Subsistence in Canadian Environmental History

Fishing for suckers at the “First Dam” on the Don River [ca. 1900]. Source: Archives of Ontario, C 127-2-0-5-14
Today, James Murton from Nipissing University posted an article on The Otter to preview an upcoming panel he is hosting at the 2013 American Society for Environmental History Annual Meeting in Toronto at the Royal York Hotel. This panel, titled “Out from the Market’s Shadow: Subsistence as the Primary Concern of Environmental History,” will take place on Saturday, April 6 at 1:30pm in the Quebec Room (see the full conference schedule here). Murton’s article poses the question “Why Subsistence?” and explores some of the ways in which historians have characterized subsistence economic activities. He suggests that “subsistence has a bad reputation,” and he tries to explain some of the reasons why this might be the case.

In response to Murton’s article, I thought I would share three articles that have influenced my own thinking on the place of subsistence in Canadian environmental history:

Ommer, Rosemary and Nancy J. Turner. “Informal Rural Economies in History.” Labour/Le Travail 53, (2004): 127-157.

This article outlines the persistence of subsistence practices in rural Canada, particularly in Newfoundland outports and rural British Columbia. Ommer and Turner describe these as informal economic activities whereby families continue to draw from “a range of ecological niches to provide year-round sustenance.” This they refer to as “ecological pluralism” and they contend that it has persisted in Canada even after European/Euroamerican colonization, the enclosure of land and resources, and the establishment of a pervasive capitalist economy.

Bradbury, Bettina. “Pigs, Cows, and Boarders: Non-Wage Forms of Survival among Montreal Families, 1861-91.” Labour/Le Travail 14 (1984): 9-46.

Bettina Bradbury’s now classic article on the keeping of livestock animals in nineteenth-century Montreal demonstrates that informal economic activities and the use of a variety of ecological niches for subsistence was not exclusive to rural environments. She clearly shows that the inadequacies of the working-class male breadwinner’s wage in industrial Montreal compelled women and children to perform necessary labour that fell outside of the formal wage economy in order for families to survive. This included the raising of vegetable gardens and small-scale animal livestock husbandry.

Goldring, Philip. “Inuit Economic Responses to Euro-American Contacts: Southeast Baffin Island, 1824-1940.” Historical Papers 21.1 (1986): 146-172.

I only recently re-discovered this article by Philip Goldring on the response of Inuit people to European/Euroamerican contact. Goldring’s article provides a remarkable case study of the environmental limits of capitalism and a market-based economy in the Arctic. In the 1930s the Inuit of Cumberland Sound near Pangnirtung seemed to annoy the local HBC manager because of their refusal to trap and trade Arctic Fox in large quantities. He blamed their low productivity on a lack of acquisitiveness: “they are more or less content to hunt seals, and the fur hunt is becoming of secondary importance. They appear to have little ambition to secure anything but ammunition and tobacco.” To the HBC manager, the Inuit were lazy. But, according to Goldring, “a distinctive environment and the whaling tradition helped the Inuit of Cumberland Sound retain a stubborn detachment from the values and preferences of the HBC post manager.” A cash-based market economy meant very little on an Arctic island isolated from central markets to the south. Inuit on Baffin Island in the 1930s lived in what Brian Donahue might refer to as “comfortable subsistence,” hunting seal and using Arctic Fox from time to time to acquire manufactured goods, such as ammunition, coffee, biscuits, and tobacco. The fur-bearing animal habitat essentially became an ATM and the seal habitat was a grocery store!

Finally, I tried to draw together some of these ideas in the conclusion to an article I wrote for in the fall on environmental rights in Canada:

Kheraj, Sean. “Environment and Citizenship in Canadian History” Active History, 20 November 2012.

If you are interested in learning more about how environmental historians might study the role of subsistence in the past, attendees of the 2013 ASEH annual meeting should come to this panel:

Roundtable 9-B: Quebec Room

Out from the Market’s Shadow: Subsistence as the Primary Concern of Environmental History


James Murton, Nipissing University


Clint Westman, University of Saskatchewan
Joshua MacFadyen, University of Western Ontario
Sarah Martin, University of Waterloo
Nancy Pottery, Nipissing University
Carly Dokis, Nipissing University
Jeremy St. Onge, Transition Town North Bay

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