New Book – Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin: Wolves and the Making of Canada

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Stephanie Rutherford. Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin: Wolves and the Making of Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022.

It might seem like hubris to think that anything ‘new’ can be written about wolves. It definitely seemed that way to me as I contemplated writing this book. Of course, wolves have long featured in fictional tales as outlaws, fiends, or misunderstood heroes, in almost every case serving as what literary scholar Manina Jones would call “manimals”, acting as allegories for stories about people, from White Fang to Twilight.1 However, wolves have also been the subject (in whole or in part) of many excellent environmental histories that consider these animals on their own terms. The work of Jon Coleman, George Colpitts, Karen Jones, Tina Loo, and Michael Wise has offered windows into the complex exchanges between wolf and human life over time.2 What more could there be to say?

It’s a fair question and one with which I have grappled with over the 10 years it took to finish this book. Part of the answer, perhaps, is that I did not intend – nor am I qualified – to write an environmental history of wolves in Canada. I’m not a historian, which will likely be evident to anyone reading the book, not least because of its lack of footnotes (a transgression from which my historian father is still recovering). Instead, while relying in part on historical sources and certainly inspired by the work of environmental historians, Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin attempts to understand the history of the present of wolves in the lands now known as Canada. If we take as true the notion that nations are made in and through multispecies assemblages, as is my claim, then drawing on the texts, practices, and events that draw animals like wolves into national stories are important to trace. This is what Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin aims to do: explore how wolves figure into settler colonialism and nation-building, enacted through a range of affective registers, with their threat or loss managed through a variety of biopolitical means. In the end, I think the variety of responses settlers have had to wolves – the same animal invoking at different times terror, loathing, aggression, revulsion, desire, and longing – speaks to the entanglement of humans and wolves that have gone into the making of this place. So, the book traces these stories, from wolf bounties in the 19th century to the rise of the Algonquin Park Wolf Howl, to understand how nature and nation fit together in the body of a wolf.

This history of the present invites a different understanding of what relationships to the nonhuman world can look like, predicated on solidarity and attunement to flourishing. Settlers tried their best to find out what Canada would look like without wolves, as well as many other species. The attempted elimination of the wolf was rooted in the logics of settler colonialism, inflected with affective registers that have and continue to do violence to people, animals, lands, and waters. But there were always (and are) markedly different ways of encountering, rooted in reciprocity, co-existence, and solidarity. In the book, I also talk about Anishinaabe relationships with wolves, which point settlers like me to better understandings of what obligation to the natural world looks like, then, and now. So, this book suggests that reimagining relationship to wolves must be part of a larger effort to decolonize these lands. As we stand at the edge of cascading, interlocking environmental crises facing people and planet, the story of wolves in Canada contains bigger lessons about nature, nation, and the possibility for justice on these lands for humans and nonhumans alike.   

[1] Manina Jones, “Wildlife Writing? Animal Stories and Indigenous Claims in Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known.” Journal of Canadian Studies 42, no. 3 (2008): 133–49.
[2] Jon T. Coleman, Vicious: Wolves and Men in America (Yale University Press, 2006); George Colpitts, Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada to 1940 (UBC Press, 2003). Karen R. Jones, Wolf Mountains: A History of Wolves along the Great Divide (University of Calgary Press, 2003). Loo, Tina. 2006. States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century (UBC Press, 2006); Michael D. Wise, Producing Predators: Wolves, Work, and Conquest in the Northern Rockies. (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

Feature image: Trapline Management Officer John Macfie with two large wolf pelts. Source: Archives of Ontario
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Stephanie Rutherford is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment at Trent University. Her research inhabits the intersections among political ecology, animal studies, and the environmental humanities. She is the author of Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin: Wolves and the Making of Canada (MQUP 2022) and Governing the Wild: Ecotours of Power (UMinn 2011). She was also a co-editor of Methodological Challenges in Nature-Culture and Environmental History Research and Historical Animal Geographies (both with Routledge).

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