The Environmental Context of (Settler) Colonialism in Canada

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In the wake of the Idle No More movement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Indigenous-led critiques of Canada 150 and, most recently, efforts by multiple First Nations to locate burial sites at former residential schools (to name just four catalysts), historians have increasingly sought to situate and interrogate Canada as a settler colonial nation. Environmental historians have much to contribute to this work. In Canada as elsewhere, settler colonizers sought, in part, to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their traditional territories through slow and fast forms of violence and to remake these lands in the image of those they had left behind.1 As Shiri Pasternak and Hayden King note, the theft of Indigenous lands and waters and their development by governments and corporations are foundational components of Canada’s political and economic landscapes, in the past and present.2

Yet settler colonialism sensu stricto has not always been the dominant form of colonialism in what is presently Canada, as measured either in terms of space or time. Liza Piper and John Sandlos observe that the successful creation of what Alfred Crosby called Neo-Europes was very much the exception rather than the rule. These agricultural Arcadias were “limited to relatively discrete temperate areas such as the southern Prairies, southern Ontario, the St. Lawrence Valley, and Prince Edward Island.”3 Likewise, scholars have dated the rise and consolidation of settler colonial forms of occupation and rule to roughly the late eighteenth century in the eastern parts of Canada, roughly the late nineteenth century in its western portions, and (though this is certainly debatable) roughly the late twentieth century in the North.4 Allan Greer has argued that two alternate forms of colonialism—imperial/commercial penetration, and extractivism—better capture the presence of Europeans, and the spiralling consequences of their presence, in arctic and subarctic Canada.5

Here we offer ten readings, each of which emphasizes how environmental actors and factors have helped shape the contours of settler colonialism and other iterations of colonialism in northern North America.6 This annotated list skews towards recent (or forthcoming) publications; it also features some works that heed Lianne Leddy’s call to study “how colonialism and environmental injustice can be gendered processes.”7 It has chosen not to duplicate the content of similar reading lists that contextualize environmental racism in Canada and the Idle No More movement.8 Two other books that could easily have made this list (Emilie Cameron’s Far Off Metal River and Caroline Desbiens’ Power from the North) were included in NiCHE’s reading list for the-ASEH-meeting-that-wasn’t in Ottawa. We encourage you to consult all these posts for further suggestions of what to read on this subject.

1. Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Indigenous Life (2013)

In 2013, James Daschuk published a book that drew a broad national audience and brought renewed attention to the links between environmental history and settler colonialism in Western Canada. Building upon the work of other scholars of Canada’s expansion into Indigenous territories of the Northwest, Daschuk highlights the ways in which colonialism produced negative and damaging health outcomes for Indigenous people. It also reveals the ways in which the Canadian government used food and the threat of starvation as a tool to conquer Indigenous land and resources.

2. Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies (2016)

Sarah Carter’s fifth, multiple-award-winning monograph uses the lives and careers of women farmers and ranchers on the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Prairies to explore the complex conjoining of gender, race, settler colonialism, and imperialism in this time and place. Carter argues that such women were “ambiguously complicit” in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their long-held territories. They sought to own and work parcels of this land, but were frequently denied that opportunity. Male politicians argued that such work challenged women physically and threatened to diminish the special feminine qualities required to build a “superior” settler society in western Canada. But those lands had long prospered under Indigenous women, with whom Carter opens and closes her narrative. Their tending and tilling of those soils for thousands of years troubles the patriarchal, heteronormative, and settler colonial systems erected in the late nineteenth century, demonstrating that both alternative pasts and futures are possible.

3. Dammed: The Politics of Loss and Survival in Anishinaabe Territory (2020)

Over the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, hydraulic engineering transformed the Winnipeg River watershed with consequences for the territories of the Anishinaabe people of Treaty 3. Manomin harvests were disrupted, ice roads lost, waters polluted, and fish poisoned. Brittany Luby explores this history looking back to Treaty 3, the promises broken, and the environmental, economic, and social consequences of placing settler resource priorities ahead of Indigenous people.

Nature’s Past podcast “Episode 71: Water and Anishinaabe Territory,” featuring Professor Luby and Chief Lorraine Cobiness:

4. “Starting with Water: Canada, Colonialism, and History at 2019” (2019)

“What does history look like when we begin with, and return to water?” asks Adele Perry in her 2019 presidential address to the Canadian Historical Association. “How are histories of colonialism shaped by water, and vice versa?” This piece both complements and extends discussions begun in Aqueduct, Perry’s 2016 study of the murky, indisputably colonial origins of Winnipeg’s clean drinking water. It notes positive developments in this ongoing story. The opening of Freedom Road, an all-season connector to the TransCanada Highway, restores reliable and safe extra-local mobility to Annishinaabeg of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, from whose waters the aqueduct drew and which the aqueduct had rendered an artificial island. But the drinking water advisory in place in this community since 1997 remains. Perry demonstrates how settlers in Canada continue to benefit from water as well as land taken from Indigenous peoples, and how the simultaneous naturalization and obfuscation of this theft undergirds the smooth churning of settler colonialism in the past and present.

5. The Industrial Transformation of Subarctic Canada (2009)

Between 1921 and 1960, the four “great lakes” of northwestern Canada—Great Bear Lake, Great Slave Lake, Lake Athabasca, and Lake Winnipeg—played host to a type of colonialism that the historian Allan Greer terms extractivism. In this wide-ranging, extensively researched book, Liza Piper examines the character and consequences of industrial activities on and by these bodies of water. Industrialization proceeded along the grain of subarctic environments and climates, adapting to seasonal conditions and rhythms and producing new relationships between people, machines, and nature. Its transformation of subarctic Canada was fed by American capital, commodities, labour, and technology; fish and minerals were stripped from northern waters and lands and shipped south to American consumers in turn. Dene and Métis who had long resided in these regions experienced few benefits and shouldered most of the harms of these activities long after companies had folded or departed to other resource frontiers.

6. Hunters at the Margin: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories (2007)

Along with Tina Loo’s States of Nature (2006), this monograph by John Sandlos marked a growing turn toward critical histories of wildlife conservation in Canada. Through increasingly interventionist management of game populations in the Northwest Territories, early and mid-twentieth-century colonial bureaucrats in Ottawa sought increased control over Dene, Inuit, and Métis hunters of these animals. Closed seasons, game sanctuaries, surveillance by police and game wardens, and coercive re-education and relocation programs all flowed from the racist representation of Indigenous people as “wanton killers” and therefore irresponsible stewards of wildlife in their homelands. Unsurprisingly, Indigenous hunters mounted formal and informal protests to state incursions upon their territorial sovereignty, food security, and social and cultural practices and relationships founded upon acquiring and sharing country food. Sandlos also reminds us of the settler colonial dreams for the Territories that never came to pass: a new North (and a second West) founded on the domestication of caribou, muskox, and imported reindeer and their commercial cultivation on subarctic ranches, watched over by Indigenous hunters-turned-herders.

7. “Wolfish White Nationalisms? Lycanthropic Longing on the Alt-Right” (2020)

“The inability to see animals as individuals is etched in settler colonialism,” Stephanie Rutherford asserts at the end of her Journal of Intercultural Studies article, “Wolfish White Nationalisms? Lycanthropic Longing on the Alt-Right.” In this article, Rutherford examines the use of the wolf as a symbol of white nationalism and masculinity by two contemporary far-right groups, Canada’s La Meute (The Pack) and the United States’ Wolves of Vinland. Tracing negative and positive wolf symbology, Rutherford shows how white settlers have molded the idea of the wolf to suit their purposes through time. She demonstrates that these two contemporary groups are a continuation of a settler colonial assertion of dominance over the land, animals, and non-whites. Most importantly, Rutherford upsets our anthropocentric views of colonialism, racism, and masculinity, showing that animals do not exist apart from, but rather are a part of and directly affected by human ideology.

8. A Bounded Land: Reflections on Settler Colonialism in Canada (2020)

Settler Canada is a bounded space, Cole Harris insists in this review of a career spent considering settler colonialism. Outside of that space is most of Canada, dominated by Indigenous people. Settler colonialism is only one way in which Europeans reshaped Indigenous lands and one that has been completely effected only in those places, mostly along the US border, where soil and climate allow for agriculture. Elsewhere colonial intrusion has taken the form of fur trade posts and industrial work camps, the depredations of governmental officials and the horrors of residential schools. Harris is clear about the violence of the state and the narrow options that have been available to most Indigenous people. But he is also ultimately hopeful. It is from these spaces, he argues, that the Indigenous people of Canada are “speaking back to settler Canada as never before,” in a cultural and intellectual movement with the potential to reshape Canada for the better.

9. The Laws and the Land: The Settler Colonial Invasion of Kahnawà:ke in Nineteenth-Century Canada (2021)

In this nuanced and morally spirited book (to appear September 15, 2021), Daniel Rück chronicles Canada’s settler colonial invasion of Kahnawà:ke between 1790 and 1900. Situated across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, this community endured what Rück terms “a fraught transition from common to private land and resource tenure.” Drawing on communitarian ideals embodied in the Dish with One Spoon metaphor, many Kahnawà:ke leaders and community members sought to ensure equitable access to land and trees and to preserve such things for future Kahnawa’kehró:non. Colonial authorities, particularly those affiliated with the Department of Indian Affairs, attempted to arrogate control of Kahnawà:ke’s human and nonhuman spaces to themselves and to make them serve their civilizing, assimilationist, and privatizing visions. Rück depicts in full technicolour the blooming, buzzing confusion that so often characterized government interventions, stressing that the harm they caused Kahnawa’kehró:non was no less palpable for being splintered or glancing in form. Nor is this harm wholly historical, Rück concludes: “The settler colonial ‘frontier’ isn’t just somewhere else—it is in my home, my family, my classroom, and in my own heart.”

10. Land Back (2019)

Recent initiatives to diversify the field of environmental history have emphasized the need to read beyond the canon—to seek out, listen to, and learn from the experience and expertise of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour, among others. Issued by the First Nations-led Yellowhead Institute, this Red Paper surveys the “practical, technical strategies” that Canadian governments and companies have used to dispossess Indigenous peoples of land from contact up until the present day. It details the “regimes of consent” that have undergirded historical and contemporary land theft and underscores the cumulative—and more-than-environmental—effects upon Indigenous people of these actions. Colonial ideals of patriarchy incorporated into the power structures of Indigenous communities and enacted in the lives of Indigenous men can prevent women and transgender, queer, and Two-Spirit individuals from weighing in on proposed resource development, thus exacerbating their susceptibility to future environmental and sexual violence. Given the indispensability of Indigenous territories to Canada’s past and present economy, the report argues that “non-state, Indigenous-led solutions” may be most effective in reclaiming land and bringing about a just, consent-based, and ecologically sustainable regime of land stewardship in what is today Canada.

[1] On settler colonialism in a Canadian context, see, for example, Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker, Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada (Halifax: Fernwood, 2015).
[2] Land Back (Toronto: Yellowhead Institute, 2019), 10, 17, 25.
[3] Liza Piper and John Sandlos, “A Broken Frontier: Ecological Imperialism in the Canadian North,” Environmental History 12, 4 (October 2007): 782–83.
[4] See John G. Reid and Thomas Peace, “Colonies of settlement and settler colonialism in Northeastern North America, 1450–1850,” in The Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism, ed. Edward Cavanaugh and Lorenzo Veracini (London: Routledge, 2016), 79–94; Laura Ishiguro, “Northwestern North America (Canadian West) to 1900,” in History of Settler Colonialism, 125–38; Allan Greer, “Settler Colonialism and Beyond,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 30, 1 (2019): 61–86. On the complexity of settler colonialism and associated identities in the modern North, see, for example, Jerald Sabin, “Contested Colonialism: Responsible Government and Political Development in Yukon,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 47, 2 (June 2014): 375–96.
[5] Greer, “Settler Colonialism and Beyond,” 69–70, 74.
[6] We gratefully acknowledge the suggestions colleagues offered in reply to this tweet, irrespective of whether or not they ultimately made it onto this list.
[7] Lianne Leddy, “Intersections of Indigenous and Environmental History in Canada,” Canadian Historical Review 98, 1 (March 2017): 93.
[8] We particularly commend to readers’ attention Perry, Aqueduct; Waldron, There’s Something in the Water; C. Harris, Making Native Space; D. Harris, Fish, Law, and Colonialism; and Thorpe, Temagami’s Tangled Wild.
Further Notes
Tina Adcock wrote the introduction to this post. She, Jessica DeWitt, Jamie Murton, and Sean Kheraj wrote the summaries of readings.
Feature Image: Pioneer Settler’s Building, Peace River Country, Alberta. Credit: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-040481.

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