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Review

Social Transformation in Rural Canada Community, Cultures, and Collective Action

By John R. Parkins and Maureen G. Reed, editors

Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History

By Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J. Korinek, and Marlene Epp, Editors

November 4, 2013

Review By Chris Herbert

 

Over the course of the twentieth century, massive social, economic, cultural, and political transformations occurred in Canada, almost all of which benefitted rapidly growing urban areas. As urban areas grew more and more dominant, the concerns and experiences of rural populations were increasingly rendered invisible to urban dwellers while the resources that flowed from the hinterland — minerals, lumber, and food — were taken for granted. Both Social Transformation in Rural Canada and Edible Histories, Cultural Politics seek to redirect scholarly attention back to the land, its produce, and the cultural meanings, political actions, and social organizations that food, lumber, and ore create.

Reflecting most of the authors’ backgrounds in Political Science, Sociology, and Geography, Social Transformation focuses on recent history, often from the mid-twentieth century onward, and on identifying and reacting to the challenges facing rural areas. Five chapters use British Columbian case studies that reflect the challenges facing communities as the logging industry falters, resources and infrastructure are increasingly concentrated, and neoliberal policies undercut provincial and government support for communities. As these chapters make clear, the result is that communities, with varying degrees of success, are having to find their own ways to cope with these changes. 

Of particular interest are the chapters by Jonkai Bhattacharyya et al., Nathan Young, and Emily Jane Davis and Maureen Reed, all of which explore how culture and identity can shape community reactions to social change. Bhattacharyya et al. is an interesting collaboration between Bhattacharyya and three Xeni Gwet’in elders from the Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) region. This chapter focuses on the Xeni Gwet’in’s response to globalization and neoliberal policies by stressing the importance of place and alternative ways of thinking about the relationship to the land. Both Young’s chapter on Bella Coola and Port Hardy and Davis and Reed’s chapter on the Cariboo-Chilcotin Beetle Action Coalition explore how shifting identities in resource towns can both encourage and stymie dynamic responses to profound challenges as the logging industry falters, infrastructure is increasingly concentrated, and neoliberal policies erode government support for communities. But while the chapters on British Columbia hang together very well, the book as a whole suffers from trying to encompass such a diverse and broad topic. For example, under the rubric of “rural,” separate essays deal with forestry, agriculture and, to a far lesser degree, fishing and recreation. The links between these industries or the communities that serve them are never clearly or consistently explicated, forcing readers looking for connections to largely shift for themselves. This is a common problem with edited volumes and is only remarkable when compared with the structure and flow of Edible Histories.

Edible Histories, a collection of fourteen long essays, eight short essays, and one photo essay, is explicitly designed to be accessible to undergraduates while still remaining interesting for specialists in the field, a task at which it succeeds remarkably well. Edible Histories is meant to provoke discussion about the relationship between the purchase, preparation, and consumption of food and issues of power and identity. Though divided into eight parts, the chapters in Edible Histories contain numerous cross-references so that a remarkably coherent picture emerges with little effort from the twenty-three chapters.

Two short and two long chapters draw wholly or in part on British Columbia-based materials. Megan Davies provides a short essay on the emergence of hybrid Native-Newcomer foodways among settlers in the Peace River region in the early twentieth century. In another short essay, Molly Pulvar Ungar examines the meanings of banquets held in Montreal, Quebec, and Victoria for the 1939 Royal Tour and how the Canadian hosts created deeply symbolic meanings reflecting different clams to identity in relation to the British Crown and empire through the menu. Both of these strong short essays would be well-suited to sparking discussion in an undergraduate classroom. Catherine Carstairs’ long essay on the emergence of the health food market focuses heavily on Vancouver. Carstairs notes that the market basis and underlying conservatism of much of the health food movement acted to undercut the potential for more radical understandings of health and food. One of the strongest entries in Edible Histories is James Murton’s account of the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), which he analyzes through attention to one particular commodity, apples, grown mainly in British Columbia. Murton argues that through the EMB, the state played a crucial role in creating an imperial food system, a process that continued even after the tariffs enacted in the midst of the Great Depression prompted the British government to abolish the EMB. The chapters by Caroline Durand, Marlene Epp, Natalie Cooke, and Valerie Korinek, though not on British Columbia, also stand out in what amounts to a particularly thoughtful, and thought-provoking yet accessible collection of essays.  

Both Social Transformation and Edible Histories are strong collections that act to redirect our attention to rural areas, the goods produced there, and the people that occupy them. Both volumes also remind us that the food resources that we consume and give meaning to in urban spaces are intricately bound to rural areas. Finally, both volumes reaffirm the cultural importance of commodities and the way that certain commodities, be they food or forest products, can become key means of articulating identities in an ever-changing world.

Edible Histories, Cultural Politics: Towards a Canadian Food History
Franca Iacovetta, Valerie J. Korinek, and Marlene Epp, editors 

Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 2012. 472 pp. $34.95 paper

Social Transformation in Rural Canada: Community, Cultures, and Collective Action
John R. Parkins and Maureen G. Reed, editors
Vancouver:  UBC Press, 2013. 428 pp. $95.00 cloth