I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here

The Industrial Transformation of Subarctic Canada

Liza Piper

In The Industrial Transformation of Subarctic Canada, Liza Piper examines the development of industry along Canada’s largest, northwest lakes, namely mining and fishing. She focuses on the large lakes because they were centers of natural resources and transportation, and resultantly played a major role in shaping industry in the region.  Like Karl Jacoby, Piper believes that the concept of pristine wilderness is a myth. Piper is also largely driven by contemporary issues, such as the Tar Sands, which she believes are just recent variations of long-standing problems. Piper believes, also like Jacoby, that humans are a part of nature, not separate from it, and thus she hopes to help lead to a future where humans learn to live and work with nature, not just enjoy it in the museumized form of parks and nature reserves.

Piper’s main argument is to challenge the typical declensionist model, which readily assumes that industrial activity leads to environmental degradation. Piper argues that early industrial activity in Canada’s subarctic assimilated nature rather than subjugated and destroyed. Piper defines assimilation as bringing something external into another system. Initially, industrial activity mimicked and extended natural processes already in place. Industrial workers took advantage of the natural resources, such as wood, gravel, fuel, and food, that were plentiful around the lakes, and made sure their industrial practices stayed inside the constraints of their harsh environment. Environmental degradation did not occur, according to Piper, until the area’s natural resources were made into Southern commodities. Piper attempts to argue that there is a difference between industrialization and commodification, an argument that does not make sense. Industrialization and commodification go hand in hand, and Piper does not effectively prove otherwise.

The bad guy in Piper’s narrative is the South and the government, which used the large lake industrialism as a new form of colonization to replace the Prairie model of agricultural settlement. Piper argues that the South made a choice to market the subarctic products to southern Canada and the United States, leading to the area being sullied by transportation networks that connected it to its markets but not to other nearby industrial areas. Commoditizing the fish of the area divorced the product from its natural environment, and thus damaged industry’s assimilated relationship with nature. In a way, Piper’s argument is reminiscent of Brian Donahue’s in The Great Meadow, in which he shows that the colonist’s did not begin to destroy the New England environment right as they stepped off the boat. Rather, colonial mixed husbandry was remarkably sustainable, and it was not until the introduction of capitalism in the early 1800s that New Englander’s threw aside their environmentally friendly lifestyle for nature-destroying, short-term gain. The difference between the two scenarios is that the New Englanders lived in a world in which capitalism had not yet taken hold. The industry, the very term denoting capitalism, that developed in subarctic Canada originated in a capitalistic society and the very contention that its products had the chance of not being commoditized is absurd. “Private enterprise,” Piper writes, “encouraged by the state, exploited resources on the large lakes for export rather than endeavoring to build independent industrial communities.” This argument is illogical. Independent industrial communities do not exist. The nature of these communities is to create products to be exported elsewhere for a profit. If these communities had become independent then industry would not have been necessary and they could have remained self-sustainable, for mining and fishing excess product would have no benefit. The very act of humoring the idea that the state could have acted differently is delusional. Additionally, the fact that she demonstrates that industry led to commodification and the eventual degradation of the subarctic environment completely undermines her claim that she is presenting a non-declensionist narrative, no matter her apparent hopes for the future.

Piper makes an interesting argument about mines. She contends that mines are not the sterile, lifeless environments that many imagine, but rather living, dynamic environments, which are being continuously shaped by miners. Additionally, like Jacoby, Piper illustrates the danger of relying on outside “experts” and ignoring local ecological knowledge, in regards to the depopulation and subsequent conservation of the lake’s fisheries. However, these and other points are overshadowed by the ridiculousness of her overarching assimilation argument.

Feature Photo: Uranium City, 1954. Photograph taken in Uranium City, Saskatchewan. NFB Photo Story: Uranium City: Canadian Town Centre of World’s Uranium Supply. Library and Archives Canada. 

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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