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A Passion for Wildlife: The History of the Canadian Wildlife Service

Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada to 1940

By George Colpitts

Review By Darcy Ingram

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 142-143 Summer-Autumn 2004  | p. 318-21

IT’S BEEN SLOW GOING for environmental history in Canada, British Columbia included. Not that the environment doesn’t figure prominently in national and regional literatures; in fact, it looms large in Canadian historiography. Much of this work, though, approaches the non-human world indirectly, leaving Canadian environmental historians to turn for inspiration to the large body of American environmental literature. Colpitts’s Game in the Garden and Burnett’s A Passion for Wildlife will help to change this. Their shared focus on wildlife in Canada – Colpitts on western Canada from the fur trade to the Second World War, Burnett on the Canadian Wildlife Service (cws) from the Second World War on – alternately bring region and nation into focus as they explore continuity and change in the relationships between human and non-human animals. 

Both Colpitts and Burnett are conscious of the footsteps in which they follow, in particular those of Janet Foster, whose 1978 text Working for Wildlife: The Beginning of Preservation in Canada set the tone for work on wildlife in Canada. That said, Foster’s emphasis on the role of federal civil servants in the development of national wildlife policies in Canada highlights the lines that divide the two. Whereas Burnett picks up the threads of Foster’s text to offer a fiftieth-anniversary history of civil servants’ work with wildlife at the national level, Colpitts favours the local and regional over Foster’s institutional and federal overview. 

In fact, Burnett follows the scope and content of Working for Wildlife so closely that he opens himself to the same critique levelled at Foster: that the narrow and somewhat celebratory focus on civil servants and federal institutions passes too easily over the broader historical context. To dwell on this, though, would be to criticize Burnett for what he has not done, and at 331 pages A Passion for Wildlife does a lot. Using government documents and oral sources, including more than 120 interviews, Burnett sets out “to outline the broad themes and activities of cws to date and to capture, in a few highlighted examples, the passion to comprehend and conserve wildlife that has motivated most, if not all, of the men and women who have worked there” (288). 

In particular, it is this “passionate commitment” that A Passion for Wildlife exposes (288), Combining brief five-year summaries with longer thematic chapters, Burnett outlines the expansion of the cws from early enforcement and management duties into research and communications as “the enormous task of discovering and describing the natural resources of the second largest country in the world” (90) shifted “from a concentration on selected species to habitat conservation and the preservation of biodiversity” (291). Beginning with the cws’s work with birds, mammals, and fish, Burnett goes on to explore projects related to habitat, communications, toxicology, endangered species, and governance. This pattern of increasing complexity mirrors both the evolution of the cws and the views of the Canadian public, which, Burnett argues, by the 1990s “had all but abandoned the historical view of wildlife as a resource for hunters and anglers” in light of a new set of environmental attitudes related to concerns such as “air quality, pollution, climate change, and endangered species” (254). 

The devotion and intimacy displayed by cws employees in their work is particularly striking in accounts of field research, as in the case of one researcher who found himself applying artificial respiration for hours to an over-tranquilized polar bear (by lifting the bear’s fur to collapse and expand its lungs) (114-15) or the three decades’ devotion of another to heron preservation (230-6). It is through this kind of dedication, found repeatedly among cws employees and expressed at local, national, and international levels, that Burnett challenges the “unflattering assumption among many Canadians that theirs is a bland country” (295). “On the contrary,” he argues, “few nations in the twentieth century have been more ready to embrace largeness of vision in the definition and stewardship of their identity and heritage, or to take bold intellectual risks in the process” (ibid.). 

By contrast, Colpitts’s focus on western Canada emphasizes social and environmental dynamics over the national dynamics that have shaped human attitudes and practices regarding wildlife. Working with a range of archival materials, including newspapers, corporate and government sources, and the premise that ‘”wild’ animals are appreciated differently according to historical circumstances” (4), Colpitts sets out “to identify early ideas about wild animals and a wider western context of hunting, conservation, and preservation history” (11) and, in turn, to identify their relationship to modernity and, in particular, to a “Romantic legacy” that redefined the natural world and the animals that inhabited it (7). In doing this, he effectively maps the interpretive and material transformations regarding wildlife that occurred as the commercial and subsistence hunt of the fur trade gave way to agricultural settlement, sports hunting, and tourism in a west that succeeded in linking British Columbia and the Prairie provinces. 

From these contexts some striking observations emerge. Regarding the fur trade, Colpitts’s emphasis on the exchange of meat rather than fur broadens the picture of social and material relations as European traders facing periodic food shortages worked to establish supplies through long-distance supply, hunting, and, more important, food exchanges that brought them further into relations of dependency with their Aboriginal counterparts. Likewise, wildlife gained significant and multiple meanings with regard to agriculture. Read as a sign of the region’s productivity and the extent of its northern agricultural limits, the west’s superabundant wildlife population was simultaneously interpreted as a phenomenon that was to pass as the western wilderness gave way to a new, progressive agricultural order. Such perspectives did not always fit with the experiences of early settlers, who continued to find wild game a necessary supplement to farming. As a result, conservation measures in the west differed significantly from those found in central and eastern Canada, where an international clientele of sports hunters worked to shut down subsistence and commercial use of game. In western Canada the commercial trade in wild meat continued to play an important role in the western diet well into the twentieth century. When conservation, preservation, and sports hunting did become issues of concern, Colpitts argues, respondents sought not only to curtail the destruction of game but also to retain local control of shrinking wildlife resources. 

If Game in the Garden has a weakness, it is its brief handling of the larger conceptual apparatus it employs. Colpitts argues persuasively that the division between “wild” and “domesticated” animals continues to hinder the spread of ecologically based interpretive models, but his exploration of such slippery terms as “modernity” and “Romanticism” would benefit from further elaboration. Likewise, his assertion that the problems westerners and others face regarding wildlife rest not in shortfalls regarding conservation strategies but, rather, “in trying to move the human mind beyond the dated conception of wildlife as a resource to be ‘managed’, ‘husbanded’, ‘harvested’, or preserved”‘ (13) is difficult to entertain without some assistance, given the current material relationship of humans to these creatures and their habitats and in light of the stress he places on the relationship between ideas and their material contexts. 

Finally, do these works tell us anything about British Columbia? Obviously, Colpitts’s “unapologetically anthropocentric” focus speaks more closely to questions of ethnicity, culture, region, and environment in the west than does Burnett’s national and institutional focus (11). Yet Burnett’s study, too, helps to place British Columbia both within a national wildlife strategy with international implications and within a regional context where local social and environmental factors display contours of their own. Given the relatively untapped fields they explore, these works should be of interest not only to those pursuing the history of wildlife in Canada but also to anyone trying to make sense of the past as it relates to conservation, preservation, and environmental concerns in northern North America.