Early Canadian Environmental History: A Forum

Editor’s note: This is the final post in a joint series of posts on early Canadian environmental history by The Otter~La loutre and Borealia. The entire series is available here.

After providing posts for the early Canadian environmental history series, the three participants – Colin Coates, Jason Hall, and Anya Zilberstein – sat down at their keyboards to discuss with Alan MacEachern the state and prospect of the field.

Alan: Let’s start with a couple of questions about early Canadian history, whether environmental or otherwise. If I were going to, in conference-chair style, find a theme that links your posts, it would be the familiarity of early Canada – to others of the time, but perhaps also to us. Jason, you connect the ways the Maliseet, French, and British all worked to control flooding on the Saint John River. Anya, your John Wentworth strove to show that Nova Scotia was a fit home for Jamaicans, or anybody. Colin, you note that North America was not as exotic to Europeans as were other places they traveled. I find this commonality interesting, because isn’t a great attraction of pre-Confederation Canadian history – to readers, to students, and to researchers like us – its alienness, its difference? That it was a world of opodeldoc and railway frogs, not to mention muskets and scrofula? Or does this only suggest that many think earlier history – I’ll pause for the laughter from the medievalists to subside – has the potential to be more interesting, but at the expense of relevancy?

Which is, among other things, a roundabout way of asking: are you in the camp that see the pre-Confederation field as in decline, as fundamentally healthy, or even, given the opening up of digital sources, as experiencing a renaissance? And, bringing environmental history into the mix, how do you interpret the pre-Confederation field’s current standing?


Anya: The ring of familiarity in the themes and cases we chose to write about for this series (or at least my own choice) must partly be a reflection of the genre: a blog post might possibly find a wider audience than our scholarship published by academic presses (a low bar in terms of audience size, we know). It seems like a blog post about historical research can go in two directions: show its relevance by comparison with a contemporary parallel or show its outlandishness for the sake of fascination.

I also think going with the former is important for environmental historians, no matter what period they focus on. But for those of us working on anything before the 19th century, it’s especially important to draw connections between past and present beliefs, practices, and consequences that affect and have been affected by the natural world. And giving priority to this emphasis has become ever more critical as climate change, extinctions, and other global environmental problems have gained public attention well beyond the older, more narrowly conceived sphere of environmental activism.


Jason: In terms of familiarity, I found that focusing on early modern environmental history enabled me to demonstrate that topics such as human adaptations to flooding and climatic change, resistance to environmental degradation, and reforestation, have long and complex roots that are not always recognized in Canada. As L.P Hartley observed “the past is a foreign country,” but that does not prevent us travelers from seeing commonalities in how humans from different eras and milieus sought to make decent homes for themselves in particular places – and similarities in how they responded to environmental and social challenges to do so. I enjoy reading environmental history focused on diverse regions of the world, and broadening my geographic and temporal lenses helps me better see commonalities among places and eras – and this, in turn, shapes and stimulates my approach to Canadian history. I do not associate relevancy with a particular era. Relevancy depends more on what we study, how we study it, and how we present our findings, as well as the fickle winds of contemporary politics and associated media spectacles.

Pre-Confederation/early Canadian history remains fairly robust, but as the field is more diverse now than it was a generation ago, it is not as easily grouped together into a single canon or conference event. I identify more with the label early Canadian or early North American history than pre-Confederation. My research and teaching encompasses the beginning of the Holocene to the present, and Confederation is not always a relevant structural framework for my inquiries. I certainly believe the opening of digital sources has the potential for a renaissance in the study of early Canada; I teach a large component of early Canadian history directly from primary documents that would have been challenging to access a decade ago.

Early Canadian environmental history is likewise well-established and here to stay. But Canadian environmental history, like Canadian history in general, is oriented toward the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most works published in the Nature | History | Society series and the Canadian History & Environment series, for instance, have focused on the past two centuries.


Anya: For my own orientation in the profession, I can second Jason’s point (also articulated by Robert Englebert in a post on Activehistory.ca last year) about identifying with more broadly defined fields – early North America, Atlantic world, environmental history, history of science, etc. – rather than pre-national Canadian or US history. At the same time, I have a catholic definition of environmental history. In all of my research and writing so far, I have integrated archival finds or individuals who happened to be in what became Canada or involved aspects of human-nonhuman interactions or ideas about the environment because they were important to the historical questions I was pursuing rather than the other way around. The history of race in the Northern US and Canada is something I’ve been interested in thinking about, for example. Eighteenth-century Nova Scotia turned out to provide many examples in which British officials drew on climatic theories of human difference to formulate colonial policy, ranging from the province’s first British governor Samuel Vetch (who argued that northern North America was “exactly calculated for the constitution and genius” of his countrymen – “the most Northern of the North Brittain”), to the history of Black Loyalist settlement, to the episode I recount in my blog post. Early Canadian history (Native nations in the Great Lakes; the fur trade; British Quebec) was also an important part of a piece I wrote about wild rice and climate change last year but, again, the essay as a whole was motivated by questions about early theories of global cooling and adaptation to climate change.

From this perspective, it seems to me that there is quite a bit of interest and new work on what might be counted as early Canadian environmental history, from work on indigenous communities across the New England/Maritime/Quebec borders and on both sides of the 49th parallel; Arctic history, especially research addressing the long-term history of environmental and climate change; and maritime and continental approaches to the history of the British, French, Spanish, Russian, and to some extent Dutch Empires in northern borderlands. There is also interesting new work using interdisciplinary methods in areas of longstanding interest such as the fisheries or the fur trade.

Some other exciting work in early North American environmental history of particular interest to Canadians that comes to mind are studies of commercial and ecological exchanges in the Atlantic or along the Mississippi that linked New France, the Illinois Country, and Louisiana such as work by Bertie Mandelblatt and histories of early energy regimes in North America, such as George Colpitts’s Pemmican Empire. The commodification of energy is of longstanding and contemporary importance to the Canadian economy (forestry, coal, hydropower, tar sands) and that has long affected Aboriginal communities across the North … but looking at it in terms of the history of reliance on muscle power fueled by food sources brings a new set of analytical perspectives to contemporary questions.


Jason: Anya, I appreciate your mention of the exciting work that is taking place on long-term environmental and climate change in the Arctic. I suspect that we are only at the tip of the iceberg (and yes that is a cheesy metaphor) of this field in Canada. Climate history’s potential for both micro and long-term analysis is worth noting in this discussion. The study of our continent’s deep past is filled with interesting debates and questions: What exactly were the impacts of the draining of glacial Lake Agassiz on global climate and coastal settlements? What are the relationships among human settlement, mega-fauna extinction, and climate change? Yet this incredibly large swath of time is often glossed over in brief introductory summaries or footnotes.

Canadian environmental history could benefit from more monographs and edited collections that focus on the past 15,000 years rather than the past 500. There is a lot of room to work with, and excellent models in global history, archeology, and landscape studies to draw on. In today’s interdisciplinary research landscape, and with the availability of archaeological materials, proxy sources, and oral traditions, it is possible for us to fashion compelling histories across millennia. Compared with its counterparts in say Great Britain, North Africa, or China, Canadian environmental history (even most of early Canadian environmental history) is chronologically shallow. Are most Canadian historians disinterested in or intimidated by the deep past, or does this reflect the strong influence of imperial and colonial traditions on the field? It strikes me that engaging with broader chronologies can help Canadian history and environmental history branch off from Eurocentric/Imperial frameworks and place more emphasis on the thousands of years of history when Turtle Island was oriented more toward the Pacific than the Atlantic.

Perhaps it is time to drop the European discovery motif from early Canadian history, and engage wholeheartedly with the complex and long Indigenous history of this region. What would a history of Canada look like were the Norse to show up in the 29th chapter, and the conclusion in the 33rd? Would it still be “Canadian” history? Or does Canadian history necessarily foreground imperial and colonial projects and transatlantic linkages? The Historical Atlas of Canada took a bold step in this direction almost 30 years ago, although it was still primarily devoted to the past 500 years.


Colin: Coming into the discussion a little late, I agree that Confederation may not be the most useful dividing line in Canadian history, but I was attracted to the earlier period (I gravitate towards the term “early modern Canada” because of my interest in the historiography of France) precisely because a French, Catholic peasant society was fairly distant from what I had experienced growing up as a Protestant in the urban metropolis of Whitehorse. Interested in histoire des mentalités, I was attracted to difference, not sameness. In due course, I found environmental history an interesting approach to New France because of reading Bill Cronon and discussing issues with Elinor Melville, and the entirely fortuitous opportunity of meeting up with my brother when he attended an American Historical Association (Pacific Branch) conference, where one of the key themes was environmental history. That said, it took people like Alan to convince me that I had actually managed to pull off some environmental history with my thesis-book.

I am less sanguine than Jason and Anya about the state of pre-Confederation history. There is some beautiful energy in that field in Anglophone Canada, with probably the majority of it focused on Indigenous history. And in Francophone Québec, I think there is still an abiding interest in the field. However, I doubt that very many faculty posts across the country are designated as “pre-Confederation” any more, and I suspect that most undergraduates are much more interested in twentieth-century, even late twentieth-century, topics. Indeed, in light of the fact that so much of the Canadian population before 1867 was Francophone, it is worth noting the decline in interest in the history of French Canada in Anglophone institutions. One could even point to the relative decline in Canadian history within History departments across Anglophone Canada.

In the context of the historiography of the St Lawrence Valley, environmental historians remain fairly rare. Of course, many historians writing about early Québec contribute significant findings to the field even if they do not always situate their work explicitly within the context of environmental history. Louise Dechêne, Thomas Wien, Sylvie Dépatie, and Alain Laberge are examples of such historians.

Access to digital sources has certainly transformed the experience of research. But since I don’t often teach in my narrower area of specialisation, however, I don’t find that this access has changed my approach to teaching. Moreover, my particular research material (seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century handwritten documents in French) require linguistic and paleographical skills that are infrequently found in Anglophone Canada.

All this may suggest that my particular area of research has little of “relevance” to offer to urban, Anglophone Canada. A king’s enthusiasm for a particular mammal species does not tell us anything important about chipmunks, but it may help us question how we make sense of the world around us, and how we prioritise certain parts of the natural world over others. That parable could have been located in ancient Rome or twelfth-century Great Zimbabwe. But I believe in the on-going importance of understanding areas that are also close to “home.” I think there is an advantage to exploring the deeper history of settler-colonial Canada, just as the relevance of Indigenous history seems irrefutable today.

In his discussions, Jason took a deeper perspective on “deep” than I have. In working on climate history in New France, I was fascinated to discover how many scientists were attempting to reconstruct climate variations using different proxy measurements. Jason’s comments about the glossing over of longer chronologies remind me of how Canadian history was taught a few decades ago. Standard textbooks covered Indigenous history prior to the arrival of Europeans in one chapter, if they even did that. When I took the graduate course in Canadian History at UBC in the 1980s, it began circa 1760 – the first week of readings was Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer Brown.

This is how I try to convey to my first-year Canadian Studies students how long humans have occupied the land that we now call Canada: I translate the time frame into a 365-day calendar. Let’s assume that this occupation has been about 10,000 years (which is clearly too short), and Indigenous occupation began on 1 January. If so, Cabot arrived off Newfoundland around 15 December. It would be a challenge to try to teach the Canadian survey to reflect those realities, but it certainly would be interesting! It certainly would be useful to integrate the findings of scientists and archeologists into a broader narrative, and convey the changing worlds in the pre-Contact period. What was the impact of the 1700 tsunami on the West Coast, for instance?

By some coincidence, Jason, Graeme Wynn and I were recently exchanging messages about the draining of Lake Agassiz, and we agreed that this was probably the single most important contribution that “Canada” has ever made to the world’s environmental conditions.

I agree with Anya about the necessity of taking a “catholic” definition of environmental history, and she points to a number of important works in the field. I think she also highlights the arbitrariness of national boundaries. I have sympathy with Jason’s desire to situate Canadian history within the much broader time frame, but Canadian history must also explain the impacts and legacies of different imperial regimes.


Alan: You’re doing so well on your own, there’s little reason for me to jump in, but I do have a few follow-up questions and points. First, Sean Kheraj’s “essential readings” list for the field – effective clickbait if there was one. I admit, what offended me about the list was that it neglected so many of my favourite books: where was Pielou? Daschuk? Riley? Hatvany? Cruikshank? Wynn? Zeller? (It may well be that none of those authors define themselves as environmental historians.) But people of good conscience can disagree. Can you speak up for a work in early Canada environmental history that should be on the radar of all Canadian historians, all environmental historians, or simply everyone’s?

Second, I agree with Colin that early Canada is becoming an increasingly hard sell for a number of reasons, not least being demography. As I point out to the students in the Canadian history survey class, thanks to immigration and natural increase, the Canadian population has grown more in the past two weeks than the entire French population of New France in 1700 – so how do we defend the significance of those people over these people?

Third, Colin noted in his essay that “The audience is always present in the text.” How is the audience for early Canada environmental history changing, and how is that making itself manifest in the content and form of texts? Related to this, I assume: where do you see the field going – not in terms of health or prominence, but direction?


Anya: I want to return for a moment to Colpitts’ Pemmican Empire, because I wanted to make note of his use of the term “the British West.” It reminded me of Linda Colley’s essay from the 1990s, “The Significance of the Frontier in British History,” in which she argued for the necessity of integrating British imperial history and national history. It was part of the growing momentum in the 1990s to revisit Turner’s frontier thesis and one early attempt to articulate a set of research questions for what has come to be known as borderlands studies, a subfield that has drawn scholars’ attention to the history of Canada’s territorial and maritime borders with a variety of nations and that necessitates examining political and social history of what became Canada long before Confederation.

A lingering question I have for Canadian historians is why the category/label of colonial history seems to have less currency in Canada than in the United States, whether before 1876 or through 1982? There are two ways in which this question about early Canada or Canada-as-colony interests me: 1) a “branch-plant” tendency in Canadian environmental history, i.e. many instances but no distinctive paradigm; 2) the fact that Canadian historians have embraced the term settler colonialism, much more so than have American historians.

So first, when I was writing my review essay for the Journal of Canadian Studies in 2009, it seemed to me that the scholarship in modern Canadian environmental history had not developed particularly compelling arguments about what made the field distinct, especially in terms of historiographical interventions. That is to say, many of the books I read both specifically for the review and as background in preparation for writing it, offered something along the lines of: this was the story of conservation as American / British historians have told it and here is a case study from Canada. It seems to me that there is a lot of room for people invested in promoting and developing the field of Canadian environmental history to make bolder interventions that might influence the way scholars in other fields of Canadian history and non-Canadian history think. It may be that scholars like Jason working on early topics and asking big questions about the very long term are especially well positioned to make those types of interventions. At the same time, I hope that my criticism might provoke some people closer to the field to contradict my impression and correct my ignorance.

Secondly (again, I say this from the sidelines as someone who is not mainly engaged in Canadian historiography), the encouraging fact that Canadian historians are increasingly using the ideology and practice of settler colonialism as an interpretive frame (a frame that has until recently otherwise mostly focused on places like Algeria and Palestine after the late nineteenth century). It seems to me it offers to both complement and recast the historiographical debate about the liberal order in terms of the commonalities of settler societies—and the ways they transformed environments—over the long term. In Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, white Anglophones expropriated land from indigenous people and minority settler groups in the process of creating liberal, property-based agrarian societies and asserting political (if not necessarily demographic) dominance. In the past decade or so, several comparative studies have examined the ways in which property law enabled the reciprocal processes of Native dispossession and agricultural expansion. More diachronic studies of the political economy and practices of colonization and settlement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—like Allan Greer’s ongoing comparative work on Spanish, French, and English property law in seventeenth-century North America—promise to help us better understand such conflicts as well as to use Canadian precedents in drawing on historical treaties to inform the global public debates about how to redress (whether through reparations, legal recognition of historic treaties, or otherwise) violence, dispossession, and other legacies of Native-settler relations.

I also think that there is a lot more research that could be done in terms of integrating Canada into Atlantic history. One of the most important dividends of Atlantic approaches to early American history has been to show the centrality of slavery, the slave trade, ownership, labour, and racial ideology to economic development, legal and political institutions, and social relations. For Canadian history the institutional, cultural, and political legacies of slavery are quite different but still significant, as recent work by Afua Cooper, Brett Rushforth, Cassandra Pybus, and Harvey Amani Whitfield have demonstrated. But there is much more to be done, in part, precisely because of the “demographic” issue I think Alan is raising: it’s crucial to show students the links between early North American societies and the larger worlds and global developments created by slavery, the slave trade, and antislavery, which speaks to the long-term history of Canada’s connections to the Caribbean, Africa, and elsewhere.


Jason: Colin, I would not be so quick to discredit the impact of the “King of Beasts” on urban anglophones. My students were blown away by the images and descriptions published in the Codex Canadensis – a book I think anyone interested in early Canadian environmental history should have on their shelves. They enjoyed thinking with several of the animals that Nicolas depicted. The “Monstre marin” from the Richelieu River, and “Licorne de la mer rouge,” for instance, sparked a lively discussion of early European experiences with new continents, and the shifting lines between real and imagined landscapes that define our personal and social experiences with reality. Your work is a valuable reminder that we need to consider people’s perceptions and the factors that influence them when we think about historic human relationships with the world around them. Although our audiences may be initially disposed to overlook the significance of sea monsters and chipmunks in early modern New France, I’d like to think that showcasing the historic importance of these creatures offers us opportunities to squeegee the dust off their contemporary windows on reality, and draw sharper attention to our changing attitudes toward wildlife. On that note, I am curious if white tail deer will be able retain their status as “cute” and harmless mammals now that they have been popularly associated with the spread of deer ticks and Lyme disease in Eastern Canada.

In regards to Alan’s question about the shape of the field in coming decades: I consider it highly likely that the cultivated caution that historians often employ when asked to predict the future will still influence our responses to these sorts of questions. Perhaps even more so considering that future generations should be able to locate posts such as these far easier than we can trace what was said in the question period of conferences from the 1990s (provided of course that digital decay does not wreak havoc with our data).

I suspect we will continue to see an increase in collaborative projects and interdisciplinary / multidisciplinary approaches. As Indigenous history is presently becoming a much larger component of Canadian history, it stands to reason that more environmental historians will strive to develop skills to work within that field – including familiarity with oral traditions and other forms of Indigenous knowledge. Perhaps this will encourage Canadian environmental history to develop stronger linkages to archaeology and the deep past

The current profile of climate change within public and political discourse and the groundbreaking work occurring in that field suggests that we will see more books like Yvon Desloges’ Sous les Cieux de Québec: Météo et climat, 1534-1831, and Anya’s forthcoming A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America.

Large strains of Canadian environmental historians will continue to transcend as well as work within national borders. National history will likely never become an endangered or even threatened species in Canada, but it does seem that transnational history is set to play a larger role within the field over the coming decades.

Will debates surrounding the Frontier Thesis and the meaning of wilderness endure over the next two decades, or will Canadian environmental history sprout new shoots that obscure the older branches of the field? Regardless, I am confident that we will experience a few surprise curve balls when we least expect them, and I look forward to stepping up to the plate along with you all when they arrive.


Colin: I differ from my esteemed colleague Alan on a point he raised. I don’t think the small population of New France (French and Indigenous) should make it less interesting to study. (That isn’t quite Alan’s point, I agree, but I am trying to engage in an argument. This is the right room for an argument, isn’t it?) Early colonial settlement did establish some long-term effects, such as land title, legal custom, religious structures, even noticeable environmental change (at least some of the colonists thought so). I am struck by the popularity of the “state formation” concept for mid-nineteenth century BNA – almost as if there were no state structures prior to that time. The state formed in the mid-nineteenth century was built on the foundations of the colonial state of the previous 150 years. And I think time is a fair measure for historians, as much as population.

Early Canadian history has an international audience. My understanding is that historians like Louise Dechêne, Allan Greer and others, have a substantial readership south of the border, for example. And of course a number of American historians have made forays into “Canadian” colonial history: John Mack Faragher, Richard White, Brett Rushforth, David Hackett Fischer, among others. Of course, they may frame their analyses differently than Canadians – here is the “audience in the text” issue again! I agree with Anya that American-trained historians are somewhat better than Canadians are framing their studies in a bold way. As one example, I particularly liked Steven Stoll’s Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in 19th-century America for drawing out some fascinating political implications from the history of manuring. That said, I wonder if the “case studies” approach that Anya refers to reflects the fact that many of the books in the field are the products of PhD dissertations. Scholars tend to frame their subsequent books in different ways that depend a bit less on the assumed readership of their PhD examining committees.

Pre-Confederation Canadian history tends to be highly regionalised, but for it not to be so would entail accepting a teleological view that all roads lead to the present boundaries of the Canadian state. I suspect that American historians could question that assumption about their historiography a bit more, and some clearly do so. Anya pointed to some of the work being done by American historians interested in the French settlements in the interior of the continent, and I think Canadian historians could attempt better to acknowledge the mental world of the people in, say, New France, where Détroit, Albany, and Kaskaskia formed part of their broader geography, just as Paris and La Rochelle did.

One title that is probably not on very many readers’ radars is a very early environmental history of a region in New France: Jacques Saint-Pierre, “L’aménagement de l’espace rural en Nouvelle-France: les seigneuries de la Côte du Sud” in Jacques Mathieu and Serge Courville, eds., Peuplement Colonisateur aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Québec: Cahiers du Célat, 1987), pp. 35-202. And of course a series of distinguished historical geographers like Courville, Harris, Clark, and Wynn produced works with many implications for environmental history.


Anya: I agree emphatically with Colin on these points and particularly the importance of looking at the structural consequences of colonial networks.

Other than that, I just wanted to mention another project on early Canadian history that I’d be very interested to read more about and hope someone else is either at work on it or will be in the future: A gender (and perhaps ethnic) history of colonial farming and land management, for which I have some specific instances in mind from the eighteenth-century Maritimes. Long before the Gradual Civilization Act and Indian Act, gendered divisions of labour explicitly informed John Wentworth’s campaign to assimilate the Maroons’ to life in Nova Scotia by trying to force Maroon men instead of the women to become farmers. His and his predecessor Carlton’s governments attempted to do the same with the Mi’kmaq (Titus Smith, Jr. has some detailed accounts in his 1801-1802 survey of Nova Scotia). Such a history would also be able to contextualize figures like Mary Cannon and Nelly MacDonald, two of the women who managed JFW DesBarres’ vast properties in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Cape Breton (work that Lois Kernaghan began but that could be much further developed).

Finally, I think it’s worth noting how much Canadian environmental history as a whole has grown in the past decade, in large part thanks to NiCHE’s efforts and support. If there have been relatively fewer publications focusing on earlier periods, now seems like a good time to encourage more of it, especially with the availability of more and more digital sources from the historical sciences, early modern printed matter, and archival collections. 


Colin M. Coates holds the Canada Research Chair in Canadian Cultural Landscapes at Glendon College, where he teaches in the Canadian Studies programme. He is the director of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies. A specialist in the history of early French Canada and environmental history, he is conducting research on Canadian utopias. You can find him on Twitter @ColinMCoates.

Jason Hall currently teaches on the global history of rivers part time at St. Thomas University, and works for the Maliseet First Nation. He is adapting his dissertation into a book, and developing a second monograph that examines the past 14,000 years of history in Atlantic Canada through a series of vignettes paired with analyses.

Alan MacEachern teaches & researches Canadian history, with an emphasis on environmental & climate history. He is currently, Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment & Society, Munich. He is Professor of History at the University of Western Ontario, and was formerly Director of NiCHE.

Anya Zilberstein teaches in the Department of History at Concordia University in Montreal. You can read more about the colonial history of climate politics in her book A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America, which will be published by Oxford University Press in September.


Featured Image: Niagara Falls, by Louis Hennepin, A new discovery of a vast country in America, extending above four thousand miles, between New France & New Mexico; with a description of the Great lakes, cataracts, rivers, plants, and animals (London: Henry Bonwicke, 1699), opposite page 22. Public domain via University of Pittsburgh Library at archive.org.


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