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Manitoba History: Book Review: Neil S. Forkey, Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century

by C. J. Taylor
Ottawa, Ontario

Number 71, Winter 2013

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Canada is a big place and the history of its peoples’ relation to their environment is a big topic. Its spaces have inspired explorers, geographers, poets, painters, scientists and policy makers. Communities have been defined by their relation to the land or sea, from First Nations to Newfoundland fishing villages and prairie farms. Then, as now, exploitation of the country’s natural resources has been a mainstay of the economy, including fisheries, mining, lumbering and agriculture; and, thus, the wise use and protection of these resources has preoccupied governments, industry and special interest groups over the years.

While the environment has been an important theme throughout the writing of Canadian history, articles and books on environmental history have flourished in recent years. Some North American scholars have written about conservation policies relating to national parks, wildlife and fisheries. Others have focussed on particular geographic features. In the United States, there are organizations and journals devoted to environmental history, while in Canada the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE) provides a roomy umbrella for the people of diverse disciplines studying and writing on this topic. And the topics are diverse. Some look at specific industries, such as mining or fishing, and others are critical examinations of conservation programs such as the Canadian Wildlife Service or national parks. Some look at policies that have excluded Aboriginal peoples from their traditional environments; others seek to understand the nature of diminishing resources. So, to try to cover this topic in 125 pages of text is a formidable, some might say impossible, task.

The problems of this book are many: too little space, too little discussion, not sufficient balance of source material. First, the author has to rush by too many events and ideas with insufficient information or analysis. In the first chapter, entitled “The Classification of Canada’s Environments (1600s to early 1900s),” the reader is presented with a dizzying succession of facts and ideas. Sub-headings are given as “First Encounters with the Land” (p. 5), “Physical Changes: Pathogens, Wildlife, Plants and Fish” (p. 10), “Natural Science Develops” (p. 16), ”Toward an Early Ecological Understanding”(p. 20), “Scientific Understanding in Support of the State” (p. 23), and “Interpreting Darwin.” (p. 28) Such compression of information sends too many facts whizzing by the reader with insufficient or no explanation. The important institution of the Geological Survey of Canada is barely explained. The Department of the Interior with its mighty Forest and Lands Branches and the Dominion Lands Survey is not mentioned at all. And, more important from the reader’s perspective, reading this succession of facts and opinions becomes mind-numbing. There is little to visualize. People and ideas are not grounded with examples. There are no maps, or illustrations.

Perhaps realizing the problems with treating so much in so little space, the author offers a way out by promising to focus on principal ideas and issues: “This modest-sized text covers over four hundred years of Canadian history. Necessity dictates that there be a compression of data and a distillation of material. The emphasis here is clearly on presenting the main ideas, illustrated by strong examples, in the most efficient and economical manner.” (p. 4)

But here, too, the author is unable to treat ideas of environmental history either clearly or in a wellrounded manner. In the chapter “Economic Growth and Conservation,” for example, he introduces the “commons,” meaning a place that is not privately-owned, such as Crown land, and distinguishes between continental, national and local interests in these areas. He takes the side of the local, concluding: “As we have seen in numerous examples from this chapter, conservation measures and multipleuse development came most often at the expense of local residents.” (pp. 66-7) In this, he seems too influenced by recent Canadian journal articles that indicate the exclusion of First Nations and lower-class people from provincially or federally administered Crown lands or fisheries. These articles provide a necessary corrective to the earlier assumptions about the progressive nature of the early 20th-century conservation measures. But they do not invalidate what legislators were trying to do, which was to stop the widespread waste of resources and degradation of the environment through unfettered capitalism and local opportunism. This “tragedy of the commons”—where individuals’ hunt for short-term gain undermines the communities’ long-term survival—is underemphasized in this chapter. [1] Missing, too, are examples of where local and wider environmental objectives coincide, ideas expressed by Stan Rowe, [2] an author ignored in this book.

There are numerous gaps, which will annoy those with any knowledge of the subject. The author tends to emphasize central Canada; the West and the North get short shrift. Readers of this journal may wonder how the author could omit reference to Peter Lorenz Neufeld’s “Bison Conservation: the Canadian Story” [3] and instead present a garbled account of wood bison and the origin of national parks. (p. 81) As a former British Columbian, I wonder how he can mention Martin Allerdaile Grainger, the second head of the BC Forest Service, and omit H. R. Macmillan, the first and enormously important head of the provincial forest branch, or give space to Roderick Haig-Brown and not mention Ian McTaggart Cowan, Canada’s first professor of ecology. Ignored is the very significant First Nations participation in the west coast fishery through organizations like the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia and the Northern Native Fishing Corporation, as well as the participation of First Nations groups in the trapping industry, such as Quebec’s Cree Trapping Association or the Iqaluit Qikiqtaaluk Wildlife Board.

Too much jumbled information and an unsteady focus on ideas doom this expedition into a challenging field.


1. There is extensive literature on this subject, largely stemming from Garret Hardin’s seminal article “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science vol. 162 (13 December 1968), 1243–1248.

2. Stan Rowe, Home Place: Essays on Ecology, Edmonton: NeWest, 1990.

3. Manitoba History, No. 24 (Autumn, 1992).

Page revised: 6 January 2018

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