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Review

Selling British Columbia: Tourism and Consumer Culture, 1890-1970

By Michael Dawson

November 4, 2013

Review By Steve Penfold

In this interesting book, Michael Dawson studies the rise of a tourist economy in British Columbia over the course of the twentieth century. At the heart of the story are loosely related groups of tourist promoters – business elites, bureaucrats, and politicians – who gradually define tourism as “an industry in itself” (156), transforming it from a creature of settlement and industrial development into an element of an emerging consumer society. These promoters sought to build the cultural, geographic, and institutional infrastructure of a tourist economy, first through internal organization (at the local and later at the regional level), then by mobilizing the provincial state and eventually even by encouraging British Columbians to behave hospitably. Their projects were mostly successful. By the postwar period, tourism had carved out an institutional place in the growing provincial bureaucracy, was recognized as a key element of the provincial economy, and was woven into the image and landscape of British Columbia. 

In travelling along this narrative road, Dawson connects tourism to consumer culture and to the bur-geoning literature that charts its history. Most notably, in the middle chapters of the book, Dawson connects understudied Depression-era and wartime promotional activities to the more familiar postwar consumer surge. Between 1930 and 1945, he argues, the basic cultural and institutional infrastructure of the postwar tourist boom (and perhaps, we might infer, the broader consumer boom as well) was built: business elites forged links with government bureaucracies and politicians, and defined the strategies that became staples of postwar consumer culture. This is an important discussion, making Selling British Columbia a must-read for historians interested in either consumer history or twentieth-century Canada. 

The book seems excessively detailed at times, but it is refreshingly clear and straightforward in style, even when covering topics that invite jargon, such as cultural appropriation and anti-modernism. The detail partly follows from Dawson’s intellectual approach. Dawson-the-cultural-historian (familiar to readers of his earlier book on the Mounties) peeks through on occasion, particularly when he analyzes the selective use of imperial and Aboriginal symbolism. Much of Selling British Columbia, however, provides close readings of promotional ideas and institutional politics, leaning heavily on biographies of business and political personalities, minutes from tourist bodies and chambers of commerce, government reports, and other institutional sources. 

In this sense, though placing tourism within the context of the emerging consumer ethos, Selling British Columbia implicitly parallels an older tradition of historical political economy (of which H.V. Nelles’s The Politics of Development [1974] is the exemplar). Dawson emphasizes the ideological and institutional links between government bureaucracies, politicians, and regional business elites, all in the name of a particular notion of economic development. In the minds of the promoters and in the way Dawson relates its growing economic and geographic influence, tourism comes off as a sort of staple for the service economy. 

This implicit analytic similarity follows logically from Dawson’s more explicit theoretical argument, laid out in his introduction, that studies of consumer society have been too interested in consumer agency and not interested enough in the power of cultural producers. Of course, it is always easier to focus on producers when they have produced all your sources: even Dawson admits that tourists themselves are largely absent from his story. In this case, however, the hackneyed criticism about sources (though true) would miss Dawson’s larger point. You needn’t agree with his desire to swing the pendulum to producers – or with the particular way he tries to do this – to admit that “agency” is often rhetorically overplayed, something that we throw into our boilerplate introductions, pretending to court controversy when, in fact, the concept is a commonsense impulse in the academy. Dawson’s sort of political economy, which is still attentive to ideas and meaning, will do us good. 

In the ongoing academic conver-sation about consumer societies and economic development, Selling British Columbia raises important questions that need to be thought through. Dawson’s analytic gaze is mostly from the centre. Local interests appear on occasion, but the main characters are metropolitan elites, bureaucrats, and provincial politicians who travel widely to collect ideas, compare notes, and manage the challenges of competition and promotion. Dawson approvingly cites James Scott’s Seeing Like a State (1998) to emphasize how these projects resembled other systems of “state-initiated social engineering” (17980). Yet, unlike the highways the promoters advocated or the economic staples they aspired to match in importance (e.g., hydro or timber), the tourist industry itself – restaurants, hotels and motels, resorts, hunting and fishing expeditions – was mostly decentralized and entrepreneurial well into the postwar period. Within Dawson’s narrative arc, which leads organized promoters to the provincial state, this point doesn’t matter very much since it is clear that they successfully influenced economic priorities and created a “formidable apparatus of consumer culture” (216). But in moving beyond consumer agency, how do we place this apparatus within British Columbia’s broader economic culture? Dawson’s promoters seem to spend much of their time, even after they have won over the province, cajoling local entrepreneurs to modernize, to advertise, and to adopt consistent symbols – to go along, in other words, with a modern tourist project that tended to exclude smaller interests. Were local restaurant owners or motel operators cultural producers? Were they subjects in, or objects of, the promoters’ project? Were they both? 

Since, in addition to modernist elites, Scott is interested in the way institutions require informal knowledge to operate, arguing that we should move from consumer agency to the power of cultural producers continues to raise difficult questions. The point is not to criticize Dawson’s book but, rather, to engage with it. Selling British Columbia is a good discussion of the ability of tourist promoters to develop an economic vision and to convince the state to underwrite it; however, if we move past (or at least de-emphasize) agency as a totem concept, and admit that “cultural producers” shaped and structured consumer decisions, who do we define as “cultural producers”? How do we attend to the limitations of their projects without simply recreating the drawbacks of the power-agency opposition? And what do we do with “the market”? However invented an economic construct and dicey an analytic concept, it did have remarkable power to destroy any project that sought to impose coherence, as Marx taught us more than a century ago and as Keynesian bureaucrats discovered somewhat later. In thinking through these questions, Dawson has provided a good start. Who would have thought that provincial government could be so engaging a topic?