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Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia

By Jonathan Peyton

Review By Daniel Sims

January 4, 2018

BC Studies no. 198 Summer 2018  | p. 193-4

In 1921 the Prince George Citizen reminded its readership that “central B.C. is not a new country” (Prince George Citizen 1921). Defining “central B.C.” as those parts of the province situated between the 52nd and 57th parallel, in true booster fashion the paper examined how even though this part of the province had been left behind economically following Confederation, it was now posed to catch up with southern B.C. (Prince George Citizen 1921). Even though he is perhaps unaware of this article, Jonathan Peyton’s Unbuilt Environments reveals how the northwestern part of “central B.C.” never caught up and indeed conceptually receded into the provincial north. 

Limiting his examination to the period after World War II, Peyton examines five developments in the Stikine: the Cassiar asbestos mine, the BC Rail extension to Dease Lake, the Stikine-Iskut hydroelectric project, Dome Petroleum’s Western LNG Project and the Northwest Transmission Line. Eschewing the failure and success of these projects as a false dichotomy that suggests the lack of long term impacts in the case of the latter, he reveals how both outcomes affect not only the environment, but also how we as a society conceptualize it and the debates surrounding future developments (166-167). Building upon William Turkel’s concept of the archive of place, (Turkel 2007) Peyton considers how the physical remains of both inform views of the past (8-9). Rather than relying on local and/or former residents of the Stikine, however, he bases most of his conclusion upon traditional archival sources available at national, provincial and local archives (165-166, 206-207). While this approach is completely understandable, it does disappoint, especially considering that the first section of chapter one, “Cassiar 2010,” is a well written vivid description of Peyton’s trip to the ghost town of Cassiar.

As someone who examines how Indigenous people interact with the environment and economy I also found Peyton’s inclusion of local Indigenous peoples particularly interesting. As Susan Neylan points out “the fascination with colonialism has positioned Native-Settler relations at the heart of British Columbia History” (Neylan 2013, 839). This book is not Indigenous history and to Peyton’s credit he is quite blunt that it is not (165-166). Nevertheless as a thorough academic he does include Indigenous history when talking about these projects, most notably in chapter three (the Stikine-Iskut hydroelectric project) and chapter five (the Northwest Transmission Line). Yet for some stylistic reason that escapes me the section in the introduction titled “Stikine Outlines” separates the paragraphs dealing with the Indigenous groups in the Stikine from the rest of the text (18-21).  This choice, when combined with the fact the aforementioned paragraphs seemingly do not fit with the overall flow of the section they are in, gives the appearance that some editor has simply instructed him to insert it after the fact and made me fear subsequent references to Indigenous people would be clunky, awkward and potentially simplistic to the point of being wrong. Not helping the situation was that chapter one is fairly light when it comes to references to Indigenous people. As I continued to read, however, it became apparent that my initial assessment was wrong and while Peyton is not writing Indigenous history his inclusion of it (apart from equating the Carrier-Sekani Tribal Council to a people) is quite good (19).

In my final assessment I wanted more from the book, but in a good way. Overall it was well written, kept my attention and at times was a page turner. More importantly, however, it achieved the goal of any academic book of conveying information and in doing so spurring on further research. Its invites the reader to consider its arguments, methods and theories and in doing so either challenge or support them. Beyond this, however, it encourages its audience to consider their own “unbuilt environments” both physically and metaphorically. And for those interested in research Stikine, it provides a great reference point.

Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia
Jonathan Peyton
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016. 276 pp. $95.00 cloth.


Neylan, Susan, 2013. “Colonialism and Resettling British Columbia: Canadian Aboriginal Historiography, 1992-2012.” History Compass 11(10): 833-844.

Prince George Citizen, 1921. “Central B.C. Is Not A New Country: Historically This Region Is Oldest Country of Pacific, But Stayed ‘Pioneer.’” 25 January 1921.

Turkel, William, 2007. The Archive of Place: Unearthing the Pasts of the Chilcotin Plateau. Vancouver: UBC Press.