Review of Coates and Wynn, The Nature of Canada

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Colin M. Coates and Graeme Wynn, eds., The Nature of Canada. Vancouver: On Point Press, 2019. 376 pgs. ISBN 9780774890366.

Reviewed by Ruth Morgan.

The editors of this collection describe their book as a ‘showcase’ (353). And what a showcase it is. Yet another accomplishment of indefatigable editors Colin Coates and Graeme Wynn, this collection of sixteen accessible and stimulating essays brings together the insights of mid-career and more-established scholars working in Canadian environmental history, historical geography, and anthropology.

This collection invites readers to consider “how have people engaged with Canadian nature, and what do these engagements reveal about the nature of Canada (and Canadians)?” (3). From the essays emerge a handful of interrelated engagements that reflect on these questions. The first traces the contours of the commodification of Canadian nature and the material foundations of the resource-based economy of settler Canada. Diving into deep time, Wynn argues for closer attention to the geological forces that have shaped the trans-continental nation and endowed it with particular physical characteristics. Indigenous and settler uses have initiated a cascade of ecological consequences, such that “human agency has combined, ever more potently, with the work of nature to change the face of Canada” (41). Among these changes, as Stephen Hornsby and Wynn show, were the impacts of the hunt for fish and fur that lured Europeans to the so-called Eldorado North, such that by the late twentieth century, the cod fishery had been exhausted. The beaver fared similarly, and while it has made a modest recovery, its labour as an “ecological engineer” also left landscapes that attracted Europeans intent on agrarian settlement. Coates shows how Euro-Canadians transformed the “second nature” that Indigenous peoples had created, such that, “going back to nature in Canada generally meant embracing a non-Indigenous, essentially European complex of species” (127). Such changes have also extended beneath the ground, thanks to the nation’s historical enthusiasm for mineral-led development. Geological and hydrological endowments have shaped Canadian energy regimes, while their uneven distribution has, as Steve Penfold demonstrates, contributed to social and political conflict since at least Confederation. Surveying the arguments in favour of, and against, hard-rock mining, Arn Keeling and John Sandlos show how advocates failed to account for the widely dispersed externalities associated with mining, thus questioning the industry’s claims to an environmentally sustainable future.

Canadian Northern Railway system poster, 1913. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

These extractive and developmentalist approaches speak to another of the collection’s “engagements,” that of the many ways of knowing and representing Canadian nature. Julie Cruikshank draws on her extensive collaboration with the First Nations peoples of the Yukon to reflect on “other forms of being modern” (89), beyond the Cartesian dualism that separates nature from culture. She recalls learning to “listen for different stories” (85) from Mrs. Annie Ned in the early 1990s, which Cruikshank interprets as necessary for understanding humans as “immersed in relationships of exchange” (92) with other kinds of nature, such as rivers, trees, and animals. The art installation Battle for the Woodlands, by Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) artist Bonnie Devine, similarly guides Wynn’s reinterpretation of European cartography as eliding the endurance of Indigenous peoples and cultures, and their ongoing resistance to the social and environmental injustices of settler colonialism. The arts similarly animate Claire Campbell’s essay, in which she critiques the persistence of “wilderness” as an “imaginative rhizome” (169) from which settler Canadians derive their national identity. The allure of the wilderness as “awaiting redemption [and] forever inexhaustible” (181) contrasts with the growing concern for the environment that Wynn charts with Jennifer Bonnell. Understanding Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki as a bellwether of wider public consciousness, they situate his work in the context of post-Second World War environmental politics, which have shifted beyond binary encounters of conflict and confrontation to more complex attempts at collaboration and co-existence, thanks to the activism of First Nations peoples to assert their rights to the use of their land and waters.

Tom Thomson, ‘In the Northland’ / ‘Dans Nord’ (1915). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Challenging binary conceptions of nature and culture is a focus for another cluster of contributions to this collection, which together demonstrate the permeable, mobile, and fluid forms of Canadian engagements with nature. In her critique of the gendered framing of Greenpeace and Voice of Women, Joanna Dean demonstrates how both Canadian women and men were alive to their bodily entanglement in “a physical world made toxic by nuclear fallout” (283) in the 1960s. These toxins endangered their sexual and reproductive powers, which elicited the maternal and paternal anxieties that both groups shared. Such anxieties as to the permeability of bodily and national borders are placed in the wider context of Canada’s history of disease. Beginning with the earliest European encounters, Wynn shows how “pathogens have prospered by riding the tails of ‘progress’” (143), pointing to the ways that particular human-ecological interventions formed the ideal conditions for the spread of disease. Although such interventions could favour some organisms, others were less fortunate, as Ken Cruikshank reveals. “Novel ecologies” forged by trans-continental infrastructure “interfered with the mobility of the nonhuman world” (225), with dramatic implications for migratory species, to name just one example. Among the roles of such infrastructure has been to connect and service Canada’s urban settlements, where questions of circulation and density have preoccupied planners and reformers since the nineteenth century. To Michele Dagenais, these value-laden questions of “distribution” have historically encouraged the neglect of “matters of human interaction” (186) in urban design, such that she asks “Would it not be wise to conceive of a type of sustainable development that suits current urban forms?” (197).

Such matters of scale run through many of the essays, as the contributors probe at the ecological, cultural, and political implications of a settler nation of continental span. Representations of scale particularly concern Tina Loo, who powerfully argues that the simplified abstractions of nature typical of the high-modernist era have left behind “a legacy of dislocation, disorientation, dependence, depression, and death” (268). In their destruction and disturbance, these abstractions have also been remarkably generative – Loo points to the rise of Cree nationalism in response to the James Bay Project, and to the role of Apollo 8’s Earthrise in the emergence of the modern environmental movement. The need to engage across spatial as well as temporal scales is echoed in Liza Piper’s survey of Canadian climate history, which demonstrates how the “climate of our times is different” from the past changes in the global and local climate. Hers is also a cultural or human history of the Canadian climate, and the ways that settler Canadian understandings of the climate have changed over time and for particular ends. The collection’s final essay continues Piper’s tone of urgency, with Heather McGregor sharing her experience of seeing firsthand the impact of global warming on the High Arctic and its residents. “Stop looking away,” she urges us (345).

Richly illustrated with over sixty (!) historical maps, sketches, and photographs, the essays are ideal for introducing students and engaged readers to some of the major themes and pressing concerns in the field of Canadian environmental history, while substantial bibliographic surveys will guide further exploration into the wealth of sources canvassed in each contribution. Their relevance extends far beyond Canada – as a settler Australian reader living and writing on the unceded lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the subjects of the collection resonated with environmental pasts and presents in my own part of the world. Both settler nations continue to grapple with the histories and legacies of colonial dispossession, and an enduring developmentalist ethos of rapacious resource extraction in a rapidly warming world. Here too, environmental historians and others have found in the past cautionary tales of the unintended consequences of settler hubris, and sought to share, what McGregor describes as “explanations for the past … to understand ourselves” (348).

Feature Image: Inset of Herman Moll’s so-called Beaver Map from “The World Described” (1715).
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Ruth Morgan is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Environmental History at Australian National University (ANU), Australia. She has published widely on the climate and water histories of Australia and the British Empire, including her award-winning book, Running Out? Water in Western Australia (2015). Her current project, on environmental exchanges between British India and the Australian colonies, has been generously supported by the Australian Research Council and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. She is also a Lead Author on the Water chapter in Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Assessment Report 6. Her next book Climate Change and International History is under contract with Bloomsbury.

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