Tides of history in Atlantic Canada

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Trevor Donald

 

One wonders if New Brunswick is fighting the tide of history on shale gas development in the province. To see the future better, we must look to the past.  History does not necessarily repeat itself, but it does provide examples from which we can learn. Specifically, right now we need to talk history – because too many of us don’t know about important parts of it. Without that history, it’s impossible to understand exactly why protests by First Nations shale gas protestors erupted recently with a clash between the protestors, industry and the government. Like the ebb and flow of the Bay of Fundy tides, history has a way of receding and then re-emerging with tremendous force.

Claire Campbell and Robert Summerby-Murray recently edited a book called Land and Sea, an exploration of environmental history in Atlantic Canada. The book consists of 12 essays and an epilogue, which illustrate various aspects of the Atlantic Region’s environmental history. Notable contributors to the book are Colin Laroque of Mount Allison’s geography and environment department and Lanna Campbell, a Mount Allison University graduate.

I had an opportunity to sit down with one of the editors of the book, Robert Summerby-Murray. He is currently at Dalhousie University as dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences. Previously he was the dean of social sciences at Mount Allison University for seven years. Originally from New Zealand, he now travels between Halifax and his home in Sackville.

Summerby- Murray explained to me the 320-page book, published by Acadiensis Press, was a project supported by the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). The project was organized by a group called the Historians of the Environment of the Atlantic Region (HEAR). HEAR is a collaborative network linking researchers at a number of Atlantic universities in a wide variety of disciplines that explore environmental history and environmental change. Their annual Ganong colloquium, which presents a wealth of opportunities for research and intellectual exchange spurred the idea to tap into Atlantic Canada’s environmental historians and write a book.

Environmental history is a rather new term. The book tries to define it through an original exploration of the relationship between people and the environment in Atlantic Canada, from the native-settler interactions of the 17th century to the present-day challenges of resource depletion and economic renewal. Major themes focus on how people have explained and understood the natural world, what we have learned from experiments in conservation and management, and how we have responded to environmental crisis and change. This wide-ranging collection features contributors from all four provinces and beyond. The final chapter is an eloquent survey of the region's environmental history by the distinguished historical geographer Graeme Wynn, University of British Columbia.

Summerby- Murray spoke about new possibilities for re-framing the way environmental history has been conceptualized. Pointing to various examples, he suggested that we must undertake a more interdisciplinary approach by looking to other disciplines to help uncover new methodologies and approaches to the subject matter. For example, with the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, Charles Darwin drew on the completeness of exposure of the Joggins fossil cliffs in Nova Scotia and the occurrence of the fossil forests to illustrate that the fossil record is inherently incomplete. Another notable example involving the environmental movement was the exchange of scientific knowledge between Rachel Carson and several scientists in the province of New Brunswick in the 1950s and 1960s. New Brunswick at that time was the site of a massive DDT aerial spraying program to control the eastern spruce budworm. During that period, the province was also the home of renowned scientists who were conducting pre- and post-spray research on species commonly used as ecological indices: fish, birds, and insects. The ecological data generated by these scientists were crucial for parts of Carson’s case in Silent Spring, and their findings were later backed up by numerous other studies in the 1960s and 1970s. The studies formed the scientific foundation of the first quarter of Carson’s ninth chapter, titled “Rivers of Death.”

Summerby-Murray noted that more scholarly work is needed on indigenous peoples and environmental histories in the Atlantic region and that the current collection does not address this adequately.

“While there is excellent work going on in various fields such as anthropology, geography and law, we have yet to see this integrate fully with the more interdisciplinary approach to environmental history. We hope that other scholars will take up this challenge and fill in this important gap that we were unable to address as well as we would have liked in this collection.”

He agreed with me in saying a better documented aboriginal history of resource use in the region would lead to a better understanding of aboriginal issues surrounding natural resources today. He said traditional knowledge must be incorporated to gain a better sense of the cultural significance and social value of landscape that includes symbolic spaces and sacred places; this knowledge ties into water and air issues and general wellbeing for everybody, ensuring sustainable and healthy communities in the future.

Atlantic Canadians have learned what happens when natural resources are exploited and exhausted or when external markets change dramatically. This lesson has been learned throughout the centuries with the collapse of the coal and fisheries industry. People in Atlantic Canada are living through centuries of environmental degradation and First Nations have arguably felt that effect harder than anyone. A vocal majority is now speaking up and saying harvest based resource activities are not sustainable socially, economically and environmentally, and there has to be a new stage of economic growth in the 21st century besides resource exhaustion. A precedent is being set by Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island by creating moratoria against shale gas development. By looking to the past in this new book we can start applying lessons that will help us make more informed decisions about Atlantic Canada’s future.

Trevor Donald is the student communications intern with RCE Tantramar, a Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development. He is also a student at Mount Allison University, where he is studying geography and environment.

 

Organizations: Mount Allison University, First Nations, Dalhousie University Acadiensis Press University of British Columbia Sustainable Development

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, New Brunswick, Atlantic Region Bay of Fundy New Zealand Sackville Canadian History Nova Scotia Newfoundland Prince Edward Island

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