Nature and Its Discontents

  • A. A. den Otter
    Civilizing the Wilderness: Culture and Nature in Pre-Confederation Canada and Rupert's Land. University of Alberta Press (purchase at
  • Neil S. Forkey
    Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century. University of Toronto Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Wayne Grady

If you want to see a replay in microcosm of the nineteenth-century Canadian conflict between wilderness and civilization, watch how suburban subdivisions are made.

First the developer sends in bulldozers to remove all the topsoil from the ten or twenty acres on which the subdivision is to be built. Then a grid of roads is laid out, and the lots upon which the houses are to be placed are surveyed and staked, and the trenches dug for the sewer lines and water mains; hydro and telephone cables are buried. Then the houses are built, all of them at once, all variations on a single, efficient, cost-effective design. Then the topsoil is trucked back in, distributed where needed (smaller bulldozers), covered with grass not meant to grow this far north, and planted with trees, shrubs and perennials, usually non-native, imported species that require special, exorbitant care if they are to survive in this new environment. And finally, when the original site has been completely altered, the sugar maples and white pines replaced by Norway maples and blue spruce, stuck in pre-ordained patches of red-dyed cedar chips amid paths of asphalt or interlocking pavers, when nature has been completely subdued, tamed and civilized, the people move in.

And so the patterns established in the early centuries of Canadian settlement are re-enacted every day on the outskirts of Canadian cities, something to think about when we ask ourselves whether we learn from history.

In Civilizing the Wilderness: Culture and Nature in Pre-Confederation Canada and Rupert’s Land, A. A. Den Otter, Professor Emeritus of History at Memorial University, amply demonstrates that turning Canada’s vast, natural, untrammeled wildernesses, especially in the Northwest and on the Prairies, into farms, mines, lumbercamps, towns, and railroads, was a deliberate goal that drove western settlement for most of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Taming the wilderness was more than a matter of manifest destiny, as it was in the United States, more even than a commercial venture. It was “a civilizing mission,” he writes, “an imperial obligation to transform the wild northern territories into productive, civilized lands.”

“Civilizing” meant subduing, uprooting what was already there and replacing it with something more familiar, more comforting, something from “home,” which was usually England or Scotland. It meant removing rather than domesticating the huge herds of bison that had been grazing the prairie regions for millennia, and replacing them with cattle shipped from Europe; ploughing the hard, prairie soil, and removing the natural grasses that had sustained the buffalo but could not be digested by European cattle, and replacing it with imported grass that could. It meant shooting wild geese and ducks and raising domestic geese and chickens in their stead. And it meant Christianizing and “educating” First Nations peoples who had lived in harmony with the natural environment as hunter-gatherers for millennia, and thereby turning them into farmers, carters, boatmen, and traders.

Events don’t tell stories; patterns tell stories. In the first two volumes of The Peopling of British North America, Bernard Bailyn set out to trace “the recruitment, settlement patterns, and developing character of the American population in the preindustrial era.” He focused on colonial immigration from Europe and Africa, and discerned four major stages, or “propositions,” of development: migration, settlement, land speculation, and culture. That was in the United States, where people migrated west, settled on the land, developed its resources, and then established a culture that was a combination of their original cultural inheritance and the modifications imposed upon it by the land itself.

In Canada, according to Den Otter, we seem to have skipped the first two propositions and jumped directly to the third—land speculation and resource development—without having gone through migration and settlement (and, some might claim, without having progressed much into the cultural phase). This isn’t a particularly new observation: Northrop Frye suggested that the geographical features of the East Coast of North America determined the different characteristics of American and Canadian attitudes towards nature and the environment: the eastern seaboard of New England welcomed voyagers with warm, sandy beaches and safe anchorages, while the east coast of Canada warded colonists off with rock cliffs, treacherous inlets and winter storms. American immigrants were gently beached; Canadians were swallowed whole by the St. Lawrence.

In other words, Nature in the southern portions of British North America seemed benign, already tame; in the north, particularly in the northwest, which Den Otter describes as “a barren, cold, and isolated territory,” nature was seen almost immediately as a powerful force in need of taming.

Basque fishermen were exploiting the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador for whales and fish, establishing only crude, temporary rendering and processing stations at the edges of the continent, for a century before Champlain attempted a permanent settlement at Port Royal; similarly, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent trappers into the Great Lakes and beyond, all the way to the Prairies, and, although mandated by its own Charter to encourage settlement in the vast territory it controlled, in fact actively discouraged settlement in those areas because settlers didn’t tend to trap beaver for profit.

The civilizing impulse, however, proved stronger than the Hudson Bay Company. As long as the HBC could keep Métis trappers in debt to itself, it could keep them on the trap lines—it was the old truck system, the same trick that, right into the 1930s, kept Cape Breton miners in the collieries and Newfoundland sealers on the ice, working off their perpetual debt to the company store. But in a deeper sense, as Den Otter suggests, being “in debt” was already an aspect of civilization, far removed from the gift economy characteristic of the bush. Thus the HBC sowed the seeds of its own decline by the very act of keeping its trappers’ in its thrall.

The situation of the Métis and the way they broke the HBC’s grip on Assiniboia in the 1840s was an important development in the civilizing process, and Den Otter devotes an entire chapter to the Sayer Trial, which spelled the end of wilderness and the triumph of civilization in western Canada. Marcel Giraud, in his two-volume history, Le Métis Canadien, published in 1945 (and translated by George Woodcock in 1986 as The Métis in the Canadian West) devotes several pages to the trial, explaining its build-up and aftermath, and recognizing that the trial was a turning point in the HBC’s hegemony. Giraud viewed the incident as an example of Métis self-assertion against an overlord, a victory for the underdog. The prime motivation, he thought, was “the hatred felt against Recorder Thom, who was responsible for the action taken against the defendant or at least for the way it was handled.”

It was true that one of the demands made by the Métis before the trial was the removal of Judge Adam Thom as first magistrate of Assiniboia and judicial counselor for the HBC. Thom was a tyrant, to be sure, and was eventually demoted to court clerk. But Den Otter rightly looks at the wider significance of the Sayer Trial, placing it in the context of mid-nineteenth-century world politics. What was happening in the Selkirk Settlement, he contends, was a kind of microcosm of the political turmoil that changed the power structure in Europe in 1848. Far from being an isolated corner of the British Empire, western Canada, at the time of the Sayer Trial, was a seething hotbed of the same kind of revolt against imperialism that had already manifested in Europe.

And for similar reasons. “In the case of Europe in 1848,” writes Den Otter, “a succession of continent-wide crop failures and hunger in urban and rural communities had been prominent factors in the violent rebellions.” Similarly, the Red River Settlement had endured a series of crop failures in the 1840s, as well as a diminished buffalo hunt and an epidemic of measles and influenza, probably resulting from trading missions to St. Peter’s, Minnesota. The Métis were the hardest hit by these calamities. As Den Otter suggests, their cumulative effect was to force survivors to find livelihoods that did not depend on the whims of nature. “The perceived fickleness of nature, evidenced in declining hunts and failed crops, did much to raise discontent within the [Red River] community, and disenchantment with traditional ways.”

Pierre Sayer was one of many Métis fur traders who’d been trading illegally with American companies in the south rather than with the Hudson Bay Company, but for some reason he and his two cohorts were the offenders Adam Thom had arrested. Trading with any company other than the HBC was against the law, and Sayer et. al. were to be made examples of. Their arrest, however, placed the HBC in a legal cleft stick, and may have had as much to do with Thom’s eventual demotion as the demands of the outraged Métis community. If Sayer were found guilty and punished, the company would have an armed insurrection on its hands; if Sayer were found not guilty, it would signal that the HBC hegemony was unenforceable, and the Métis and First Nations trappers could trade with anyone they liked.

The company’s compromise solution produced the worst possible outcome. Sayer was found guilty (because he was), but he was not punished; in fact, he was released and the furs that had been seized from him and his companions were returned. The guilty finding enraged the Métis, and the leniency nonetheless signaled to them the HBC’s inability to enforce its own trade embargos. The Métis were free to trade with whomever they liked, and they’d be damned if they’d trade with the HBC. “The Sayer Trial,” concludes Den Otter, “was more than resistance against outside authority or a fearful reaction against unpredictable natural disasters. It also represented the adoption of Western civilization’s view of the wilderness as a place laden with valuable resources that had to be developed.”

The decline of the authority, and therefore of the profits, of the Hudson’s Bay Company following the Sayer Trial prompted the British parliament, in 1857, to appoint a select committee to review the activities of the HBC. The committee was to recognize that the inhabitants of Rupert’s Land no longer wanted to live as nomadic trappers and hunters, but wanted to settle, to become traders and farmers, and to no longer be under the thumb of the HBC. In Den Otter’s terms, they wanted to become civilized.

Britain, by mid-nineteenth century, was deeply enmeshed in the throes of the Industrial Revolution that had begun towards the end of the eighteenth. After fifty years of “progress,” its government’s chief concerns were to ensure a constant supply of raw materials to its factories, food for its workers, and markets for its goods. And it was perspicacious enough to realize that of the two traditional methods of attaining those ends—conquest and civilization—the former was expensive and unpopular, and the latter was not. Who could object to educating and domesticating the Aboriginal peoples who dwelled as uncivilized savages on the lands the British wanted to exploit?

This was the attitude that the select committee took going into its investigation and, not surprisingly, the attitude that emerged from it after forty days of hearing witnesses, none of whom were First Nations or Métis. The testimonies presented to the committee, Den Otter notes, “indicated that over the past two centuries, the powerful combination of science, technology, and capitalism, flourishing under increasingly free political ad economic institutions, had created the great and wealthy British Empire.” The mission of the Western Europeans was, according to Den Otter, “to tame the world’s remaining wilderness regions and manage them for the desires of humanity. . . . Peoples everywhere must be raised to the level of enlightened, Christian, industrial, and urbanizing Victorian Britain.”

The only contention within the committee meetings was over who was best suited to carry out these goals, the Hudson’s Bay Company, under a renewed mandate, or some form of free enterprise system that would allow First Nations and Métis to compete on the open market with white settlers and producers. The HBC argued, perhaps unwisely and somewhat half-heartedly, that it was already caring for First Nations peoples living within its territories, who anyway were incapable of adapting to modern society, and fundamentally unsuited to living on arable land. This view was countered by, among others, the Aboriginal Protection Society, a British organization founded in 1837 “to fight the perceived dispossession, massacre, and enslavement of Native people by invading colonists.” The Society advocated integrating Native people into the new world order through education and religion. Taming the wilderness and civilizing Native peoples were seen as the same process of enlightenment, highly beneficial to everyone, especially since doing so would increase the flow of resources to Britain and turn Aboriginal people into happy consumers of British products.

Den Otter tells the story of the civilization of the Canadian wilderness in chapters providing case studies of some of the key figures in the process, including George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company during the time of the Parliamentary select committee; two Native converts to Christianity, Henry Steinhauer and Henry Budd, who came to view their natal wilderness as, in Steinhauer’s phrase, a “waste howling desert”; and Bishop David Anderson, the first bishop of Rupert’s Land, who considered the education of Native peoples to be not simply an act of civilization, but as actually the best way of protecting them from the inevitable onslaught of European colonization, a relatively enlightened point of view. Anderson campaigned that the British government set aside a large territorial reserve in which Native hunter-gatherers could continue to survive until they were trained to an agrarian way of life; since this idea fitted closely with that of George Simpson and the HBC. However, it was not part of the recommendations of the Parliamentary committee in 1857.

Reading Den Otter’s compelling and convincing narrative, one receives little sense that there was much philosophical opposition to the bulldozing of the landscape and the destruction of the natural wilderness. He mentions naturalists like Philip Henry Gosse and John William Dawson, both of whom “wanted to demonstrate how wondrously God had made the earth,” but who essentially were interested in how all this wonder could be turned to profit. Missionaries such as William Mason and Robert Rundle, and the writer Catherine Parr Traill, admired the wilderness but failed to embrace it, or to understand it, according to Den Otter. They “struggled to survive in an environment they considered to be harsh and isolated.” Traill, he says, “fled the forest as soon as she could.”

Neil S. Forkey, in Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century, is kinder to Traill, who loved the backwoods and left them only out of necessity. She wrote novels in which her characters, often children, were comfortable, not terrified, in the forest, and she displayed a sympathetic understanding of Native peoples and the natural environment, which she also celebrated in richly illustrated books about native wildflowers. As Forkey points out, she wished to be known as “the Canadian Gilbert White,” and although, like most nineteenth-century newcomers to Canada, “she was optimistic about the march of progress into the forests of the backcountry, she at times lamented the pace of destruction at hand.” When Northrop Frye proposed that nineteenth-century Canadian literature was inspired by a fear of nature and exhibited a “garrison mentality” towards it, he was thinking more about Susanna Moodie than he was of her sister, Catherine Parr Traill. Forkey also recognizes that Gosse’s The Canadian Naturalist (1840), an early contribution to the study of natural history, evoked his “appreciation of the natural world, or what was left of it in the face of intrusion by new settlers in Canada.”

It is fair to say, however, that the main thrust of the conservation movement in Canada until very recently has been to conserve only those aspects of the natural environment that were useful to humans. Forkey quotes the American historian Richard W. Judd (The Untilled Garden, 2009) to the effect that scientific enquiry in the United States, as practiced from 1740 to the 1840s, was “a practical concern for protecting those species of birds, animals, and trees deemed useful to human society; a romantic appreciation for the beauty of natural form and primitive landscape; and a close understanding of the complex biological interdependence that sustains all natural systems.” In Canada, the first two of those aims is apparent, but the third—an appreciation of those parts of the natural environment that have nothing to do with human progress—failed to turn up until relatively recently, arguably when it was too late to do much to stop its degradation.

Still, Forkey makes a convincing case that opposition to the bulldozer approach to Canadian wilderness described by Den Otter has existed in Canada since the seventeenth century. As early as 1620, Recollet missionaries such as Gabrielle Sagard were lamenting the disappearance of beaver from eastern Canada; a hundred and fifty years later, sea otters were vanishing from the Pacific coast. During the 1800s, even foresters were alarmed at the wholesale destruction of Canadian forests, hunters were decrying the scarcity of game, and fishermen were finding fish stocks harder to locate. Note that all of these lamentations were for the loss of animals and plants that were useful to humans; few voiced concerns over the growing number of extinctions and extirpations of non-commercial species.

Such concern waited until the second half of the twentieth century, which is where Forkey’s analysis breaks down. He seems curiously uninterested in or aware of the modern environmental movement, given the subject of his study. Contemporary environmentalists seek to preserve all of nature, not just the useful bits. He acknowledges the work of the Canadian Wildlife Fund and Pollution Probe, devoting almost an entire sentence to each, doesn’t mention Greenpeace, and quotes but a single article by David Suzuki, on water pollution, published in 1990. He rightly applauds the work of writers such as Fred Bodsworth, Farley Mowat, Roderick Haig-Brown, and Margaret Atwood (although he confines his discussion of Atwood’s environmental awareness and activism to her novel Surfacing (1972), rather than examining her more recent novels, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, all of which contain stronger environmental themes than other books he does include, such as Hugh MacLennan’s Seven Rivers of Canada and Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine, which is primarily about agriculture. Neither is there any mention at all of such twenty-first-century nature writers as Don McKay, Trevor Herriot, or Candice Savage, to name but an obvious few.

Forkey seems more concerned with praising federal and provincial government initiatives in environmental matters than with individual or non-governmental involvement, which have often been in opposition to political goals. He notes that various levels of government established the Canadian Heritage Rivers System (CHRS) in 1984, in response to calls from Pierre Trudeau, “an avid canoeist,” and imagines that that agency “facilitates conservation programs that help to ensure the sustainability of the riverine environment for economic and recreational use.” He further notes that similar goals remain “at the root of the 2003 Species at Risk Act, which protects species in danger of extinction and provides a starting point for their recovery.” However true that may have been in 2003, the passing into law in 2012 of Bill C-38, the famous Omnibus Bill that gutted both the Navigable Waters Act and the Species at Risk Act, among many others, makes Forkey’s use of the present tense in those sentences somewhat anachronistic.

Forkey ends his study on an ominous note. Despite the fact that our “competing desires to exploit and protect natural resources” has been “integral to the formation of Canada,” our current dependence of fossil fuels is contributing to global warming, and as an oil-producing nation we are “contributing to what some forecast will be a global ecological catastrophe.” His conclusion is that such a future is inevitable “unless Canadians renounce involvement in the capitalist economic system,” which we are unlikely to do.

In the five-hundred years that this country’s history encompasses, the environmental pendulum has swung from exploiting nature to conserving and protecting it. We have enjoyed a brief swing towards conservation, but now it seems to be swinging back to exploitation. What is good for us, we seem to be saying again, will have to be good for nature. As both Den Otter’s and Forkey’s books attest, however, pendulums are perpetually swinging, and eventually we must come to realize that what is good for nature is also good for us. Den Otter ends his analysis with the views of Andrew Isenberg, who, in studying the causes of the demise of the great bison herds on the Prairies, warns that historians and conservationists, and presumably policy makers, “must challenge the tradition concept of the dichotomy between humans and nature.” In other words, it isn’t us against them, it’s just us.

This review “Nature and Its Discontents” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 134-39.

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