Over, Up, and Shut: Considering North American Environmental History Across the US-Canada Border

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This is the fourth in the series Outside Looking In, about the experiences of teaching and researching Canadian environmental history – from scholars working outside Canada.

As an American studying Canadian history for the past ten years from the border state of Michigan, I have come to understand the two countries as being deeply interconnected. Some of this sense has come through my research on trade in natural resources, but it has been equally if not more importantly a product of staring at the terrain while driving thousands of miles on multiple trips back and forth from my home near East Lansing to points as far northeast as Baie Comeau, Quebec. While eastbound, these landscapes and the built environments that intrude upon them change more slowly and less perceptibly than they do when I go southwest in the US. The two hundred miles across the political border to Stratford, Ontario, seem more naturally contiguous than do the 220 miles southwest to Chicago, Illinois. That harmony between the Michigan and Ontario scenery extends even further east for me, and there are parts of the landscape even approaching Ottawa that can make me feel like it has been a long drive through a relatively homogenous space. At some point, because of all these drives east from Michigan and across Canada on 401 and 402, I came to think of Canada as being not “up” but “over” in terms of geography.  

These driving trips were in the interest of doing research for a book that I was writing about the connections between Canadian forests and US newspapers, and specifically how newspaper publishers in twentieth-century America were utterly dependent upon Canadian trees in order to have paper to print on. At midcentury, some eighty percent of the newsprint used in the US had been imported from Canada, and that robust trade was enabled by a mostly forgotten series of bilateral negotiations in 1911. The trade in newsprint – and not in the trees themselves, by specific policy design – was made a duty-free, and after that, as far as US newspapers were concerned, the border did not matter: a tree could be cut in Ontario or Quebec and made into a roll of newsprint which could be taken across the border and to American printing plants free of any tariff. In the twentieth century, newspaper reading in the US had clear, direct, and significant connections to and effects on Canadian forests. As with virtually everything related to anything about Canada, most Americans were largely ignorant of these linkages, and I was trying to write a book that showed how important they were, and to combine insights from media history and environmental history. I was focusing on the Chicago Tribune Company, which under the leadership of Robert McCormick, an aggressively and unabashedly conservative and nationalist publisher, built two newsprint mills in Canada – in Thorold, Ontario and Baie Comeau, Quebec – and eventually came to have control over some 11,000 square miles of Canadian forest land. The Tribune’s company-owned fleet of boats kept the newsprint moving seamlessly along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes from these forests to the company’s printing plants, and one of America’s most prominent isolationists had built an incredibly efficient and vertically integrated international newsprint supply chain.  

In 2012-13, I had the good fortune of living in Montreal [where I first met Michael, when we were both visitors hosted by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada – highly recommend both. ~ Ed.] while working on this book, which I published a few years later with the title Dead Tree Media: Manufacturing the Newspaper in Twentieth-Century North America. In the early spring of 2013, I decided to drive to Baie Comeau to see what the Tribune had done there with its newsprint mill and surrounding company town that it had built. The company had designed and developed the town and the mill in the late 1930s, and it had created some of the first industrial encroachments on the resource-rich North Shore. The drive from Montreal to Baie Comeau was the first time in a while that I was reminded of just how much of Canada is north and sparsely populated – the “up” I had not seen during all the drives east and west. The road from Montreal to Baie Comeau is beautiful, and it feels increasingly remote after the car ferry crossing of the Saguenay at Tadoussac. I knew that this region was connected to the US Midwest because of markets and the movement of commodities, and I had plenty of information from the archives about this, but it no longer felt continuous as a physical landscape that I was moving through.  

The intersection of Rue McCormick and Chemin Hydro-Quebec, Baie-Comeau.

Approaching Baie Comeau, I stopped to take a picture of the sign for Rue McCormick, a road near where the Tribune’s proudly American publisher had built a dam that he named the McCormick Dam to provide new power for his expanding paper mill. I spent a couple of days wandering around Baie Comeau, looking at the curving streets and the tidy houses, and understanding how much of this was oriented around the massive paper mill at the water’s edge that was connected to the power dam through towers and wires that hovered over the trees.  

There is a statue of Robert McCormick in a canoe just next to the mill, a specious sort of monument for a man who spent far more time in boardrooms than in watercraft. 

In one residential section of Baie Comeau, I came upon a sign for Ave Arthur-A.-Schmon, and I wondered if anyone in town knew the story behind that. The specifics of McCormick’s life are somewhat obscure to many people today, and Schmon is likely a complete mystery to those who see the sign. But the New Jersey born Schmon was McCormick’s top executive in Canada from the 1920s through the 1950s, and the operational success of the Tribune’s operations there owed much to what the Canada-based Schmon did while McCormick lived in and directed corporate affairs from Chicago. Baie Comeau is what it is because Schmon helped translate McCormick’s ideas into plans and actions. These North Shore landscapes and the built environment of Baie Comeau are, more than eighty years later, still very much connected to these two Americans whose names linger in the region’s signs and symbols. Baie Comeau is in many ways an object lesson in the connections between media and environmental history.

Understanding the environmental connections between this place and Chicago, between these Canadian trees and those American newspapers, means looking at the whole landscape: the trees, the mills, the infrastructure and built environment, the monuments, the street signs.

After publishing Dead Tree Media, I’ve continued to work on some media-related aspects of these US-Canada connections, and particularly those that involved overexploitation and pollution. I’ve been increasingly coming to think of this work as environmental history and to learn from scholarship in this field, and this has helped me expand my understandings of the connections between media and nature. Many Canadians disagreed with and even despised US newspapers because of how much power they had to shape public opinion in North America. US journalism had political effects in Canada that many perceived as negative, and some Canadians folded an environmental angle into their critiques: the newsprint that carried that objectionable American journalism had come from Canadian forests. I recently came across a post-World War II campaign waged by B.C. Eckardt, the pastor of the First Church of Christ in London, Ontario, to keep Canadian trees from being made into newsprint to be exported to the US and instead to be used domestically for housing construction. In January 1947, for example, Eckardt pleaded to the Royal Commission on Forestry for help in diverting wood supplies from the pulp and paper industry to the construction industry, which he claimed was being hamstrung by a market for trees oriented toward export to the United States. In London, he claimed, “disgraceful and appalling conditions exist because of the current shortage of lumber,” and he added that the city was “as tragic an example as to be found in any part of Canada.  We have been obliged to crowd large families, and sometimes two or three families into apartments of one or two rooms.  People are living even in chicken coops.” As a pastor, Eckardt’s environmentalism had a strong moral undercurrent, and he claimed that the “history of the development of our natural resources shows that there are ever present forces of greed and evil who will use any weapons of bribery and corruption upon every government to be instant in season and out of season to strengthen and uphold the arms of those public servants who will resist temptation and stand firm against threats in order to preserve the fruits of the earth to those who own them…The products of our forests, which only God could make, must be shared by all His people.”

As Eckardt saw it, Canadian policymakers’ immoral approach to their forests had everything to do with their serving the whims of US newspapers, which had exerted undue influence across the border.  The people of London, Eckardt fumed, “are coming to believe that certain people, with purely selfish motive, are damming the flow of trees to our lumber mills.”  Ultimately, Eckardt argued, Canadians “take the green gold of our forests, the spruce and the balsam, the wealth of the people of the land, and we ship it in uncontrolled and unrationed quantities to the United States.  In so doing, we are not only robbing our own people of such a bountiful supply of lumber, but we are supplying newsprint to such papers as the Chicago Tribune which uses this same newsprint to promulgate vicious and scurrilous attacks upon our nation and to trample in the dirt the good name of our Empire.”  

As I continue this new research on the relationships between media and environmental history, I’ve kept going back and forth between Michigan and Canada, and many of these have trips remained in that “over” sense that I have long had, mostly west-east along the East Lansing-Ottawa corridor. Even with passport controls, the border has been invariably more about friction than separation, and most of the time the crossing at the Sarnia checkpoint takes ten or fifteen minutes.  For obvious reasons, things at the border in late 2020 have become very different (Sigh ~ Ed.), and I was reminded of the political separation of the US and Canada in March. On Friday, March 6, I went east to participate in the Business History Reading Group at the University of Toronto. I got up early and got on the road, and I did the now familiar five hour drive over to Toronto. The border crossing went smoothly, and, despite the slushy weather across southern Ontario, the drive was uneventful. I parked my car near the university and went to get some lunch, and in walking around after began to feel a palpable unease on the streets. Some people had masks on, hand sanitizer stations had been put in building entryways, and the city had a bit of that empty sense that vacation towns have in late September. It felt like the people who hadn’t already left were planning to do so soon. The workshop itself was great, and we had about a dozen people packed into a seminar room.  After, we went as a group to a nearby and crowded pub. These things now feel like they happened in some distant past.  

Knowing well how bad Toronto traffic is, I had booked a hotel room in Mississauga, figuring I’d stop there after dinner and then drive home from in the morning. As I drove out of the city, listening to news on the CBC, I started thinking about the growing apprehension that people were expressing about the border closing. I felt pretty awake, and it wasn’t that late into the evening. About twenty minutes later, nearing the exit for my hotel, I decided that I’d just drive home. West of Hamilton, the road is dark but flat and traffic free. There were no other cars at the border when I got there around 11. I got home a bit after midnight and quickly fell asleep, foggy from the idea that I had awoken in the dark in my own home in mid-Michigan, spent the day in Toronto, and was now going to sleep in the dark back in my own home. It seemed even weirder the following day, and Toronto felt surprisingly close – I had just gone back and forth yesterday. Over the next few days, the news about COVID kept getting worse, and that feeling changed.  Two weeks later, the border shut, and that’s how it remains. I can hold this conception of this common landscape to the east of me, and the border remains within cycling distance. But we’re in a moment where political differences mean more for the construction and enforcement of a border than do the environmental continuities.

Feature Photograph: Resolute Mill at Baie-Comeau, Quebec. Photograph by Michael Stamm.

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I'm a Professor in the History Department at Michigan State University. I am a political and cultural historian specializing in North American media and journalism history. In recent years, my work has become international in scope and is increasingly incorporating insights from environmental history.

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