CHESS is a Staple of Canadian Environmental History

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The is the first post in a short series of reflections from participants of the 16th Canadian History and Environmental History Summer School (CHESS). CHESS 2024 took place in Montreal from June 14-16. Forty scholars interested in environmental history gathered at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) to learn more about commodities, ports, and urban space. You can read the program here, including a link to the readings.

In 1931, Harold Innis argued that Canada’s history was dominated by the economic activity of those whose “[e]nergy has been directed toward the exploitation of staples products and the tendency has been cumulative.” This assertion was convincingly challenged in the 1980s and 1990s by scholars, such as Douglas McCalla and Marjorie Griffin Cohen.1

More recently, environmental historians have returned to this area of study by looking at the upstream and downstream consequences of commodity trades. They recast the issues in a set of broader frameworks, including colonialism, globalization, and the Anthropocene.

Central to recent attempts by environmental historians to better understand the history of commodities is the methodological approach of “new materialism,” which insists that history has been shaped by assemblages of human and non-human actors. To provide adequate explanations about the past, historians must attend to how people have always been entangled with microbes, geology, animals, climate, everyday objects, and commodities.2 An increased attention to commodity history has allowed scholars to contextualize the production, trade, and consumption of key goods, such as bananas, guano, coffee.3

Historians of Canada have explored the history of commodities, including fur, timber, wheat, and flax.4 Merchants shipped all of these commodities to Montreal before export to Liverpool, London, Bristol, and Glasgow. As Michèle Dagenais has shown, Montreal rebuilt its port facilities with these goals in mind.5

The introduction of environmental history perspectives has broadened the scope of the traditional “staples” approach to Canadian history, allowing historians to examine the context in which waged labourers and agrarian workers, participating in broader family-based economies, harvested the commodities and transported these through port infrastructures towards distant consumers.

CHESS 2024 started on June 14 with introductions and a group discussion about new materialism led by Andrew Watson, followed by a keynote talk by Kendra Smith-Howard, entitled: “Commodity History as a Guide to Citizen Action.”

Kendra Smith-Howard delivering the keynote talk at CHESS 2024. Photo courtesy Peter Fortna.

On June 15, the day began with participants playing a board game called “Homesteaders,” which was created by a team of researchers at the University of Saskatchewan led by Benjamin Hoy. The game is designed to teach players about the challenges of attempting to farm in southern Saskatchewan during the early 20th century by engaging with aspects of settler colonialism, global trade, environmental history, historical contingency, and Indigenous history. Jim Clifford, one of the game’s educational designers, explained the research that went into creating the game, walked players through the rules, and answered questions in a debriefing session at the end of the game.

Jim Clifford walking CHESS 2024 participants through “Homesteaders.” Photo courtesy Daniel Ross.

In the afternoon on June 15, participants learned about the social, economic, and environmental history of Montreal’s port, canals, industries, and urban spaces on a two-part walking tour. The first part was led by Catherine Paulin and Michèle Dagenais who took participants from the port and along the Lachine Canal to the St Gabriel Locks. The second part was led by Jean-Philip Mathieu who led the group from St. Gabriel Locks to the post-industrial neighbourhood of St. Henri.

Catherine Paulin starting the first part of the walking tour at Montreal port. Photo courtesy Daniel Ross.
CHESS 2024 participants walking past the Farine Five Roses Flour mill. Photo courtesy D. Bailey Clark.
Second part of CHESS 2024 walking tour concludes in St. Henri neighbourhood. Photo courtesy D. Bailey Clark.

June 16 brought participants back into the classroom for two sessions. The first featured short presentations on sources in Canadian commodity history by Jim Clifford, Colin Coates, Jodey Nurse, and Andrew Watson, followed by questions and discussion. The second session, led by Andrew Watson, split participants into four groups to debate the statement: “Be it resolved that the staples approach is important to Canadian environmental history in the 21st century.”

CHESS 2024 participants debating the staple theory. Photo courtesy Colin Coates.

CHESS 2024 was organized by  Colin Coates (Glendon College, York University), Jodey Nurse (McGill University), or Dan Ross (Université du Québec à Montréal), or Andrew Watson (University of Saskatchewan). The event was generously sponsored by Université du Québec à Montréal département d’histoire; the McGill University’s Dean of Arts Development Fund and Institute for the Study of Canada; York University’s Centre for Research and Innovation, Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, and Glendon College; the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of History; and the Network in Canadian History and Environment.


1 Innis, Harold. The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930): 388; Cohen, Marjorie Griffin. Women’s Work, Markets, and Economic Development in Nineteenth- Century Ontario. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988); McCalla, Douglas. Planting the Province: The Economic History of Upper Canada, 1784-1870. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).

2 LeCain, Timothy J. The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

3 Soluri, John. Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005); Cushman, Gregory T. Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); McCook, Stuart. Coffee is Not Forever: A Global History of the Coffee Leaf Rust. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2019).

4 Ray, Arthur J. Indians in the Fur Trade. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974); Wynn, Graeme. Timber Colony: A Historical Geography of Early Nineteenth Century New Brunswick. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981); Clifford, Jim et Stéphane Castonguay. “Les Hectares fantômes de l’industrialisation britannique et la forêt laurentienne, 1793-1900,” in Écrire l’histoire Environnementale Au XXe Siècle: Sources, Méthodes, Pratiques, dirs. Renaud Bécot et Stéphane Frioux. (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2022): 237–256; Clifford, Jim, and Stéphane Castonguay. “British Ghost Acres and Environmental Changes in the Laurentian Forest during the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of Historical Geography, Vol.78 (2022): 126-138; McInnis, Marvin. “The Changing Structure of Canadian Agriculture.” Journal of Economic History, Vol.42, no.1 (1982): 191-98; Magnan, André. When Wheat Was King: The Rise and Fall of the Canada-UK Grain Trade. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016); MacFadyen, Joshua. Flax Americana: A History of the Fibre and Oil That Changed a Continent. (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018).

5 Dagenais, Michèle. Montreal, City of Water: An Environmental History. trans. Peter Feldstein. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017).

Feature Image: Silo No. 5, Pointe-du-Moulin. Photo courtesy of Hannah Willness.
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Andrew is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. His current research includes the history of sustainability and tourism on the Canadian Shield in Muskoka, Ontario; the environmental, social, and economic history of coal in Canada; and the role of energy in shaping agroecosystems on the Great Plains of the United States. His first book, Making Muskoka: Tourism, Rural Identity, and Sustainability, 1870-1920, was published in 2022 with UBC Press.

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