Whose Nature? Race and Canadian Environmental History

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There’s a subtle but clear message here, the messaging of absence, working in tandem with these stereotypes to tell us that we are not only gangsters but gangsters unwelcome in Canadian wilderness.

Phillip Dwight Morgan, “Becoming a Shark: Reflections on Blackness in Canadian Wilderness” in Black Writers Matter, ed. Whitney French (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2019).

How have ideas of race shaped the relationships between people and the rest of nature? This is a question that remains relatively under-examined in Canadian environmental history (and certainly on this website). And yet race unquestionably has played a role in how people have exploited, consumed, and enjoyed the natural resources of this country. In spite of the coy denials of some Canadian political leaders, Canada has an obvious history of systemic racism that is rooted in its legacies of settler colonialism. That history of systemic racism is also a part of Canadian environmental history.

Over the past few weeks, NiCHE editors combed through the archive of blog posts on The Otter (NiCHE’s blog) to tag articles that addressed different ways in which race intersects with human-nature relations in Canadian history. We found dozens of articles that we felt could be useful for researchers and educators looking for resources on histories of race and the environment. You can read this “found” collection here:

Over the past several years, The Otter has published a range of articles that address some of the intersections of race and environmental history in Canada. Most of the articles have examined topics that confront Canada’s history of settler colonialism and its effects on Indigenous people. In 2012, Christine Grossutti published a post about Asubpeechoseewagong Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) activism concerning mercury poisoning and logging. In 2015, Stacy Nation-Knapper wrote about Indigenous perspectives on the Columbia River Treaty. And Adele Perry published a piece on the lack of clean drinking water on reserves and the case study of the Shoal Lake Aqueduct in Manitoba. These are just a few examples.

There are also blog articles that address different episodes of racial exclusion and environmental racism in Canadian history. Christabelle Sethna looks at the “overlooked relationship between animalization and racialization under colonialism” in her case study of Jumbo the elephant. Hereward Longley outlined his experiences at the 2019 Canadian History and Environment Summer School on histories of Chinese and Indigenous gold mining on the Fraser River. And Letitia Johnson recently published a post on the The Otter about the natural environments and lived experiences of Japanese Canadians who were interned during the Second World War.

This “found” series of blog posts is a good collection of scholarship on race and the environment in Canadian history, but the collection is spotty. Works on environmental racism and environmental justice are limited in Canadian history. Much of the work in these areas has been led by scholars of US history. [1] Most of the leading scholarship on environmental justice in Canada comes from outside of the field of history. And while there are many books and articles that address different aspects of Indigenous history and the environment in Canada, there are still too few focused on the inequities on reserves and the disproportionate exposure that Indigenous people have to environmental hazards.

There is a need to dedicate some specific attention to the intersections of race and environment in Canadian history. This series, “Whose Nature? Race and Canadian Environmental History,” will feature blog articles, reading lists, and podcasts that explore a range of ways in which ideas of race have influenced the interactions between people and the rest of nature in Canada’s past. Over the coming weeks, this series will include posts on race and parks, a podcast on environmental racism, and some recommended books to highlight existing work in the field. There will be more to come. We hope that this series starts new conversations in the field and that those conversations lead to new research and writing.

We also invite scholars to contribute to this series by submitting proposals for new blog articles. Please review our contributors’ guide to learn about how to submit work for publication in The Otter. Get in touch with us if you have ideas for contributions for this series:

[1] The field of environmental racism emerged in the 1980s in the US out of the scholarship on environmental justice and the work of the Commission for Racial Justice. The Commission’s report “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States” was one of the earliest studies to outline the concept of environmental racism. For a discussion of the origins of the concept of environmental racism and early scholarship see Ingrid Waldron, There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous & Black Communities (Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood, 2018), 28-29.
Featured Image: Overturned tree in Stanley Park. Source: Sean Kheraj, 2017.
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Sean Kheraj

Associate Professor and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University
Sean Kheraj is a member of the executive committee of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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