Ten Books to Contextualize the Environmental Movement in Canada

By Andrew Watson, Stacy Nation-Knapper, and Sean Kheraj


Mi’kmaq solidarity protest in Montreal, October 2013. Source: Robert Smith, McGill Daily Photo Editor

Last year, Nature’s Past, the Canadian environmental history podcast, published a special series called, “Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues”. Each episode focused on a different contemporary environmental issue and featured interviews and discussions with historians whose research explains the context and background. Following up on that project, we are publishing six articles with ActiveHistory.ca that provide annotated lists of ten books and articles that contextualize each of the environmental issues from the podcast series.

Our third and fourth episodes in the series we examined the history of the environmental movement in Canada. We began by taking the long view of Canadian ideas about and attitudes toward the natural environment by speaking Neil Forkey about his book Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century. We then held a round-table discussion with a group of scholars whose work examines different aspects of the history of environmentalism in Canada.

Part 1

Part 2

Here are ten books that contextualize the environmental movement in Canada:

Bocking, Stephen. Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Using four case studies of ecological research since the Second World War, Bocking explores the role of science in shaping and society’s environmental consciousness and values. By approaching the field of ecology from the perspective of history rather than science, this book reveals that our understanding of the natural world and society’s relationship to it has changed over time. Political agendas, economic opportunities, and even the scholarly community influenced how researchers pursued the study of ecology. By examining the history of different institutional settings, Bocking reveals that environmental issues of the late twentieth century have their roots in the corporatist structure of early ecological science.

Boyd, David R. The Right to a Healthy Environment: Revitalizing Canada’s Constitution. Vancouver, UBC Press, 2012.

A sequel to the jointly published The Environmental Rights Revolution, which examines the adoption of environmental protection provisions in the constitutions of three quarters of the world’s nations, this book consider’s the resistance in Canada to similar legislation. Approaching the topic from the perspective of environmental law, Boyd offers an example of what a Canadian Charter of Environmental Rights and Responsibilities would look like. Boyd pays attention to both the specific context of and history of environmental rights in Canada, while at the same contrasting the challenges facing Canada with the successes other countries have enjoyed. By blending elements of Canadian culture with hard truth about the country’s political economy, this books argues that environmental rights should be no more difficult to establish than the Constitution itself.

Burnett, J. Alexander. A Passion for Wildlife: The History of the Canadian Wildlife Service. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003.

This book is an in-depth account of the history of Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) between 1947 to 1997, based primarily on interviews Burnett conducted with over 120 former employees. As a study of an individual institution, this book focuses specifically on the government responses to new pressures on wildlife from a growing, industrializing, and urbanizing Canadian population. Burnett situates policy decisions and bureaucratic mandates within the context of conservation biology, perceived threats to wildlife abundance, and the rational use of nature by humans. By acknowledging that the history of the institution reflected changing political, economic and culture circumstances, this book reveals that as an institution the CWS was just a fluid as ideas about nature.

Dale, Stephen. McLuhan’s Children: The Greenpeace Message and the Media. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1996.

This book makes explicit the subtle connections between modern telecommunications and citizen activism in the postwar world. In channeling some of Marshal McLuhan’s fundamental tenants about the impact of imagery on the public imagination, Greenpeace managed to transform messages about distant environmental issues into mainstream political discourse and popular culture. By exploring the ways Greenpeace members grappled with the seeming contradiction of engaging with modern society through mass communications while at the same time critiquing the assumptions of that society, Dale reveals that Greenpeace embodied some of the earliest manifestations of ambivalence within the environmental movement.

Forkey, Neil S. Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2012.

This book provides an excellent starting point for anyone looking to better understanding the relationship between Canadians and their diverse environments. Although only chapter four is specifically about ‘environmentalism’, each chapter provides important historical context for understanding how Canadians have thought about and treated the environment. By exploring the ways Canadians have sought to both exploit and protect the natural world, Forkey reveals the tension between the important role natural resources have played in the economy and the formative influence wilderness has had in shaping a national identity. Providing a broad perspective over several centuries and across the country, this book demonstrates the importance of the environment in Canadian history.

Killan, Gerald. Protected Places: A History of Ontario’s Provincial Parks System. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1993.

Commissioned by the Ontario government to write a centennial history of province’s parks system, Killan traces its growth from one park (Algonquin Park in 1893) to 261 protected areas in 1993. By focusing on the rationale and efforts to protect both cultural and natural heritage, this book reveals parks as the culmination of diverse political, economic and environmental interests. By taking a thematic approach, Killan connects the challenges of the 1980s with the origins of conservationist ethics in the late nineteenth century, illustrating how aesthetics ideals have co-existed with utilitarian and scientific approaches to managing a myriad of ecosystems and landscapes.

Loo, Tina. States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century. Vancouver, UBC Press, 2006.

By examining the history of conservation during the twentieth century, Loo not only demonstrates how the idea of conservation changed over time, but also how different segments of society influenced those changes. Primarily focused on how the federal and provincial government understood its responsibility to protect wildlife, this book explores the ways government experts, high-profile wildlife advocates, and non-governmental experts and organizations informed the state’s approach to conservation. Loo also contrasts these approaches with the kinds of local knowledge that Aboriginal peoples utilized to manage their relationships with wildlife, and reveals that the history of conservation had as much to do with ordering society as it did with protecting animals.

McKenzie, Judith I. Environmental Politics in Canada: Managing the Commons into the Twenty-First Century. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2002.

McKenzie focuses on the difficulty environmental groups have had challenging neo-liberal economic practices and political thought at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Using a variety of case studies, this book considers the successes and failures of different approaches to managing the natural world. By exploring how ideas of private property, market forces, and resource scarcity have dominated the contest between economic growth and environmental health, McKenzie argues that failure to properly manage the natural world has resulted in an absence of democratic values when dealing with the environment.

Warecki, George M. Protecting Ontario’s Wilderness: A History of Changing Ideas and Preservation Politics, 1927-1973. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2000.

Using the two provincial parks, Quetico and Algonquin, as case studies, this book explores how competing concepts of wilderness were employed by various social, economic and political interests to steer access and use of protected environments in Ontario during the twentieth century. Warecki sees a distinct historical shift around the 1960s when politics shaping the history of parks in North America expanded to include environmentalism, in addition to the conservationist and preservationist schools of thought. By highlighting ways new grassroots and media communications changed discourse during the 1960s and 1970s, the book reveals how ecological opposition tempered strictly utilitarian justifications of multiple uses.

Zelko, Frank S. Make it a Greenpeace! The Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Zelko uses Greenpeace as a vehicle to exploring the development of environmentalism from its initial emphasis on conservation in the 1950s and 1960s, through its adoption of protest and countercultural holism in the late 1960s and 1970s, to the more volatile and confrontational approaches of the 1980s. By exploring the cultural and political antecedents and evolving context of the Greenpeace movement, this book places the environmental movement within a wider intellectual world that included such varied inspirations as Gandhian nonviolence and Marshall McLuhan. Zelko argues that the history of Greenpeace explains as much about the importance of the peace movement as it does about the emergence of a politically conscious environmental movement.

To listen to the complete podcast series, visit Nature’s Past.

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