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Review

The Reluctant Land: Society, Space, and Environment in Canada before Confederation

By Cole Harris

November 4, 2013

Review By Allan Greer

This ambitious book takes up the daunting challenge of surveying Canada’s evolution from the 1500s to the 1870s. Cole Harris’ long and distinguished career as a historical geographer with exceptionally wide-ranging interests provide him with unique qualifications for the task: the author of path-breaking monographs on such diverse topics as the seigneurial system in New France and the dispossession of Native peoples in British Columbia, he was also the driving force behind the Historical Atlas of Canada. Years ago, Harris also published Canada before Confederation, co-authored with John Warkentin, a very successful textbook that covers much the same territory as the present work. Geographers, historians, and anthropologists have produced so much new research since 1974 that a simple update was out of the question, Harris tells us: an entirely new treatment was required. Given the accumulation of scholarship and the opening of new lines of research in the last three decades, The Reluctant Land is inevitably a longer, more complicated work than Canada before Confederation; it is also, for reasons that have to do with both the author’s purposes and the state of the field, a rather unwieldy book. 

Canada before Confederation was frankly and straightforwardly a work of historical geography: lots of maps, an emphasis on commodity flows, migration streams, patterns of urbanization. The Reluctant Land maintains that basic orientation but reaches out to history and other disciplines that have contributed to our understanding of early Canada. Like its predecessor, the new survey presents a panorama that takes readers from the fisheries of Newfoundland and the dyked marshes of Acadia through the habitant settlements of New France and across the trading networks of the western interior to the trading posts and mining camps of British Columbia. The account is rich, informative, and authoritative. Chapters on Upper Canada, Lower Canada, and the Maritimes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are particularly bulky, while strangely, the British Columbia chapter is quite brief (did Cole Harris impose a self-denying ordinance to limit attention to his own research specialty?) and the Arctic is hardly mentioned. Empires, political projects, states of mind, and relations of power feature much more prominently here than in the 1974 book, evidence of Harris’ (perhaps geography’s) growing engagement with aspects of the past traditionally addressed by historians. There is even a concluding chapter on Confederation. 

The Reluctant Land surveys the intellectual as well as the physical landscape; much more than Canada before Confederation, it presents the work of other researchers in the field. Occasionally, as in the Lower Canada chapter, historiography threatens to overwhelm substance in a somewhat disjointed literature review; but, on the whole, academic readers will appreciate this tour of the literature. Less useful are the occasional forays into “theory”: here and there allusions to Habermas or Foucault drop into the text with a clang, all the more discordant in that these philosophers’ insights hardly seem to have shaped Harris’ approach to his subject. 

Canada before Confederation was “concerned with the European rather than the indigenous inhabitants of Canada” on the grounds that these newcomers were the agents of change (vi). As we might expect from a scholar who has done so much since these words were written to revitalize Native history in British Columbia, the present book shows a greater concern to integrate Natives into the story of pre-Confederation Canada. The Reluctant Land opens with a brief survey of pre-contact Native cultures across the northern half of the continent; and, in the chapters that constitute the body of the work, it has much more to say than did its predecessor about the impact of European exploration, settlement, and trades on First Nations. Yet, the spotlight remains firmly fastened to non-Natives as agents and subjects. The BC chapter, typical of the others, begins with the words, “Europeans reached the coast of what is now British Columbia late in the eighteenth century” (416). In The Reluctant Land, if not in lived history, Europeans tend to come first. This is quite surprising to anyone familiar, through works such as The Resettlement of British Columbia, with Harris’ deep knowledge of First Nations history; moreover, his respect and sympathy for indigenous peoples and his sensitivity to the injustices and injuries inflicted upon them by colonization shine through in the pages of the present work. This is not a problem of prejudice or neglect but, rather, of literary purpose and narrative organization: something about the way this book is conceived seems to work against the impulse animating much current work in the field to treat Natives as a central subject.

Cole Harris is conscious of swimming against the scholarly tide. His preface opens with a polemic in favour of “national history” at a time when historians are busy, as he sees it, “deconstructing” national narratives. “There is no consistent, broadly accepted narrative of the Canadian past,” he laments, and consequently the broader public “is hesitant about the nature of Canadian identity and the meaning of being Canadian” (xv). The purpose of The Reluctant Land, the author announces, is to reconstruct meaning at the national level: “I would like Canadians to know their country better” (xvi). The implication, of course, is that the uncoordinated profusion of studies on particular places and phenomena, the Babel of diverse methods and incommensurable agendas, sometimes challenging received wisdom, more frequently talking past it and proposing new nodes of inquiry, all this “deconstruction” (to follow Harris’ very loose usage) does not help Canadians “to know their country better.” That is, not unless someone can rise above the fray, extract useful elements from the mess of contemporary scholarship, and integrate these into a unifying national story. Respectful of other researchers and genuinely open to the diverse range of work in the field, Cole Harris nevertheless wants to enlist their findings for an enterprise to which most had no intention of contributing. Hence one of the internal tensions that makes this a book somewhat at odds with itself. 

The search for Canada in the period before the country was born causes trouble in a number of ways. The concluding chapter, true to the “national history” objectives of the book, consists of a reflection on Confederation. (Canada before Confederation had treated 1867 as a purely arbitrary end date.) But Confederation was basically a political arrangement, and so the conclusion lurches abruptly into a realm – politics – that was almost completely neglected in the body of the work. The title, The Reluctant Land, implies nation-building teleology in the long term – a vast terrain of disconnected settlements slowly and with great difficulty becomes what it was always destined to be: a transcontinental nation-state. In fact, the establishment of an Atlantic-to-Pacific federation, from the earliest discussions of the concept in the late 1850s to its realization in 1871, was a rapid and comparatively easy process. (Compare the wars accompanying the unification of Germany and Italy.) There is little to support the idea of a step-by-step struggle from 1500 to 1867 to create modern Canada. The land wasn’t reluctant; it wasn’t even “the” land.

In carefully and thoughtfully synthesizing the literature on the various settlements and zones of colonization that would eventually be integrated into the Canadian nation-state, Cole Harris has made a formidable contribution to historical studies. I only wish he had been content to leave it at that, a series of regional profiles describing the antecedents of Canada, without trying to distil a national meaning from this collection of diverse and largely disconnected histories.