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Geography of British Columbia: People and Landscapes in Transition

By Brett McGillivray

Review By Ken Favrholdt

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 132 Winter 2001-2002  | p. 103-105

I was intrigued by this textbook and agreed to review it for two reasons: first, because it is more than fifteen years since I lived in British Columbia and I was keen to discover how the province had changed in that time; and second because introductory course textbooks with a regional focus like this one have not existed in British geography for many years (teaching and associated texts tend to be hewn by disciplinary sub-field, and with regional geography almost extinct, or by research specialism). The third edition of Capilano College Professor Brett McGillivray’s text takes a thematic approach to the geography of British Columbia, and stems, he notes, from calls from his students for more up to date information.

The text is comprised of sixteen chapters, a glossary and an index; and it is copiously illustrated, with over 200 maps, figures, tables, and other graphics. McGillivray starts with the idea of British Columbia as a “region of regions,” and then considers physical processes and environmental hazards (with an emphasis on climate change, floods, avalanches and forest fires). Yet the bulk of the book deals with the human geography of the province, with chapters on the Aboriginal and colonial past, nineteenth-century immigration and racism, and twentieth-century tourism and urbanisation. Befitting the character of British Columbia, eight of the chapters deal with the province’s resource economy and society (forestry, fishing, mining, energy, agriculture, water, resource communities and management) in the past and present.

This is an admirable textbook, and I would recommend it to students taking courses on the historical and contemporary geography of British Columbia in the highest terms. It is well-organised, clearly written (with the geographical and technical terminology deployed unpacked in the glossary), and elegantly produced by UBC Press. Each of the chapters provides an overview of the topic in question, alights in detail on recent developments, and has its own reference list (with many useful links to internet sources as well as academic material). McGillivray displays a wide-ranging and thorough knowledge of the province’s current travails, and traverses a range of complex issues in an open-minded and sensitive fashion.

I was not entirely convinced by the “region of regions” idea. British Columbia’s distinctiveness in relation to the rest of Canada is asserted more than it is demonstrated, and thorny questions about “Cascadia” (geographic similarities and differences between British Columbia, Washington and Oregon) are brushed to one side. Anyhow, McGillivray takes a predominantly thematic approach and the text excels in its detailed coverage of regional variations in economic, environmental, social, political and technological dynamics, and how various geographical issues (of location, diffusion, migration, and time-space compression) have and continue to influence such dynamics. The intricate and fraught interplay of geography, history, culture, and politics is particularly pronounced in Chapter 5, on Aboriginal rights and the treaty process, up to and including the recent Nisg’a, Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth agreements. The treaty process has seemingly come a long way and the future seems brighter than it did in the early 1990s when court judgements on Native land claims, such as McEachern’s famous Delgamuukw decision, did nothing to rectify centuries of injustice for Aboriginal people. McGillivray is good at weighing up the positive and negative impacts of the modern treaty process on the economic life of the province (in energy initiatives, resource industries, and the development of Crown lands), although more might have been done with how a new non-native readiness to negotiate with First Nations might be connected to wider international discourses of reconciliation and democratic protest (in southern Africa, Southeast Asia, and now the Arab world).

However, when it comes to resource industries and communities, the overriding tone of the text is one of doom and gloom. Economic growth and vitality is concentrated in the southwest (and predominantly urban) corner of the province, and the economic mainstays of the hinterland Interior are all beset by major difficulties, a good portion of which have been either generated by or exacerbated by the 2008 global economic downturn and the entanglement of the province’s economy with that of its American neighbour. Reliance on what Harold Innis termed “staples” has long made British Columbia acutely sensitive to continental and global economic perturbations, and McGillivray is good at showing how many of the problems facing particular sectors and their “fragile settlements” (Chapter 15) flow from unforeseen and uncontrollable economic, political (provincial, federal and international), and cultural dynamics – price fluctuations, changing tastes (British Columbia has a considerably stronger environmental consciousness than my native UK), and legislative imperatives. McGillivray’s discussion of the asbestos mining town of Cassiar (in Chapter 10) is a poignant example of how such dynamics are intertwined.

These chapters on the province’s contemporary economic woes could have been more sharply theorised (for instance, the important work of Roger Hayter on the forest industry is used, but in a largely descriptive manner), and the last chapter on urbanisation would have benefitted from a fuller discussion of Vancouver and of David Ley’s work on the middle class and “millionaire migrants.” But these are just quibbles. I learned a huge amount from this dexterously and fastidiously assembled text, and it will surely serve its student purpose with aplomb.

Brett McGillivray
Geography of British Columbia: People and Landscapes in Transition, 3rd Edition
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011  pp. $55.00