Power and Restructuring: Canada’s Coastal Society and Environment
November 4, 2013
Review By Nathan Young
It is sometimes forgotten that rural Canada is on the front lines of some of the most important changes and challenges facing this country. By now, we are accustomed to hearing about looming crises in Canada’s urban centres as cities struggle to cope with unprecedented growth. Advocates argue that cities are shouldering the costs of Canada’s experiments with free trade, globalization, and multiculturalism. But “big forces” are colliding in rural areas of the country as well – often in ways that are more dramatic and fundamental than in urban centres. In rural regions, the emerging themes of the twenty-first century – economic globalization, environment, Aboriginal rights, and neoliberal governance– are exceptionally raw, and they are driving major political and economic changes of deep significance to the country as a whole.
Peter Sinclair and Rosemary Ommer’s edited volume makes an important contribution to our understanding of the causes and consequences of change in rural and resource regions. The book is the first of a planned four volumes to report research from the Coasts under Stress project – a major sshrc and nserc-funded research initiative examining social and environmental change in Pacific and Atlantic coastal regions. The emphasis of this book is on questions of power, agency, and resistance in the face of economic and environmental change. Coastal regions are particularly significant in this regard. Blessed with abundant natural resources, for much of Canada’s modern history both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts served as the economic cornerstones of regional development. Recently, however, these coastal areas have suffered severe environmental and economic shocks caused by resource depletion as well as the rise of lowcost resource-producing regions in an increasingly integrated global economy. On both coasts, traditional fisheries and forest industries have declined precipitously, shedding employment, shrinking communities, and raising the spectre that all possible futures will involve radical breaks with the past.
One strength of Power and Restructuring is that the chapters demonstrate an awareness of the larger issues at play. Much of the research presented is based on on-the-ground participatory fieldwork, and this gives the volume both a firm empirical basis and a “localist” perspective on particular challenges. However, the editors and contributors are to be credited for foregrounding theoretical considerations that are often overlooked in community-based studies. Of particular note are the attempts to broaden and synthesize conceptualizations of power. There is a strong tradition in Canadian scholarship of examining how rural industries and regions are shaped by the demands of far-away actors and markets. Sinclair and Ommer’s introductory chapter makes a convincing case that these considerations ought to be combined with more recent advances in network theory. The latter has become very popular in efforts to understand how social and “natural” resources (in this case, with reference to specific objects and environments) are mobilized and patterned in the exercise of power. Thus, several essays directly consider the role of social networks and “actor networks” in both power relations and prospects for resistance. While some chapters apply these theories better than others, the effect is a nuanced analysis of the complex intersections of structure and agency in vulnerable places. Indeed, a minor complaint against the volume is that its enthusiasm for theoretical synthesis means that it neglects to make the full political economy case regarding restructuring in Canada’s coastal regions. For instance, while themes of globalization run through many chapters, the key role of global economic integration (and particularly the rise of competing low-cost resourceproducing regions) as a fundamental and overarching cause of coastal change is never directly considered.
As with most edited volumes, the chapters presented in Power and Restructuring consider a range of sometimes disparate topics. However, the overarching theme of the book is change. In this light, the editors’ choice to open the book with several historical chapters is ultimately a good one as it sets current events in a continuum of upheaval, injustice, and political contestation on both coasts. At the same time, the chapters on contemporary issues demonstrate the uniqueness of present challenges to coastal regions and communities. Coasts remain rich resources and important contributors to the Canadian economy. However, it is increasingly clear that future coastal industries will operate very differently than did those in the past. The chapters on commercial fisheries, aquaculture, and offshore oil and gas demonstrate that future industrial development will be less labour-intensive, more corporate, and less community-grounded than in prior economic eras. As a consequence, coastal communities are being forcibly changed. As these chapters make clear, such changes are encouraged by federal and provincial governments that are eager to revive coastal economies while minimizing commitment to coastal communities. The raw force of these changes is best captured in the chapter by Martha MacDonald, Barbara Neis, and Brenda Grzetic (“The Struggle to Stay”), which presents poignant qualitative research into household strategies to simply “hang on” in the face of economic decline. This is a space where “the lines between coping, resistance, and resignation are blurred” (205) as families attempt to adapt to economic and policy environments that no longer consider coastal residents and communities to be vital economic actors.
The strength of Sinclair and Ommer’s Power and Restructuring is its treatment of the complexities of change in coastal regions. As mentioned, this is done in a manner that links local experiences with broad economic and political trends. At the same time, it also recognizes that even radical change proceeds inconsistently and in contradictory ways. As considered in an important chapter by Kelly Vodden and John C. Kennedy (“From Resignation to Renewal”), the same forces that are challenging traditional coastal industries are allowing First Nations groups to elbow their way into resource, land, and marine management issues. Rural and resource regions continue to occupy a strange place in the Canadian and British Columbian economies, being at once vital and peripheral. These are paradoxical places, where the effects of big forces like economic globalization, resource depletion, and the Aboriginal rights movement are magnified. These are Canada’s issues for the twenty-first century.