Historians love a good turning point, and one of the most memorable for undergraduates in post-Confederation Canadian history classes is 1921. This was the last census year with a majority rural population, and thereafter officials declared Canada an urban nation. To some contemporaries, this reaffirmed that the Dominion had entered “Canada’s century,” had forged its identity in the crucible of the First World War, and it could now boast at least four world-class cities with more waiting in the wings. To others who preferred country life, it was a call for rural modernization and reform. Pedagogically, 1921 became a useful watershed for decades of history students studying when, and how, Canada entered the modern world. Canada modernized later than its commonwealth mother and southern sibling, but in the 1920s it finally hit this benchmark of urbanization. The problem, as R. W. Sandwell so cogently argues in Canada’s Rural Majority, is urban Canada has been lying about its age. Canada was overwhelmingly rural for most of its history. By most definitions of “urban,” Canada was actually not. Its farms continued to increase, and its rural population only declined for the first time in 1976. By focusing on 1870 to 1940, Sandwell brings rural history into the post-Confederation period, and she challenges the assumptions about urbanization and industrialization that worked in Western Europe and parts of the United States but did not yet apply in Canada. Rural Canadians shared three important characteristics: they spent most of their lives outdoors, they organized their lives in households, and they worked extremely hard. This matters to environmental history for a number of reasons, not least is the deep familiarity that most Canadians had, and many still have, with the nonhuman environment. We must understand rural Canada’s history of land use change, energy transitions, and food systems sustainability, especially as new global “commodity frontiers” experience these same issues today. The relationship between humans and the nonhuman environment defines the book’s structure. Chapters are organized around “Five vast, generalized, and somewhat overlapping zones.” The argument is framed first by geography and then by the ways most people interacted with that geography—through work. Within the various arenas of work (households, gardens, barns, forests, etc.), Sandwell then takes a thematic approach, touching on critical new questions advanced by feminist and indigenous scholars. The book also follows the thread of energy’s changing role in rural life and agroecosystems making this an important overview and starting point for scholars of social metabolism and agricultural modernization. Canada’s size, its harsh climate, and the scale of land use transitions at the edge of the Northern Hemisphere’s arable zone make this book exciting reading for many environmental historians. Generalists will be impressed by the extent of the Canadian Shield and the creative ways of making a living on it; the density of settlement and the diverse outputs of agriculture in the St. Lawrence valley; the speed and scale of settlement on the Plains, and the nation’s ability to provide 40 percent of the world’s wheat market from this grassland agroecosystem. The book is full of important lessons for students trying to understand Canadian environments and what it meant to be rural, especially in a time when many urbanites insist on living in rural, coastal, exurban, and wilderness areas. Canada’s Rural Majority describes five enormous regions in great detail, and it accomplishes much else, especially considering the page limits of books in the “Themes in Canadian History” series. At the subregional and local levels, the quality of descriptions are more mixed. In some cases, like local foodways or the technologies of barns or engines, there is an engaging discussion of spatial patterns. In other areas, particularly the production of fields in the St. Lawrence region, the characteristics of rural life and work are quite general. It would be useful, for instance, to get a sense of how the relationships forged with the land and with other communities varied within each region and in more sample towns and communities. However, as a short, engaging, and inclusive book, this will be a pleasure for undergraduates, and since it is informed by much of the best scholarship in rural history, it also offers context for a range of deeper environmental histories. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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