Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century

Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century

Neil S. Forkey

Reviewed by Jonathan Clapperton

The field of Canadian environmental history has blossomed over the past two decades. Consequently, instructors of Canadian environmental history courses are becoming increasingly spoiled with good options to choose from for course readers. In all of this new scholarship, however, a short synthesis of Canadian environmental history was absent. Neil Forkey’s recent work, Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century, fills this much-needed gap.

Forkey has arranged his book chronologically, with each of the five chapters addressing what he interprets as the dominant theme in Canadian environmental history. His thesis: Canadians have always expressed competing desires to both exploit and protect natural resources. Chapter 1, spanning the 1600s to the early 1900s, provides an overview of how Canada came to be conceived as, and its economy reliant upon, a storehouse of fish, furs, timber, agriculture, minerals, and hydroelectric power. He also examines Canada’s importance as a place for scientific exploration and natural study. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the rise of conservation and preservation respectively. Forkey focuses on the emergence of a state-centred environmental regime, which includes the creation of parks and other protected areas, and the concomitant marginalization of “rural” and Aboriginal people from these places in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His discussion in Chapter 3 on the key differences between English (Anglo-Saxon) Canadian and French Canadian nature romanticism deserves to be highlighted; it adds a dimension to Canadian environmental history that is lacking in other readers, and is the most intriguing section of the book. Chapter 4 chronicles the history of the modern environmental movement in Canada. Arguably it overemphasizes the significance of literary writers such as Farley Mowat and Hugh MacLennan in spurring the movement, and pays too little attention to environmentalist organizations (perhaps reflecting the relative dearth of historical scholarship in this area) or government responses to environmental activism. Chapter 5 is dedicated to a short discussion on how Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals have cooperated in issues of the environment (e.g., the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Cree in beaver conservation), as well as to defending the important caveat that “modern environmentalism is replete with stories of dispossession and exclusion of Aboriginal peoples” (114). This latter argument is made through examples of the appropriation of Aboriginal identities via the “Ecological Indian,” as well as by highlighting the rifts that have emerged between environmentalists and First Nations during protest events.

Forkey’s book, part of the Themes in Canadian History Series, delivers on the series’ promise for titles to be accessible to non-specialist readers and to offer broad overviews of the main themes of particular topics. The book’s brevity also necessitates some unfortunate omissions. A discussion on environmental history methodology or theory is lacking, as is historiographical debate, though Forkey admits that this is beyond the scope of his work. That being said, one will find the most influential environmental historians in Canada, and many of those abroad, cited in his bibliography. The absence of maps or images -- two integral components of any introductory text -- is much more problematic. Nonetheless, in a classroom setting these shortcomings could easily be addressed by pairing Forkey’s work with either of two relatively recent edited collections: David Freehand Duke’s Canadian Environmental History: Essential Readings (2006) and Alan MacEachern and William J. Turkel’s Method and Meaning in Canadian Environmental History (2009). Forkey deserves credit for producing an engaging and jargon-free text that will appeal to students and that instructors can use as a foundation for introductory environmental history courses.

Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century
By Neil S. Forkey 
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. 158pp, $24.95 paper

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.

BC Studies 178 (Summer 2013)