Jennifer Bonnell. Stewards of Splendour: A History of Wildlife and People in British Columbia. Victoria: Royal BC Museum, 2023.
Stewards of Splendour: A History of Wildlife and People in British Columbia dives into the contentious and often polarizing history of human relationships with wildlife in Canada’s western-most province. Taking as its scope the pre-1770s period of Indigenous land stewardship to the present, the book explores the ways that Indigenous communities, scientists, hunter-conservationists, and naturalists have contributed to and contested wildlife management practices in British Columbia. The book draws upon published primary sources, historical and scientific scholarship, government and ENGO reports, and over eighty original interviews with retired and active wildlife biologists, Indigenous leaders, hunters, conservation leaders, and naturalists. Across thirteen chapters, it examines the effects of rising scientific understanding and public appreciation for the province’s fish and wildlife and the gradual reclamation of land and management authority by First Nations.
Stewards of Splendour examines the effects of rising scientific understanding and public appreciation for the province’s fish and wildlife and the gradual reclamation of land and management authority by First Nations.
The book is the result of an unusual partnership with Wildlife, Habitat, and Species Recovery branch of the BC Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship. As I wrote in a December 2019 NiCHE blog post, Back to the Woods: This Time, Seeking Stories, there was some serendipity involved in reconnecting with a BC wildlife biologist for whom I had worked as a field assistant in the early 1990s. That reconnection led to a conversation about knowledge loss in the Wildlife Branch following a spate of recent retirements and the desire within the administration to document the history of wildlife work in the province, its successes, failures, and setbacks.
The branch’s desire for an expansive history, one that incorporated the activities and responses of actors within and outside of government, and a critical one, set me up from the beginning for a rich exploration of the issues and debates surrounding wildlife and wildlife habitat. I faced a steep learning curve. Beyond two seasons of field research in the 1990s and a professional interest in wildlife history, I knew little about the world of bag and creel limits, radiotelemetry and ungulate diseases, much less the difference between a California and a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep! As an outsider with some limited insider cred (my Vancouver-Island upbringing my calling card in interviews and branch presentations), I set out to learn and to listen.
Patience on the part of the Wildlife Branch director I reported to, combined with the halting effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic, allowed what was originally envisioned as a ninety-page report to expand into a 496 page book manuscript. 2020 morphed into 2022 with little to distinguish the days beyond sitting, and writing. The project became a welcome distraction through Toronto’s “longest-in-North-America” shut-down over the fall and winter of 2020-21. Regular, often daily correspondence with BC-based biologists, archivists, and librarians over that period and into the year of writing that followed kept me connected to the province and the people eager to see the project through to completion.
Several decisions and developments shaped the project in important ways. The decision to publish with the Royal BC Museum connected the book to an institution involved from its inception with wildlife research and education in the province. Its recent merger with the BC Archives meant I had access not only to the BCA’s vast collection of wildlife images, but also to the guidance of RBCM’s curator of art and images in locating suitable images and artworks from their collections. BC’s adoption of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in the same period, and associated changes to BCA’s image permissions policies, meant that any images with Indigenous content in the book—and there are many–required permission from the First Nation, and whenever possible, the family of people represented. This process of reaching out to First Nations across the province and requesting formal permissions took the better part of a year, but the conversations that resulted and the permissions, in every case, that were granted, greatly enriched the process of producing the book. Thanks in part to this process, the book will be making its way to First Nations’ libraries and resource centres across BC.
As a public-facing project with complicated institutional entanglements, the process of writing this book has been markedly different than other academic research projects I’ve undertaken.
As a public-facing project with complicated institutional entanglements, the process of writing this book has been markedly different than other academic research projects I’ve undertaken. The academic freedom and the intellectual property over the work that I was granted convinced me to set aside other work and try my hand. The community of interviewees and project supporters I gathered over the course of the research not only kept me going, but also shaped the content of the book with insights, tips, and intergenerational knowledge. This same community—a built-in audience of sorts—also made the project more challenging, as I wrestled with ways to recognize past actors and their contributions while at the same time placing them in their context of an overwhelmingly white, male profession of wildlife workers dwarfed in their decision-making power and political sway by the province’s lucrative resource industries.
The ways that women and Indigenous wildlife professionals, especially, have changed the approaches taken and the questions raised in wildlife conservation work in the province are the stories of the book’s final chapters. Here I point to the astonishing transfer of land and wildlife management authority from the Crown to First Nations that is taking place across the province and especially in the north (authority that in some parts of the province was never fully lost). The book concludes by highlighting the work of three “change-makers,” individuals whose efforts to protect and enhance wildlife habitat have embodied the possibilities of shared interests in wildlife as a pathway to reconciliation.
Feature Image: Monique (Basil) McKinnon smoking salmon at her smokehouse on Stuart Lake, Nak’azdli Reserve, 1971. Reprinted with permission from the Monique (Basil) McKinnon Family and Nak’azd’i Whut’en First Nation.
Latest posts by Jennifer Bonnell (see all)
- New Book – Stewards of Splendour: A History of Wildlife and People in British Columbia - November 8, 2023
- The Melville-Nelles-Hoffmann Lecture in Environmental History 2023 – Coping with Climate Change - September 19, 2023
- Back to the Woods: This Time, Seeking Stories - December 12, 2019
- 2018 Melville-Nelles-Hoffman Lecture in Environmental History - October 24, 2018
- Kate Brown to give 2018 Melville-Nelles-Hoffmann Lecture in Environmental History - February 13, 2018
- Cracks in the Pavement - October 19, 2017
- The Iinnii Initiative: Reintroducing Bison to Blackfoot Country - June 6, 2016
- Natural History for Historians? - March 28, 2016
- Lessons Learned from 18 Months of Trial-By-Fire Teaching - January 7, 2015
- Highway to Nowhere: The Don Valley Parkway and the Development of Toronto’s North-East - May 14, 2014