The Gulf of St. Lawrence region is one of the most culturally and jurisdictionally complex parts of Canada. For 500 years, it has been peripheral to the power structures of European empires and the settler societies they established in North America. At the same time, it is central to their functioning. By the early 19th century, 75 percent of all shipping between Britain and the colonies that became Canada transited through the Gulf. In the last three decades, the Gulf has emerged as an area of vital concern and contestation around matters such as the closing of the cod fishery in 1992; the 1999 Canadian Supreme Court decision in R. v. Marshall to acknowledge Indigenous fishing rights (and which started with an eel fishing incident on the Gulf coast of Nova Scotia); and the growing endangerment of marine life from industrialization, overfishing, and extreme environmental changes, including hypoxia and plastic waste. Yet, the peripheral place of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in social science and humanities scholarship, that traditionally inform our contemporary social and legal institutions, has hampered the knowledge creation that can facilitate these important discussions.
“Ecologies, Knowledge, and Power in the Gulf of St. Lawrence Region, c.1500-present” focuses on the Gulf as a region in its own right rather than a periphery of, or a throughfare to, other places.
Environmental historians began to address this scholarly lacuna with the publication of edited collections in 2013 and 2020, and we are pleased to announce “Ecologies, Knowledge, and Power in the Gulf of St. Lawrence Region, c.1500-present,” a SSHRC-funded collaborative project that we are co-leading and which involves over 30 collaborating scholars. It focuses on the Gulf as a region in its own right rather than a periphery of, or a throughfare to, other places. By combining analytic elements from both of our work, we asked whether the Gulf of St. Lawrence constitutes a distinct spatial system and how the marine environment shaped it:
- What can we learn with a geospatial approach to studying the Gulf?
- How did the long-term projection of outside power into the Gulf region shape the diverse human communities around it?
- How did the pronounced seasonality of that external power projection, both economic and jurisdictional and absent over the winter, affect the permanent communities around the Gulf?
- How did those diverse cultural communities utilize the environment for life’s necessities?
- Can we apply geospatial analysis to the acquisition and distribution of food and energy in the region?
- How did communities interact with other long-term residents of the Gulf?
Through asking these questions and applying recently developed digital collections as evidence, we began to explore a new conceptual model that we hope will explain this region over the long run and also apply to other multi-jurisdiction marine and coastal environments. The model emphasizes the Gulf’s cultural complexity, its seasonal centrality to outside extractive interests, most particularly for the fishery, and its predominantly peripheral status in the governmental power arrangements of European empires and settler societies, except for when those outside power brokers negotiated access to Gulf resources or safe transit through the Gulf. With this Gulf-centric approach, we and our collaborators hope to contribute to two broad areas of scholarship that are relevant to Canadian environmental scholarship and global studies.
The first is the importance of local and Indigenous knowledge systems (LINKS in UNESCO terms), their relationship to political and economic power systems, and their complexity in the Gulf. Dynamic LINKS have long been in play in the Gulf, and we offer three examples of their historic importance. Our first is Indigenous. The great arc of land and water from the Gaspé to Newfoundland is the unceded and unsurrendered territory of Mi’kmaki, with Mi’kmaw communities throughout the Gulf region except for along the Quebec and Labrador coasts, which are traditional Innu and Inuit territories, respectively. A Gulf-centric perspective that highlights the water as much as the land, makes the unity of Mi’kmaki strikingly prominent. Over the last two hundred years, settler governments have exploited Mi’kmaw knowledge to move about Mi’kmaki, and up the rivers that flow through it, while actively trying to suppress Mi’kmaw culture and language, and to break apart the centuries-, if not millennia-long governing system of Mi’kmaki.
Our second example is Acadian, and a growing recognition that an “Acadian Gulf” existed since at least the early 18th century. Acadians in the Gulf predated the arrival of refugee Acadians deported by the British from around the Bay of Fundy beginning in 1755, and both the French and British militaries used Acadian geospatial knowledge of the Gulf to wage the Seven Years War (1754/56-1763). Acadians still maintain networks of family and associates, a mari-centric ethnic system reaching from the Gaspé in Quebec to St. Pierre and Miquelon just outside the Gulf’s southeastern side.
This project seeks to add to scholarship on the important roles local and Indigenous knowledges have played in the Gulf of St. Lawrence region for centuries.
The third example is from the 19th century when predominately Gaelic settlements on Prince Edward Island and the neighbouring shores of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia farmed the rich soils and forests of the Southern Gulf, building both farms and the wooden ships that could transport food and fuel internally within the Gulf system. By applying a social ecological metabolism approach to the entire region (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl 2015), we see aspects of an internal system of Gulf trade in food and energy that allowed communities to persist around the basin. While the legacies of the trade networks are harder to identify on the Gulf’s 21st-century land- and seascapes, the cultural and familial networks of the Mi’kmaq, Acadians, and Scots are among the most prominent of many local knowledge networks. This project seeks to add to scholarship on the important roles local and Indigenous knowledges have played in the Gulf of St. Lawrence region for centuries.
The second broad area of investigation involves the jurisdictional complexity of the Gulf where terrestrial and marine governance intersect. Famously, when Donald Marshall, a Mi’kmaq, was arrested in 1993 for catching eels out of season on the Gulf coast of Nova Scotia, he argued that his right to fish was not regulated by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, but by the Peace and Friendship Treaties the Mi’kmaq first signed with the British in 1725. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Marshall’s contention; Indigenous jurisdiction took precedence over Canada’s. Jurisdictional complexity is integral to the Gulf’s history over the last 500 years and central to state formation, both provincially and federally. The first major acts of intercolonial cooperation in British North America involved the Gulf, first an intercolonial agreement to fund the maintenance and staffing of lighthouses and rescue stations on Scatarie and St. Paul Islands on the route into the Gulf, if the imperial government paid the initial costs to build them. This action required colonies to consider how to extend their land-based governing powers to include shared marine concerns. An intercolonial postal system and joint marine patrols against American incursions in the Gulf’s inshore fishery soon followed. This inter-jurisdictional cooperation on Gulf concerns shaped colonial, provincial, imperial and federal state formation in Canadian history (Tingley and Mancke, 2022). The 1864 meeting in Charlottetown, which led to Confederation, was anchored in cooperation over Gulf concerns. Greater scholarly awareness of the diverse territorial and marine jurisdictions in the Gulf, their historical origins, their continued relevance, and the ways in which they drew on or attempted to suppress local and Indigenous knowledge systems, will be vital for academics and policymakers alike.
Greater scholarly awareness of the diverse territorial and marine jurisdictions in the Gulf, their historical origins, their continued relevance, and the ways in which they drew on or attempted to suppress local and Indigenous knowledge systems, will be vital for academics and policymakers alike.
The above two foci will also have relevance for two wide-ranging fields of scholarship with relevance to environmental history: one is the large and growing body of work on governance of commons, especially as articulated by Elinor Ostrom (Ostrom, 2015; Pérez-García and de Sousa, 2018); the second is histories centered on marine space (Rozwadowski, 2018). Rather than assume that the Gulf economy was purely extractive, we examine the region through the lens of social ecological metabolism and the commons. We consider the region as littoral space, where internal “flows” of energy, materials, and knowledge across land and sea were as significant as resource extraction. The Gulf continues to be a vitally important marine commons to Canada and in the North Atlantic. We begin by developing a bibliography of relevant scholarship from the region’s impressive canon and by meeting to workshop preliminary papers. We also plan to build on some of the extensive new digital resources for environmental history, including recently established legislative, cartographic, and census datasets, as well as expertise in the region’s life writing, newspapers, and other more qualitative collections. We feel this project could make important contributions to those global fields of scholarship, but first it involves establishing a foundation of Gulf-centric scholarship on Canada’s eastern marine commons and the history of its shared governance.
Our conceptualization of the Gulf of St. Lawrence resulted from ongoing discussions among many scholars, in particular Jesse Coady, Matthew Hatvany, Margot Maddison-MacFadyen, Stephanie Pettigrew, Andy Post, Natasha Simon, Zachary Tingley, and Richard Yeomans. While our academic appointments as Canada Research Chairs at the University of Prince Edward Island and the University of New Brunswick, respectively, provide the privilege of being co-applicants and co-leaders on this project, much of its intellectual vitality comes from our collaborators, many of them emerging scholars. This post is their intellectual achievement as much as ours.
Fischer-Kowalski, Marina and Helmut Haberl. “Social Metabolism: A Metric for Bio- physical Growth and Degrowth,” In: Handbook of Ecological Economics. Joan Martinez-Alier, ed. (Edward Elgar Publishing, Sept. 2015), pp. 100–138. doi: 10.4337/9781783471416.00009.
Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Pérez-García, Manuel, and Lúcio de Sousa, eds. Global History and New Polycentric Approaches: Europe, Asia and the Americas in a World Network System. Palgrave Studies in Comparative Global History. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Rozwadowski, Helen M. Vast Expanses: A History of Oceans. London: Reaktion, 2018.
Tingley, Zachary and Elizabeth Mancke. “Intercolonial Cooperation and the Building of St. Paul Island and Scatarie Island Lighthouses, 1826-1840.” Acadiensis 51, no. 2 (Autumn/automne 2022), 60-90.