Review of Castonguay, The Government of Natural Resources

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Stéphane Castonguay, The Government of Natural Resources: Science, Territory, and State Power in Quebec, 1867-1939. Translated by Käthe Roth. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2021. 240 pgs. ISBN 9780774866316.

Reviewed by Stephen Bocking.

Science and technology have been essential to settler colonialism and modernity, embraced by political and economic interests alike. Stephane Castonguay explores this theme in The Government of Natural Resources: Science, Territory, and State Power in Quebec, 1867-1939, which makes a notable contribution to our understanding of the extension of the authority of the state, economic activity, and science across provincial territory.

As numerous historians have shown, collaborations between state and science have been integral to Canada’s history, as evident in, for example, the Geological Survey (formed in 1842), Meteorological Service (1871), and Central Experimental Farm (1886). These institutions in turn encouraged the formation of professional expertise, first by importing scientists from elsewhere, then by stimulating the establishment of science faculties in Canadian universities. The practical consequences became evident as surveys, field trials, and technical services spread across the land.

This role of science in making territories and nations raises several historical issues. Among these are the formation of scientists’ practices and material cultures in field and laboratory; how they constructed their own credibility, not least by asserting boundaries between knowledge and local experience; and how they related to social priorities such as the expansion of agriculture and extraction of resources. The places of scientific activity – laboratories, parks, herbariums, sites of industry – have been essential to these relations between science and environments. These places also remind us that science has an historical geography, formed out of not only scientists’ ambitions, but state initiatives, industrial activities, and the agency of nature.

Soil train, travelling laboratory, Quebec. Library and Archives Canada, Canadian National Railways, e010861625. MIKAN 3605855

Castonguay brings this story home to Quebec. He presents a history of scientific activities in laboratories and field sites, and across industrial, resource, and agricultural landscapes. He does so by combining analysis of factors specific to science, such as training, disciplinary affiliations, and funding, with attention to their political, managerial and economic contexts. As the province industrialized, resource interests and experts became allies: geological science was applied to finding minerals, soil science to identifying lands more suited to forests than crops. Expert advice helped rationalize agriculture by encouraging farmers to specialize in response to local soil, climate, and market conditions. Wildlife managers used science to support the interests of private fish and game clubs, reinforcing the distinctive way in which Quebec organized (and obstructed) access to nature. To support these activities, the provincial government expanded its scientific and technical capabilities: hiring scientists, giving them time for research, and recognizing their distinctive professional roles. In these ways, government, industry, and science became entangled in ways characteristic of modernity.

In return, scientists naturalized institutional categories, legitimating the collaboration of state and economic interests. They also made resource territories legible by defining codes of conduct for land settlement and exploitation, and justifying the spatial expansion of the state and economy. The challenge of building a resource economy became defined in terms of territory, as state, interest groups, and experts together shaped how space would be appropriated and occupied. Here, Castonguay’s discussion of forest and agricultural territories is particularly strong. Yet scientists also pursued their own purposes, specializing in ways compatible with educational institutions, and asserting diverse ways of knowing the world: observing, analyzing, experimenting.

The maps that scientists drew not only described but anticipated reality: identifying and therefore producing opportunities for extraction and for reorganizing territory. Geologists mapped mineral resources (not geological formations), and the Bureau of Mines tied its work to industry’s regional expansion. Parks and forest reserves became a means of enforcing soil scientists’ advice regarding how territory should be used, especially by keeping settlers out of the most productive forests. Fish and game clubs created landscapes of sport hunting that displaced other uses of wildlife. Agricultural specialization produced new geographies of fruit, poultry, and other commodities. Scientific activities described specific features of nature – mainly those that could be administered or become part of a modern economy – while discounting local knowledge and meanings. These outcomes illustrate the practical and political consequences of expertise, although (as Castonguay notes) it is often difficult to separate the influence of scientific advice from the many other factors shaping the reorganization of territory.

Castonguay has therefore much to tell us about how a major region of Canada became modern. His book originally appeared in French in 2018; this version is especially welcome as a bridge across the linguistic chasm so evident in Canadian cultural production. The translation by Käthe Roth is (apart from a few unusual word choices, such as cynegetic and enclavement) competent and clear.

Carte des territoires sous permis de coupe de bois. Québec: Département des terres et forêts, 1907. Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, 0003814143.

Castonguay’s work is also relevant beyond Quebec. For example, similar administrative capacities and expertise in hydro and mining emerged in Ontario and British Columbia. Other initiatives also paralleled developments in Ontario: Quebec’s forest reserves were inspired by the creation of Algonquin Park, reforestation was seen in both provinces as an antidote for desertification, and Algonquin’s research station mirrored Quebec’s formation of fish culture and wildlife science. The book could be read as a counterpoint to H.V. Nelles’ classic study, The Politics of Development: Forests, Mines, and Hydro-Electric Power in Ontario, 1849-1941 (1974) – in fact, someone should do a comparative study of these provinces. There are also interesting parallels with conservation in the United States and in France. These relations speak to the value of understanding provincial histories in relation to larger stories, such as the relations between expertise and modernity, the rise of the nation-state and the formation of citizens, and the assertion of markets and rationality as the basis for progress.

Castonguay even provides interesting hints relevant to the history of nature conservation, including the influence of experts and local political cultures on the creation and location of parks and reserves. Soil science emerges as a foundational form of conservation expertise, justifying forest reserves such as the Parc de la Montagne-Tremblante (1894) and Laurentide National Park (1895). Over time, these areas would evolve new identities, coming closer to how parks are usually understood today. Quebec thus illustrates an important feature of the history of protected areas: they have often been about not so much scenery or species protection, or conflicts between conservation and preservation, but the influence of resource interests and ideas about how society should be organized, refracted through particular forms of expertise. These larger implications, as much as the detailed analysis of Quebec itself, make Castonguay’s work worth careful study by Canadian environmental historians.

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Stephen Bocking

Professor, Trent School of the Environment at Trent University
Professor of environmental history and policy in the Trent School of the Environment, Trent University. Teaches courses on environmental history, science and politics, and environmental issues in the Global South. His website is:

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