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Review

Nature’s Northwest: The North Pacific Slope in the Twentieth Century

By William G. Robbins, Katrine Barber

November 4, 2013

Review By Richard Rajala

In Nature’s Northwest, William G. Robbins and Katrine Barber have synthesized a wealth of scholarship on the Greater Northwest, encompassing Idaho, Oregon, Washington, western Montana, and southern British Columbia. The authors track social, economic, political, cultural, and environmental themes in a three-part narrative that pays due attention to the significance of the 49th parallel while at the same time capturing the transcendent forces of settlement and global capitalism. The resulting treatment emphasizes the dispossession of American Indians and BC First Nations from their homelands, the emergence and recent crumbling of resource economies, a consequent demographic shift disadvantaging rural communities in relation to metropolitan centres, and a trajectory of political change from government activism to post-1970s neo-liberalism. Lines of inequality have sharpened, then, as early 20th century promotional exuberance over the region’s abundance has given way to degraded environments and “an eroded social cohesiveness” at the end of the millennium (11).

The narrative begins by documenting early 20th century transcontinental railway construction, resource exploitation for global markets, anti-Asian policies, and the determination of governments to push Natives/First Nations to the margins. Big Bill Haywood, the “quintessential turn-of-the century western radical,” personifies proletarian opposition to capitalist exploitation, with workers and radical ideologies crossing a permeable border freely (36). But reform enthusiasm, the authors make clear, did not extend to Aboriginal peoples whose seasonal participation in the resource economy and resistance to assimilationist policies such as residential schooling and the potlatch law illustrate their adjustment to “the larger society on their own terms” (50).

Part II, spanning the world wars, extends the discussion of class conflict and Aboriginal issues. By the mid-1920s militant industrial unionism had been quashed and nativism gave rise to enthusiasm for the Ku Klux Klan, albeit with less strength in BC. An intervening and very rewarding chapter on regional culture between 1900 and 1930 ranges in topic from the art of Emily Carr and Charles Russell to the collectors of Aboriginal artifacts and stories such as James Teit and Montana’s Lucullus McWhorter, whose efforts in documenting Native cultures often contributed to narratives that relegated Native people “to a distant and romantic past,” but have also contributed to historical understanding (92). Resuming the narrative with a chapter devoted to the wrenching changes of the Great Depression and Second World War, Robbins and Barber provide insightful analysis of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal relief programs, but more attention to Canadian federalism would have encouraged treatment of the On-to-Ottawa Trek and 1938’s Bloody Sunday in Vancouver.

Part III treats the evolution of the post-industrial Greater Northwest. Concerns about the transition to a peacetime economy faded in the American states thanks to federal investment in Cold War military facilities, while the timber industry boomed on both sides of the border in an era of consolidation. Pacific Northwest agricultural production soared as well, mechanization triggering a demographic shift from the countryside to cities, where African-Americans who had moved west for defence work faced discrimination in housing and access to public facilities. For Native Americans, the Cold War logic of liberating repressed peoples produced the policy of “termination,” designed to end federal trusteeship. Introduced with catastrophic consequences for the Klamath Tribes of Oregon but in the end rejected by those in western Washington, termination had the “ironic effect of strengthening tribal identity” (139). The goal of fuller integration motivated postwar Canadian policy as well, but 1951 changes to the Indian Act did nothing to correct the marginal economic position of increasingly restive BC First Nations or to resolve the land title question.

Robbins and Barber bring their considerable expertise to a splendid chapter on postwar environmental change, highlighting the “dam-building juggernaut” that knowingly sacrificed salmon and Native fishing sites to the perceived social and economic benefits of hydroelectric power, flood control, and irrigation, a logic of high modernity that carried over to BC under W.A.C. Bennett’s Two Rivers Policy. In explaining how the main-stem of the Fraser River remains free-flowing the authors credit Canadian policy makers for listening to fisheries biologists, a perspective that obscures Ottawa’s tendency to let BC politicians have their way when push came to shove in industrializing rivers. The following chapter on modern environmental politics does refer to federal-provincial conflict, although the transition from the election of Dave Barrett’s NDP government in 1972 to the Forest Practices Code of the early 1990s might have been better contextualized with attention to Jeremy Wilson’s Talk and Log: Wilderness Politics in British Columbia (1998). The account is strong, however, in placing Aboriginal peoples at the forefront of environmental issues, documenting the fight over treaty fishing rights in the American states, the impact of the Calder and Sparrow cases in BC, and the Bill Bennett government’s continued denial of Aboriginal title.

After a wide-ranging discussion of regional culture over the 1930-2000 period, Robbins and Barber turn to a sobering epilogue. At the end of the millennium rural economies are in disarray as resource communities experience the arrival of affluent retirees and pleasure-seekers.  Growing urban centres exhibit a “veneer of wealth” that masks the struggles of an underclass of marginally employed service workers (218). The new economy is one of deepening inequality, then, reflecting the forces of globalization and neoliberal politics. The border matters, however; despite the deterioration of the Canadian welfare state its provisions still compare favourably to the American model. Meanwhile, although the region’s increasingly diverse population poses challenges, the authors see a strong commitment to the environment among newcomers and established residents alike as the source of a “collective sense of commonwealth” with the potential to give rise to healthier policy (232).

Robbins and Barber deserve praise for writing a transnational regional history of great thematic reach and coherence. While the decision to restrict the analysis to southern BC might have been justified, and I have called for a fuller engagement with the historiography of the province at a couple of points, the strengths of this ambitious project far outweigh any shortcomings. I would not hesitate to make this the core text in a course on BC-Pacific Northwest history.

Nature’s Northwest: The North Pacific Slope in the Twentieth Century
By William G. Robbins and Katrine Barber
Tuscon, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2011. 286pp.  $24.95