Looking at Canada as a US Environmental Historian

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This is the second post in a series called “From the Outside In,” about the experiences of teaching and researching Canadian environmental history by scholars from other countries.

“Looking at a forest history that initially seemed so similar, but turned out to be different in important ways, threw a clearer light for me not just on Canada but also on my own nation’s peculiar institutions—a lens shift that helped me ask questions I would not have asked otherwise.”

Nancy Langston

In August 2010, I spent a month in Canada on my first full research trip around Lake Superior, starting work on the boreal forests section of what would eventually become Sustaining Lake Superior. My goals for that month were to understand the development of the watershed concept in boreal forests, starting with Lake Superior north shore forests. I’d been studying deforestation on the US shores of Lake Superior for years, and I assumed deforestation around the Lake Superior watershed was fairly uniform. Of course, I was entirely wrong, as I quickly learned that month.

Both the American and Canada governments saw the remote north as a hinterland in need of industrial development, and both nations saw trees as core to that industrial development. In both nations, mining facilitated logging by motivating treaties, creating markets for wood products, increasing pressure for railroads, and generating capital for industrial expansion. Yet, with all the similarities between the two cases, distinct differences developed between the two nation’s forest industries. On the southern shore, in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, a lumber industry boomed after the US Civil War, and by the turn of the century only a small fraction of the white pine remained, with devastating consequences for the watershed and for Anishinaabeg communities. But much of the Canadian side of Lake Superior remained forested for decades.[i]

Pukaskwa National Park, with boreal forests growing on the Canadian shield. Photo by Nancy Langston

These differences were shaped in part by geographical differences. When glaciers retreated from the south coast of Lake Superior, they left a sandy outwash plain with abundant clays from the old glacial lake. These soils grew rich stands of the tall white pines prized by lumbermen. But the clay soils were easily eroded after logging and farming, which meant that hardwoods such as aspen and birch sprang up after rapid deforestation.

In contrast, along much of the Canadian shore, when the glaciers pulled back, they scraped the soils clean down to bare bedrock. That bedrock eventually supported a boreal forest dominated by spruce and fir. Neither spruce nor fir were much use for construction lumber, so the initial logging era bypassed the Canadian coast of Lake Superior (except for a few white pines growing along the lake shore). When markets for paper developed, however, the Canadian spruce and fir forests became perfect sources for pulp. 

View of the Nor’Westers, outside Thunder Bay. Photo by Nancy Langston

The early paper industry initially had little use for the aspen and birch that grew back on the cutover lands on the American side of Lake Superior. Instead, the industry turned to the boreal forests, still largely unlogged, of northwest Ontario. The explosive growth of Chicago and the American Midwest meant that new paper markets were well within reach of northwestern Ontario, making it a “prime location in which to operate a pulp and paper mill compared with the north-eastern states and Quebec, the continent’s traditional newsprint-making centres.”[ii] It was far easier for American mills to get Lake Superior trees to market via Great lakes shipping routes, than for mills in eastern Canada to transport that same wood overland. 

American demand for pulp, American markets for newsprint, and American capital investments drove the expansion of the young Canadian pulp and paper industry. But before exploiting Ontario forests, American companies had to contend with Canadian desires for economic and regional development. Exports of unprocessed cut trees for American pulp mills would do little for Ontario job production. If the Americans could be persuaded to invest in Ontario pulp and paper mills, then American capital could stimulate economic development in Ontario. A law forbidding the export of raw wood from Crown lands passed in Ontario, and in furious response, the United States placed a stiff tariff on newsprint imported from Canada, and evaded Canadian regulations in increasingly creative ways.

 Canadians came to fear that with American forests logged, Canada would become little more than a timber colony for American industry. Rather than simply saying “Canadian forests for Canadian jobs and Canadian profits,” the Canadians tapped into a discourse of forest depletion and argued “we cannot have the forest devastation that happened in America happen here.” In the early years of the pulp industry, paper industry executives positioned their industry as the conservation-minded solution to the environmental problems of intense lumbering, rather than a new environmental problem. Yet the paper industry led to tremendous environmental and social consequences, which Indigenous communities in particular are still contending with.

The Canadian shield, scraped by glaciers. Pukakswa National Park, ON. Photo by Nancy Langston

What was shared between the two nations was a determination to modernize what they saw as a “remote” place in need of development. Both nations believed that exploiting the forests of the north would enable this industrial transformation. But as I describe in Sustaining Lake Superior, entangled as the two nations were—in sources of capital; in ideologies of forest intensification and settler colonialism—the differences that developed had rippling effects for human and non-human communities within the watershed.

Looking at a forest history that initially seemed so similar, but turned out to be different in important ways, threw a clearer light for me not just on Canada but also on my own nation’s peculiar institutions—a lens shift that helped me ask questions I would not have asked otherwise. And that month along the Canadian shore of Lake Superior, delving into archives, hanging out with Canadian foresters and wildlife biologists, kayaking and hiking whenever possible, stirred a love for Canadian boreal watersheds that continues to shape my research. Unfortunately, COVID-19 interrupted my Fulbright semester in Thunder Bay this past winter (and my daily skis at the wonderful Kamview Ski area). But my research remains focused on the entangled waters, wildlife migrations, and toxic histories that move back and forth across the Canadian-US border.

Boreal forest in winter, Kamview ski area outside Thunder Bay. Photo by Nancy Langston

[i] Parts of this essay appeared initially in Nancy Langston, Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World (Yale University Press, 2017).

[ii] Mark Kuhlberg, “‘Eyes Wide Open’: E. W. Backus and the Pitfalls of  Investing in Ontario’s Pulp and Paper Industry, 1902-1932,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 16, no. 1 (2005): 2 01-233. For more on Canadian paper development, see Mark Kuhlberg, In the Power of the Government: The Rise and Fall of Newsprint in Ontario, 1894-1932 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015). 

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Nancy Langston is Distinguished Professor of Environmental History at Michigan Tech. She has written 5 books, 2 of them about Canada/US boundary watersheds and wildlife.

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