The Sea Among Us: The Amazing Strait of Georgia
February 13, 2015
Review By Howard Stewart
Much of my critique of Beamish and McFarlane’s The Sea Among Us is that familiar reviewer’s refrain: they didn’t write the book that I would have. With the luxury of a dozen different writers, I expected them to assemble a complex portrait of the Strait’s nature and culture something like Peter Boomgaard’s A World of Water (2007), a collection of “water histories” of Southeast Asia. As it is, The Sea Among Us is a good natural history of the place; indeed it is a magnificent source book on the oceanography and biology of the Strait. When it comes to history, and particularly the history of relations among the Strait’s competing human stakeholders, it is less successful.
The first seven chapters depict the biophysical Strait, its geology, physical oceanography, marine invertebrates and plants, fishes, marine mammals, and coastal birds. The authors of these sections draw on a rich pool of scientific data, experience, and anecdote, amply supported by high quality maps, graphics, and photos. These chapters should be of much interest to the general readers targeted by Beamish and McFarlane. They detail the appearance, taxonomy, and distribution of the inland sea’s fish, mammals, and birds. Much of this material reads more like an encyclopaedia of the Strait — and an impressive one — than an analytic study of a maritime region.
The second section of the book, entitled “The People and Industry” includes chapters on “pre-contact” history, “post-contact” history, and a history of the commercial fishery. Paraphrasing Disraeli, one might characterise this portion as “Whig history written by Tory historians.” The pre-contact history follows current thinking about the rapid decline of the Strait’s indigenous populations after the 1780s. But by the time we get to the post-contact period, indigenous people have ceased to be much of a presence on the Strait, other than in the canneries. The pre-contact chapter cites Cole Harris’s estimates of indigenous demographic decline, while the post-contact analysis draws on Harris’s work on nineteenth century settler transport networks around the Strait. But Harris’s most important work (Making Native Space, 2002), on the process of colonial dispossession of indigenous people, is not discussed. The work of Diane Newell (Tangled Webs of History, 1993) and Doug Harris (Landing Native Fisheries, 2008), on the progressive separation of the Strait’s indigenous people from the fisheries that sustained them for many centuries, is also ignored. It is noted that “some intellectuals” (281) like geographer Dan Clayton (Islands of Truth, 2000) might find the Strait’s many British place names “insidious” (282), but we are assured that George Vancouver was just doing his job and that he made great maps (281-2). As though he could not have made accurate maps and assigned odd place names that erased indigenous ones profoundly rooted in the place.
Considerable space is devoted to early geopolitical struggles with Americans and to the world wars as they were experienced on the Strait. Roderick Haig-Brown is lauded as an “icon of conservation” (320), but no mention is made of his decades of struggle with the lumbermen who ravaged the countless salmon spawning streams that spill into the Strait. The shameful wartime treatment of the Strait’s Japanese-Canadian fishers is summarised, but the equally egregious, and more pervasive and systematic mistreatment of the Strait’s indigenous population after the onset of colonisation is ignored. The Strait’s coal and copper mines are mentioned, but very little is said about their toxic legacies in the marine environment, nor about the PCB-laden marine sediments left behind by the Strait’s pulp mills. PCBs are mentioned as a residual danger for marine mammals especially, but their industrial sources are not discussed, nor is there any mention of the contemporary danger of stirring up the Strait’s PCB laden sediments when harvesting geoduck clams, for example.
The Islands Trust, that emerged as an innovative new form of governance around the Strait in the 1970s, is not mentioned at all, nor the recent painful decline of BC Ferries. Various other issues are mentioned in passing, but the “people” part of the book is often a collage of disconnected facts and anecdotes. These things matter if the book really intends, as it suggests early on, to promote better management of the inland sea’s vast wealth of shared resources. A general audience will not gain much understanding of the current generation of conflicts growing on the Strait, such as the Canadian government’s claim to the Strait as a conduit for hydro-carbon exports, indigenous people’s powerful claims to land and resources around the Strait, and the controversial growth of a shellfish aquaculture industry weakly controlled by federal and provincial regulators.
Boomgaard, Peter (ed.). 2007. A World of Water: Rain, Rivers and Seas in Southeast Asian Histories. Leiden: KITLV Press.
Clayton, Daniel. 2000. Islands of Truth. : The Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island. Vancouver: UBC Press
Harris, Cole. 2002. Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance and Reserves in British Columbia. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Harris, Douglas. 2008. Landing Native Fisheries: Indian Reserves and Fishing Rights in British Columbia, 1849–1925. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Newell, Diane. 1993. Tangled Webs of History: Indians and the Law in Canada’s Pacific Coast Fisheries. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
The Sea Among Us: The Amazing Strait of Georgia
Richard Beamish and Gordon McFarlane, editors
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2014. 400 pp. $39.95 cloth