I approached a group of scholars who teach and/or write about Canadian nature and history, asking them to select and discuss a work that would help people get to know our field. It could be a book, an article, a chapter, a collection, a blogpost, a documentary, a whatever. It could be a classic in the field or a hidden gem. It could be the work of a Canadian or a non-Canadian. The only real stipulation was that it involve this place that has become Canada. (Oh, and it couldn’t be a work of their own!)
Fifteen scholars took me up on the invitation, offering fourteen titles (two people spoke up for the same work). Plus, five of the authors squeezed in a second, “if not that, this” recommendation. The nineteen total selections below offer a compelling introduction to the field. As a crash course should, they cover a wide range of eras (from time immemorial to the twenty-first century), regions (from sea to sea to sea, as they say), and topics (from natural disasters to environmental justice). More importantly, the testimonials by these writers and educators explain why the works are meaningful and valuable to those who know the field. Take a look.
Is the resulting list exhaustive? ‘Course not. One motivation for this exercise was to generate some good old-fashioned mild Canadian indignation at what’s missing. That’s what the Comment bar at the bottom of the page is for. Feel free to engage with the scholars who volunteered their choices, but also tell us what’s in your Canadian environmental history crash course.
I was a graduate student in Canadian history at Queen’s University in 1979-80 when I first read this book. It was not on any of the reading lists, but it should have been.
In 1870, Butler was sent to western Canada to get more intelligence about Louis Riel and the Red River Rebellion, one of the seminal moments in early Canadian history. The description of his meeting with Riel was remarkable, as was his report to the Canadian government. Butler insisted that Canada could do better than the United States in its treatment of indigenous people.
That recommendation, and his vivid descriptions of the so-called “Great Lone Land” stood in sharp contrast to the staid picture of Canada that we got from the books written by revered historians such as Donald Creighton. “Indians,” the word used to describe indigenous people back then, were often referred to as “tribes” that peacefully surrendered their original title to land in exchange for living on reserves. The Inuit did not exist, and the Métis were usually quickly dispatched in a few pages with the hanging Riel.
When I asked my thesis supervisor, a biographer of a Canadian prime minister, whether I might research and write about some aspect of land claims and Indigenous rights, he took me aside and told me that it was “a passing fad” that would do my future career poor service.
What also set Butler’s book apart is its description of place and people, the climate and changing seasons, and the impact that disease and declining bison had on the indigenous people of the West. I never get tired of reading this book.
Edward Struzik is a writer and research fellow at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy in the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. He is also a regular contributing writer for Yale Environment 360, an international online journal offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues.
In The Fur Trade in Canada, as well as his many other works, the economist Harold Innis (along with other scholars) developed approaches that would come to be heralded as important meta-theories of Canadian historiography: namely, the staples and metropolitan-hinterland theses. Canada’s concentration on exporting “staples” – fur, fish, lumber, wheat, minerals, etc. – to the metropolitan economies of Europe and the United States (and then later from the peripheries of Canada to its metropolitan centres) had, Innis contended, exerted a powerful influence on the country’s historical evolution. So much so that Innis famously described Canada as a “hewer of wood, drawer of water.” This emphasis on the exploitation of natural resources figured prominently in subsequent Canadian historical writing, long before environmental history had emerged as a discernible academic approach. The impact of The Fur Trade in Canada,along with Innis’s other efforts, is apparent in the work of the early generations of Canadian environmental historians; the legacy of Innis’s arguments, at least to my mind still, still shapes many key debates and approaches in contemporary Canadian environmental history (as well as the ongoing cross-fertilization between that field and historical geography). Moreover, by finding expression in key works such as William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, those meta-theories are perhaps Canada’s biggest contribution to international environmental history.
Daniel Macfarlane is an Associate Professor in the School of Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University.
Martin Defalco and Willie Dunn, directors, The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 1972.
The Other Side of the Ledger is useful in the classroom for a number of reasons. Released in 1972 as a critical counterpart to official celebrations of the Hudson’s Bay Company 300th anniversary, the film offers a long-term accounting for the consequences of the global fur trade, with focus on the experiences of Indigenous peoples in northern North America. Narrated by George Manuel, then-president of the National Indian Brotherhood (antecedent of the contemporary Assembly of First Nations), the film reflects 1960s and 1970s efforts by Indigenous peoples to secure recognition of the harms associated with resource exploitation, industrial capitalism, and settler colonialism. The film helps students connect the historic Hudson’s Bay Company with its modern incarnation as a retailing corporation, and it offers a powerful illustration of how contemporary efforts to address historic wrongs can involve understanding the past in new ways. I’ve found that students respond particularly well to the film’s opening scenes, which capture key moments from official celebrations of the HBC’s anniversary, including rainy community choir performances and the presentation of two live beaver to Queen Elizabeth II. (Please note that the film includes outdated terminology and addresses difficult topics in blunt ways.)
Shannon Stunden Bower is an associate professor in the History program at the University of Alberta.
Judith Fingard, “The Winter’s Tale: The Seasonal Contours of Pre-Industrial Poverty in British North America, 1815-1860,” Historical Papers/Communications historiques, 1974.
Fingard’s article may not be environmental history per se, but it is significant to the field, as it is one of the first historical articles that critically examined the impact that winter had on people in what we now call Canada. The article emphasizes the seasonal nature of unskilled labour in British North America, demonstrating the difficulties that urban poor experienced during the winter, how they adapted to those conditions, and how their wealthier counterparts tried to assist them. Some of the article’s themes include fuel, food, and sickness – all relevant topics to environmental historians, too.
The article inhabits a unique place in Canadian historiography. Those outside of Canadian (environmental) history may be surprised to learn that winter – what many consider to be a defining feature of Canada – has not been a primary topic of historical analysis in this country. Winter has certainly been present in the literature, but more as a backdrop for history. Fingard foregrounded winter and seasonality in a way that other Canadianists were not doing at that time. Still one of the few historical articles on winter in Canada, Fingard’s piece is an important read for those interested in the topic.
And if not that, this:
Tina Adcock, “A Cold Kingdom,” Network in Canadian History & Environment blog, 2016.
Tina Adcock’s post shows how historical work on winter has evolved since Fingard’s piece. While winter remains an underexplored topic in Canadian environmental historiography, Adcock’s compilation demonstrates how the literature has grown. It connects to a wide array of articles and is a great and accessible entry point for those seeking to learn about the state of winter-based studies in Canada in the mid-2010s.
Blake Butler received his PhD from Western University in 2023. His research primarily focuses on winter-based histories in Canada. He is currently a historical researcher with Know History.
Lloyd Tataryn, Dying for a Living: The Politics of Industrial Death, 1979.
Dying for a Living is a crucial work linking the history of Canadian environmentalism to the politics of industrial disease. The book is not a work of history, but it contains powerful accounts of workplace pollution controversies in Canadian history, including radiation exposure at Elliot Lake, arsenic pollution in Yellowknife, and asbestos-related diseases at the Thetford mines.
Canadian environmental historians have not paid as much attention as our U.S. counterparts to occupational health activism as an expression of environmentalism. Lloyd Tataryn was at the forefront of the movement in the 1970s. As a producer for CBC’s As it Happens, he broke the story of Yellowknife’s arsenic pollution in 1974, and then helped organize a grassroots arsenic testing program among mine workers and in the affected Dene communities. In 1976, he wrote an important article in Saturday Night on the brewing radiation exposure scandal in the uranium mines at Elliot Lake. Three years later he helped end the practice of dousing miners with aluminum powder (supposedly to prevent silicosis) through an exposé on the CBC’s Fifth Estate. Dying for a Living is a powerful summary of Tataryn’s journalism and activist work. It deserves to be read as a significant historical document, just as Alice Hamilton’s Exploring the Dangerous Trades has been canonized by environmental historians in the United States.
If you are looking for a more scholarly work on occupational health activism in Canada, van Horssen’s A Town Called Asbestos is an excellent place to begin. Among many themes, the book highlights the fact that workers’ resistance to asbestos exposure was at the core of the 1949 strike at the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec, and not so much the politics of the Quiet Revolution, as Pierre Trudeau and others have argued.
John Sandlos is a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where he teaches Canadian and environmental history.
At the end of the summer in 2007 I found Claire Campbell’s Shaped by the West Wind in Parry Sound Books. I was also just a few days away from starting my first year in the PhD History program at York University. Little did I know that not only would this book end up on my comprehensive exams reading list, but it would become formative in my own research and my understanding of Canadian environmental history.
There are few landscapes more evocative of Canadian national identity than the rugged, wind-swept shores of Georgian Bay. In their art, Tom Thomson, A.Y. Jackson, and other members of the Group of Seven, captured early twentieth century notions of wilderness in ways that reflected how the environment shaped the social, cultural, and economic lives of the people who lived in Canada. The brilliance of Campbell’s book is that Shaped by the West Wind accomplishes the same thing by providing an interpretation of Canadian history, which argues that cultural understandings of landscape and lived experiences of environment are always intertwined and mutually-constitutive. At the same time, places along shore of Georgian Bay have been both sites of dangerous work and rural living, as well as imaginative spaces where visitors sought adventure and recuperation. Canadian environmental history has been shaped by Campbell’s work just as Canadians living along Georgian Bay were shaped by the west wind. It also happens to be the first volume in the Nature|History|Society series, edited by Graeme Wynn, with UBC Press.
Andrew Watson is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. His first book, Making Muskoka: Tourism, Rural Identity, and Sustainability, 1870-1920 was published in 2022 with UBC Press.
Stephen Hornsby, British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America, 2005.
Stephen Hornsby will tell you quite resolutely that he is an historical geographer, not an environmental historian; but it’s important to recognize that environmental history in Canada owes much to historical geography, as the study of past geographies and changes in landscapes over time. And as a British expatriate, educated in Canada, who spent most of his career in Maine, Hornsby is appositely placed to consider how Canada took shape in the wider Atlantic world. British Atlantic, American Frontier shuttles up and down the eastern seaboard and into the pays d’en haut through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, taking care to acknowledge social, political, economic, and environmental factors that shaped distinct regions in the British-American world from the Caribbean to Hudson’s Bay.
I teach some part of this book every year; it’s a fantastic way to situate the northern part of North America in larger and varied patterns of commodity networks, rural settlement and urban plans, imperial design, and colonial identity – a reminder of the material and ideological geographies that predate our national borders. It’s also an immensely readable, evocative, invitation to learn more about the origins of the landscapes we now inhabit. It’s a book that got me genuinely excited about the colonial era.
And if not that, this:
Jason Hall, “Maliseet Cultivation and Climatic Resilience on the Wəlastəkw/St. John River during the Little Ice Age,” Acadiensis, 2015.
A wonderful glimpse of climate history set along one of Canada’s most important rivers. The article explores Maliseet strategies and adaptations which made farming possible in a colder period, and which created an intervale landscape later occupied by European colonists.
Claire Campbell is a professor of history and environmental studies at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. She writes about the coast and misses the Maritimes.
Parr’s Sensing Changes charts Canadians’ intimate engagement with local environments through sensory experiences. Examining six case studies – mostly focusing on megaproject development in postwar Canada, ranging from the construction of a military base in New Brunswick to the damming of the Columbia River in British Columbia – Parr explores how people gain sensory knowledge about places they inhabit or work in, and how that knowledge helps to tie their identity to place. The book demonstrates how sudden and significant disruptions to place can thus lead to similar disruptions to identity and the way people sense their environment. Sensing Changes both provides an overview of some fascinating historical projects and offers a lot to think about how we come to know our environments and cope with environmental change.
This is a book that I find myself bringing up in conversations with folks outside of academia, and without exception people find it intriguing and often relatable. People who have moved from one region of the country to another (or from another country altogether) can often identify with that intimate connection to place born of sensory experience. Sensing Changes thus articulates something that many people feel but may not otherwise be able to explain.
Justin Fisher studies and teaches about Canadian and environmental history at the University of Saskatchewan. His doctoral research focuses on the 1970s energy crisis.
Although she doesn’t use the language of solastalgia, Joy Parr’s Sensing Changes historicizes and deepens that idea. Coined by Glenn Albrecht in 2005, solastalgia expresses the grief that arises when environments are transformed beyond recognition – a form of psychological distress when home no longer is. The twentieth-century megaprojects that make up the case studies in Parr’s book are exemplars, anticipating the impacts of global heating, of change on scales enormous and intimate that help us to understand bodies, through time, as they experience changing places. Sensing Changes crosses the country – from Gagetown, New Brunswick, through the Great Lakes, to the Columbia River and in so doing crosses paths with other indispensable Canadian environmental historiography – all while attending to work, homelife, and gender. In each case study, “the challenges to senses of self in place were different.” (79) I pull Sensing Changes off my shelf regularly – to share with students and to revisit the uncertain smellscapes of the Bruce Nuclear site on the shores of Lake Huron; I find there is still much to learn from this book about sensory, embodied environmental histories of modern Canada. The accompanying Megaprojects New Media site hosts excellent resources, although it is currently “under Re-Construction.”
Liza Piper, a specialist in the environmental histories of northern and western Canada, is the author of When Disease Came to this Country: Epidemics and Colonialism in Northern North America (2023).
Brittany Luby, “From Milk-medicine to Public (Re)Education Programs: An Examination of Anishinabek Mothers’ Responses to Hydroelectric Flooding in the Treaty# 3 District, 1900–1975,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, 2015.
I considered suggesting early forest histories, including Arthur Lower, Sandra Gillis, and Graeme Wynn. These authors were writing in a period before many historians were identifying as environmental historians. Still, their research remains incredibly useful, even a century after Lower started his work on Canadian forest history as a Ph.D. student at Harvard.
Instead, I’m going to suggest a remarkable article on the social and cultural consequences of Minamata disease in Ontario. Most Canadians are familiar with the history of Grassy Narrows, where industry dumped methylmercury into the river creating high levels of contamination. Luby’s home, at the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, located downriver from Kenora in northern Ontario, experienced a different form of industrial pollution. The pulp and paper mills overloaded the river with organic matter and the hydroelectric dams slowed the flow of water, reducing oxygen, changing the microbes in the river system, and resulting in mercury from the settlement biomagnifying through the food chain. Luby then uses oral histories to focus on the social and cultural response. White fish was important for lactating mothers and elevated mercury meant it became dangerous for babies. I assigned this article to first-year students the week after they read an article on the Minamata disaster in Japan. Students respond thoughtfully to the complex feedback loop between industry and natural systems and to the stories of increased hunger and cultural loss for the people of the Wabaseemoong Nations.
Jim Clifford is an environmental historian at the University of Saskatchewan who researches the environmental history of British urbanization and global commodities with an increased recent focus on Canadian timber and wheat.
George Colpitts, “Food Energy and the Expansion of the Canadian Fur Trade,” in R.W. Sandwell, ed., Powering Up Canada: A History of Power, Fuel, and Energy from 1600, 2016.
This terrific piece introduces the idea of “energy regimes” and the consequences of energy transitions. Energy regimes are historical periods defined by different combinations of fuels and “prime movers,” the things that convert fuel into work – like muscles, waterwheels, and steam engines for instance.
Colpitts argues the European fur trade in Canada ran on the muscle power of its indentured labourers. Boatmen and voyageurs paddled thousands of kilometres and portaged huge loads of trade goods and furs. But their meagre daily diet of corn, peas, and lard could only take them so far. Bringing more food on these lengthy canoe journeys wasn’t an option. Better their employees should starve than profits be reduced. And yet by the end of the eighteenth-century fur trade operations extended from Montreal and Hudson Bay north to the Arctic and west to the Pacific.
How? Human muscle remained the prime mover of the trade. But that muscle came to be powered by a new fuel produced by Indigenous people: pemmican. A combination of pounded, dried bison meat and fat, sometimes with dried berries, pemmican was far more energy dense: a single pound of it had double the caloric energy of dried Indian corn.
Changing fuels allowed Europeans to extend their commercial frontier across northern North America. In that sense, bison – as pemmican – fueled the beginnings of colonization and their own demise.
Tina Loo is a professor of history at the University of British Columbia, with interests in environmental and legal history.
Incisive and emotive, this documentary showcases contemporary seal hunting in the Canadian Arctic, its vitality to Inuit well-being, and the harm that anti-sealing campaigns have caused Inuit communities and economies since the 1970s. Angry Inuk skewers the misinformation that animal welfare and environmental organizations disseminate about the commercial seal hunt in Canada. This activity now rests on small-scale Inuit hunting across the North, rather than the large-scale killing of harp seals off Newfoundland’s shores. Yet anti-sealers’ continued focus upon the latter led to successive bans on the sale of sealskin products in the European Union. The collapse of global markets for these products has exacerbated the effects of colonialism in northern Canada, including food insecurity, poverty, and high rates of suicide. Most people only know what anti-sealing advocates have said about this hunt. Here, Inuit speak, and the camera sweeps into their homes, over their homeland, and alongside them as they travel south to educate qallunaat (non-Inuit) about their relationships with seals. Angry Inuk demonstrates that many qallunaat come to care about the plight of Inuit, the more they know. Others know well their plight, but don’t care. I hope new viewers will join the first group by film’s end.
And if not that, this:
Willeen Keough, “Newfoundland Landsmen Sealing: Interrogating the Limits of Ecomasculinity in the Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries,” Acadiensis, 2021.
Keough’s article gives voice to settlers involved in the commercial seal hunt in contemporary Newfoundland. Like the Indigenous hunters profiled in Angry Inuk, these rural harvesters understand their work as ethical and sustainable. It arises out of and nourishes local cultural, economic, and social sensibilities of long standing and value.
Tina Adcock researches and teaches Canadian, Arctic, and environmental history at Simon Fraser University. She co-edited Made Modern: Science and Technology in Canadian History (2018).
Ingrid Waldron, There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous & Black Communities, 2018.
There is a persistent and entirely unfounded myth that racism doesn’t exist in the same form or degree in Canada as it does in the United States. While its forms may be specific to place, the degree and severity of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism is not. Ingrid Waldron’s book takes aim at this particularly Canadian move to innocence and painstakingly describes how racism works to produce environmental risk and poor health outcomes for Black and Indigenous people in Nova Scotia. Waldron makes the case that “environmental racism is violence” (37), and that the disproportionate siting of environmentally harmful facilities in Black and Indigenous communities in Nova Scotia must be understood in the context of settler colonialism, racial capitalism, and slow violence. Rich in both theoretical and empirical analysis, and grounded in the story of the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities, and Community Health (ENRICH) community-based project that Waldron directed, There’s Something in the Water reveals the history and contemporary reality of environmental racism in Canada.
Alongside the book is an extremely valuable teaching tool in the ENRICH Project website, that includes GIS visualizations of the siting of hazardous facilities in racialized and working-class communities.
It’s hard to call a book that has had a documentary made about it – starring Elliot Page, no less – a “hidden gem.” But I do think it will be an important revelation for those who aren’t familiar with the history of racism in this country. For me, it’s a must read and one from which I learned a great deal.
And if not that, this:
Phillip Dwight Morgan, “Race, Privilege and the Canadian Wilderness,” The Walrus, 2019.
Morgan offers a compelling and important meditation on the ways in which racialization intersects with ideas about Canadian nature. This piece in The Walrus offers a beautifully rendered personal account that has big things to say about how notions of Canadian ‘wilderness’ hinge on race, exclusion, power.
Stephanie Rutherford is an Associate Professor in the Trent School of the Environment. Her research explores the intersections among political ecology, animal studies, and the environmental humanities.
My big sister, Heather Cameron, has an uncanny ability to pull out the best books in the pile. A textile artist – with an eye for meaningful text and a feel for transformative ideas – she has long provided me with my “must-read” book lists. My choice then for this assignment has to be The Nature of Canada edited by Colin Coates and Graeme Wynn. A book that feels compelling right from the way the pages turn between the thumbs and the gold lettering and fish, feather, and snowshoe imagery glint on its cover, this is one my sister actually mailed to me, though of course I already had a copy. Filled with the prose of many of Canada’s very best academic nature writers, including compasses of “the story” like Julie Cruickshank, this is a magnificent navigational aid to the field. And for continued adventures, each chapter is bookended with its own short essay on “references and further reading.” The rich contexts they weave hook into wider communities with interests in Canada’s environmental history, including my sister’s art world, when, for instance, Wynn describes Louis Nicolas’s Codex canadensis (@1700), and his imagined natures. Disorientation is also part of the historian’s toolkit and, believe it or not, here be unicorns.
Laura Jean Cameron is the author of Friend Beloved (2021), Openings (1997), co-author with John Forrester of Freud in Cambridge (2017) as well as the co-editor of Emotion, Place and Culture (2009) and Rethinking the Great White North (2011).
This is a Canadian “must read” for environmental historians. It focuses on a major event in early nineteenth century New Brunswick, an event vividly described by contemporaries. A long list of writers has mentioned the fire since then – from George Perkins Marsh to Annie Proulx, and almost anyone who has written about the province, including myself – but there has been almost no sustained analysis of it. MacEachern wondered why this is so. The result is a tale engagingly told and an inspiration for reflection on the changing ways in which history is made, remembered, and received.
There is much to be gleaned from MacEachern’s exemplary use of digital research tools to identify a great wealth of hitherto neglected material, ranging across historical and scientific literatures. Earlier generations would have had to spend lifetimes tracking down a fraction of them. There, of course, is part of the reason for the long neglect of the topic of the book. As MacEachern acknowledges, the power of digital research engines means that twenty-first century historians are “essentially starting over” – facing the opportunity of looking anew at every previously examined historical topic.
It would be remiss to conclude without complimenting MacEachern on the lively, engaging quality of his text. Here, too, this book poses an important question for aspiring and established historians. For whom do we write and how do we do it? Part of MacEachern’s answer in these pages is to be yourself and be honest. I have relished Alan’s love of wordplay for years, so it is no surprise to find his exercise in dendrochronology described as “boring history,” nor indeed, to discover that the chapter treating the fire itself is titled “Leafs vs Flames.”
Graeme Wynn is professor emeritus of geography at the University of British Columbia, president of the International Consortium of Environmental History Organization, and general editor of the Nature | History | Society series at UBC Press.
Latest posts by Alan MacEachern (see all)
- A Crash Course in Canadian Environmental History - January 18, 2024
- NiCHE @ 20 - November 20, 2023
- Job – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Sustainability & the Social, Western University - August 2, 2023
- Online Event – Firebreak: How the Maine-New Brunswick Border Defined the 1825 Miramichi Fire - May 17, 2023
- Storms of a Century: Fiona (2022) & Five (1923) - November 10, 2022
- Climate at the Speed of Weather - October 5, 2021
- Restricted Clientele! Everyday Racism in Canadian National Parks - September 9, 2020
- Material World: Exhibiting the Anthropocene - May 4, 2020
- CHESS 2020 ~ keep the dates! - October 4, 2019
- Well-Grounded - July 10, 2019