenge in doing this was that much of the early chapters was then based not on the work of historians, but on other sorts of knowledge. Let’s just say that I’m extremely grateful that I happened to pick up Marit Munson and Susan Jamieson’s Before Ontario, which explains both the archaeological perspective on the deep history of Ontario and the practices of archaeologists, at the Congress book fair one year. It also meant that I had to think about what I had heard Indigenous elders say about Indigenous pasts and how to respectfully incorporate those into the book. I hope I’ve done a decent job on these fronts.

TA: Once a book leaves an author’s hands, it takes on a life of its own. What kinds of work would you like to see this book perform among academic colleagues, among students, and among a more general readership? What kinds of lessons or insights would you like them to take away from it?

JM: First of all I want it to inform and explain, and to do so in an interesting and, I hope, entertaining manner. Above all I hope people enjoy the book and learn things from it. I know what I think, and I’ve talked about that some in our discussion here, but in general I like to let readers and students draw their own conclusions as much as possible. I will say, as the American environmental historian/activist/provocateur Jenny Price has said, that as a society we need to find a way to “inhabit nature.” If the book gives people some tools for that work, I’ll be happy.

TA: Thanks, Jamie, for a great discussion! I look forward to reading your book.

Jamie’s book, tentatively titled “Canadians and their Natural Environments: Survival from 20,000 Years Ago to the Present,” is due out in 2020 from Oxford University Press.


[1] William Knight, “Blurring the Boundaries: Subsistence and Recreational Fisheries in Late-Nineteenth-Century Ontario,” in Subsistence Under Capitalism, ed. James Murton, Dean Bavington and Carly Dokis (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), 60–75.
[2] Ian McKay, “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History,” Canadian Historical Review 81, no. 4 (2000), especially 620–21.
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Jamie Murton is associate professor in the Department of History at Nipissing University. He is interested in the environmental history of food and agriculture, and particularly of subsistence production and its relationship to capitalist markets for food. Canadians and Their Natural Environments: Survival from 20,000 Years Ago to the Present is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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