Canada: A History of Environmental Exploitation


Canada is a nation with abundant natural resources including coal, oil, gas, fish and game animals, fertile farm land, rare metals and minerals, fresh water and timber. Although Canada’s resources are abundant, they are not limitless. Striking a balance between economic growth and environmental stewardship has been an ongoing challenge for Canadians since the first European settlers colonized eastern Canada and the Maritimes.

For thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans, First Nations people had unrestricted access to Canada’s lands and its resources. First Nations’ impact on the land was negligible and they were able to maintain near equilibrium with nature. Although First Nations hunted many animals, they did not take any more than what was needed to feed and clothe the tribe. Buffalo, deer, beavers, and fish were used as food sources and trees were felled to construct teepees or longhouses. First Nations made excellent use of the resources they took from nature. When a buffalo or deer was killed, the meat was used for food and the rest of the animal was also used for other purposes. The skins, bones, innards and sinew were used to make tools, clothing and cooking utensils. In this way, First Nations people minimized their impact on the environment. Nothing was wasted; their use of natural resources was sustainable.

When European settlers arrived in Canada, they discovered a land that was largely untouched. Forests were plentiful, wildlife was abundant and the ocean waters around the Maritimes were home to colossal fish stocks. Although First Nations people were already established in the Maritimes and along the St. Lawrence River, Europeans did not recognize the rights of the First Nations people. Instead, they began to divide up the land for colonization and farming. They also established large-scale fisheries. The impact on the environment was significant. Large areas of forest were clear-cut to prepare the land for farming. Without trees, whose root systems held together the soil, erosion began to take place. Rich topsoil was washed away into the surrounding river systems and many farms simply dried up.

In New Brunswick, the timber industry was big business. By1826, fully 75 percent of that province’s export revenues came from timber. Historical Geographer Graeme Wynn noted the impact of the timber industry on the local rivers: “Sawdust dumped into the rivers soon became sodden, sank to the bed of the stream, disturbed the river ecology, and obstructed navigation. In suspension it floated downstream, was deposited on the banks and intervals, and drastically reduced fish populations.” Deforestation was negatively impacting the environment, but the economy was being stimulated by the sale of lumber. With a steady supply of wood, the shipbuilding industry in New Brunswick flourished.

Early European settlers put pressure on the environment in a number of ways besides the felling of trees. Across Canada, different regions were facing different ecological pressures. In Nova Scotia, marshlands were drained by Acadians to make room for farms. In Quebec, forests were felled and land was eroded. Around the Maritimes oceans were being over fished. In British Columbia, otters were nearly decimated for their pelts. In the north, seal populations were being reduced by over hunting. Indeed, all across Canada, animals, especially beavers, were slaughtered en masse for their furs, which were fashionable in Europe.

As Canada’s economy became increasingly dependant on trade, the demand for resources intensified. First Nations were not immune to the pressures to conform and trade. Because of a growing dependency on European goods such as guns and iron implements, First Nations began to take more from the land than what they needed to survive. They hunted and trapped as many animals as they could in order to trade with the Europeans. The culture of aboriginal people was being influenced by metropolitanism and a burgeoning trade economy that extended across Canada. Once careful custodians of the land, they were now complicit in the decimation of animal populations. As animal populations declined, the traditional way of life for First Nations people became less and less viable.

Pollution and environmental degradation were not only affecting rural areas, but cities as well. By the early 1900s Canada’s urban populations were facing major pollution problems. Large amounts of sewage and refuse were being generated as cities expanded. Many municipalities simply drained waste into the nearest rivers or lakes. For example, in 1911, city officials in Vancouver hired expert sanitation engineer R.S. Lea to design a sewerage system to deal with the wastewater problem. Lea’s plan involved building a network of sewers to collect waste from houses. The waste would then be routed into larger inceptor sewers and finally pumped into the sea or the Fraser River. This approach demonstrated a belief commonly held in the early 1900s that nature was like a sponge into which pollution could be absorbed.  In his report, Sink or Swim, Arn Keeling illustrates the lack of foresight regarding environmental protection among leading city planners: “Lea’s definition of pollution weighed hygienic, aesthetic, and economic considerations, not environmental quality per se.”

After World War II, Canadians began to prosper and the economy was growing. By the 1950s many newly prosperous Canadians were taking part in outdoor recreational activities. Provincial parks were overflowing with visitors putting natural ecosystems at risk. Early conservationists called for the protection of natural habitats in the form of nature preserves. In Ontario, the government introduced a program of park expansion in response to the high demand for protected parks.

During the 1960s and 1970s, environmental issues came to the forefront of Canadian’s collective consciousness. Environmental protection groups, such as Greenpeace, were founded as citizens sought to affect change. Clean water was of paramount importance. Novelist Hugh MacLennan’s insistence that Canadians should “think like a river” lent support to the general populace’s concern over the environment. Pulp and paper companies and smelting companies were the biggest offenders in polluting the water. Because cleaning up the production process was a huge expense, critics petitioned the government to force companies to share the burden. Detergent manufacturers were also to blame. Their phosphate-laden suds were causing rampant algae, depleting oxygen levels in the water and killing vast quantities of fish. Politicians responded by addressing public concerns. In June 1969, Vancouver’s Mayor Tom Campbell took a swim in English Bay to show his constituents that the water was clean and that pollution was being dealt with, however his critics were quick to point out that there was still more to be done. Because of mounting pressure from environmentalists, including the Pollution Probe, the government agreed to take steps to cut phosphate use.

Although water pollution was still an issue, in the 1970s air pollution from automobiles seized the public’s attention. Both in Canada and the US, regular citizens and environmentalists alike demanded that something be done to curb emissions. Smog covered major Canadian cities including Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver. In 1970, the United States Congress passed stringent new laws to cut back on automobile emissions in their Clean Air Act. Canada, however, did not follow suit by harmonizing their laws to those of their American neighbours. Historian Dimitry Anastakis noted, “In Canada, the federal government and industry focused upon the economic consequences of harmonized emission standards.” Once again economic considerations trumped ecological concerns.

In the 1980s, pressure on government to enact environmental protections reached new heights. Canadians had discovered the ill effects of unregulated economic growth.  Local and national issues dovetailed with global issues such as global warming, acid rain, ozone depletion and the destruction of the rain forest.  Canada responded by signing a number of multilateral agreements designed to address environmental concerns. Although people were looking to the government for better regulations and environmental protections they were increasingly looking to their own consumption habits as one means to reduce demands on natural resources. Citizens organized by forming associations and political lobbies to support a variety of environmentally friendly initiatives.

Passing laws to protect the environment was not easy for regulators. Many of the largest polluters were also important to the economy since they employed thousands of workers. When the provinces attempted to impose controls, companies resisted and threatened to close down operations.

Public support for environmental protection historically takes a back seat to economic issues. When given a choice between supporting job creation or the environment, most people put their immediate self-interest above potential long-term damage to the biosphere. The negative effects of cutting corners by exploiting natural resources in unsustainable ways is often hard to see until much time has passed. In the 1990s, cash-strapped provincial governments found it easier to cut environmental spending than to cut other programs such as health care. Indeed, budgets were so low that existing eco-regulations were often unenforceable due to lack of funding to monitor compliance.

Canada’s history of exploiting its natural resources for economic gain has evolved over time. Many positive changes have been made as a result of increased public awareness. While the fur trade once threatened to wipe out whole species of animals, endangered animals are now protected. Beavers, sea otters and many other endangered animals have made spectacular comebacks. Clear cutting forests have given way to sustainable management of the timber industry. Old growth forests are now protected. Many national and provincial parks have been created. Laws to reduce carbon emissions have been enacted. Water has been treated and cleaned.

Today, many challenges still remain, but many Canadians are now aware that the environment and the economy are inextricably linked. In the 1990s, when Newfoundland’s cod fishery collapsed, around 40,000 fishers and fish processors were put out of work. The dangers of unsustainable exploitation of Canada’s natural resources are generally understood and public support for sustainable development, minimized consumption and recycling are strong. Unless Canada plans for the long-term protection and management of its resources, the results will be dire.  In this, Canada is not alone. The global community of industrialized nations is struggling to address environmental concerns in ways that will not hurt job creation. Politicians in Canada have an opportunity to lead the world in this area, but they are still putting industry ahead of environment. For example, in 2006 when Stephen Harper was elected as Prime Minister, his Conservative government rejected many of the goals of the Kyoto Accord because of the risks posed to the economy. Later, in 2007, Canada rejected the implementation of revised proposals unless all countries agreed to them.

As a country with vast natural resources, Canada’s economy has benefited from globalization through its exports of coal, grain, minerals, oil and timber to countries like the United States, Japan and China. The Canadian economy depends on these key exports for much of its GDP. As history has shown, Canada has faced a number of environmental challenges in relation to the management of industry. As technology progresses, new environmental issues will arise. Historical patterns can help politicians make informed policy decisions as they deal with emerging issues such as genetically modified crops and oil sands production. The history of Canada’s exploitation and subsequent management of its environmental resources is of profound importance for regular citizens and policy makers alike. The challenge now for Canadians is to learn from the past and apply those lessons to the future.

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