The Great Bear Rainforest: Overcoming 500-Year-Old Views on Nature
Academic Essay by Cameron Bullen
Many works of early Canadian literature provide an insight into the attitudes and opinions of North American society at a given point in history. Often these views are completely alien to a contemporary reader, but at other times these attitudes have persisted into the modern era, and remnants can be seen in the world around us. This persistence of ideas is especially applicable to concepts about nature and land use, where mainstream opinion has changed very little. The Great Bear Rainforest is a 6.4-million-hectare section of rare coastal temperate rainforest located on the coast of Northern British Columbia, Canada. Since the mid 1990s, local residents, conservation groups, governments and industry members have been working together to implement management plans to protect this unique rainforest. In the process of protecting this region, conservation groups have come up against some long held attitudes towards land management that are antithetical to their goals: namely the views of nature as a commodity or an obstacle, and the exclusion of indigenous peoples from the land. These land ethics can be found throughout early Canadian literature. Therefore, it is these attitudes early explorers and settlers held about nature that modern conservationists are working to overcome in projects such as the conservation of The Great Bear Rainforest.
Throughout its history, the place we now know as Canada has been portrayed as a land of extremes; some explorers and early settlers saw the land they arrived at as a desolate waste, while others saw the land as possessing limitless riches. The first of these attitudes can clearly be seen in Oliver Goldsmith’s 1825 poem “The Rising Village.” In his poem, Goldsmith characterizes the wilderness as a “waste” (Goldsmith 164), and villages as islands amidst “bleak and desert lands” (Goldsmith 164). In this way, Goldsmith portrays wilderness as incompatible with civilization. This view of nature as a barrier to civilization, only becoming tolerable and useful through extensive cultivation, was one commonly expressed by early explorers and settlers, and characterizes humans as external to nature. However, this view contrasted starkly with a commonly expressed, alternative view of nature as a place of limitless resources. This view can be seen in Mary Ann Shadd’s pamphlet A Plea for Emigration, where she tells prospective settlers that “with an axe and a little energy, an independent position would result in a short period” (Shadd 8). In her pamphlet, Shadd advocated that nature is a source of wealth if one only has the will to take it. This attitude towards nature promoted limitless resource extraction without thought of consequences. While these two views of nature are diametrically different, at their core they are similar in that they are both anthropocentric. Both characterizations of nature see humans as separate to nature, and only view nature in terms of its utility – or lack of utility – to humans. Similarly, both views are likely to lead an individual to similar actions, widespread destruction of nature; either to make way for civilization or to profit from it’s products. These anthropocentric attitudes towards nature have been prevalent in society since the time of these early settlers, and are still common today. One prominent example of this view is expressed in the name held by the Great Bear Rainforest until 1997, “The Central-Mid Coast Timber Supply Area.” This name clearly defines this unique wilderness in terms of its resource extraction potential, and its utility to humans. This conceptualization of nature is similar to the view expressed by Shadd, of nature as a resource to be exploited for human gain.
While these anthropocentric views may have been common throughout Canada’s development and continue to be common today, there have always been those who valued nature for more than resource extraction. Archibald Lampman expresses this view in his poem “Among the Timothy”. In this poem, Lampman portrays nature as having intrinsic value that is able to be enjoyed without resource extraction: “I bid my spirit pass / Out into the pale green ever-swaying grass / To brood, but no more fret” (Lampman 416). Lampman saw nature as a place where one can recover from the turmoil of life, and find both peace and oneself; a view shared by the prominent conservationist John Muir (Goralnik & Nelson 185). Modern conservation attempts to promote this concept of intrinsic value, while dispelling the anthropocentric views that imagine humans as separate from nature. In protecting the Great Bear Rainforest in particular, conservationists have attempted to shift the focus to “ecosystem sustainability rather than ecosystem products” (Price et al. 495). This changing emphasis reflects the views of conservationists that nature is useful for more than the resources that can be removed from it, contrary to the views of Goldsmith and Shadd. Another goal of conservationists in the Great Bear Rainforest is to include provisions for people dependent on the land, and ensure Indigenous people have the power to govern their own land use, which is a departure from those attitudes commonly seen in exploration and settlement literature.
The view of nature as a commodity or a barrier to civilization was largely introduced to Canada by early explorers and settlers. Indigenous peoples generally had a much more intimate, mutualistic relationship with the land than Europeans, thus the shift of power and land management ability from Indigenous to Europeans resulted in the replacement of Indigenous “subsistence economies with natural resource extraction” (Price et al. 497). The more intimate relationship many Indigenous peoples had with nature can be seen in Brian Maracle’s work “First Words”, in which he tells the Iroquois creation story. Throughout the story humans are described as being a part of nature, and are told by the creator to “respect the earth” (Maracle 10). This attitude towards nature is similar to those advocated by modern conservationists (Price et al. 2009), but contrasts with those of settlers such as Goldsmith and Shadd.
With settlement and later confederation, Indigenous peoples lost the power to interact with nature as they had been pre-settlement. This erosion of power was made explicit in the “Indian Act”, where Indigenous lack of power over the land was formalized. The “Indian Act” states that although Indigenous peoples may live on the land, the crown owned “all the trees, wood, timber, stone, minerals, metals, or other valuables thereon or therein” (The Indian Act 323). This ownership clearly shows that the government thought nature was important as a valuable source of resources to be exploited, and meant that the crown was free to practice resource exploitation as it so wished. Indigenous peoples had no say in how this land – the land they lived on and had lived on for generations – was treated. Indigenous influence over nature was further removed through the European renaming of places, which was common amongst early explorers and settlers. An example of this can be seen in the writings of Jacques Cartier, where he names a bay inhabited by Indigenous people (and thus likely already named) “Chaleur Bay” (Cartier 43), a name it retains to this day. Place naming has played an important part in colonization, acting as a mechanism for “cultural and territorial appropriation” (Nieminen). This appropriation removed indigenous presence from the land, ultimately laying the ground for a culture of resource exploitation and natural destruction.
Modern conservation is working to restore power to indigenous groups through the implementation of Ecosystem Based Management (EBM) in projects such as the Great Bear Rainforest. EBM highlights the importance of stakeholder participation in conservation, particularly the people living in the area (Price et al. 496). In the case of the Great Bear Rainforest, the majority of residents are of Indigenous ancestry, and consequently one of the primary goals of conservationists is to restore governing power to these indigenous residents (Price et al. 497). This goal has been partially achieved through the treatment of Indigenous peoples as an equal partner, and the creation of First Nation Lead Management Areas, where Indigenous groups have the “right to manage and use resources” (Clapp 855). Conservationists and Indigenous groups are optimistic that “aboriginal traditions of resource management stand a better chance of attaining sustainability” (Clapp 855), due to their more intimate relationship with nature. Additionally, conservationists attempted to reconnect Indigenous people to land both in the minds of these Indigenous peoples, and in the minds of people around the world by renaming this large stretch of coastline; what was once called “The Central Mid-Coast Timber Supply Area” was renamed The Great Bear Rainforest (Price et al. 495). In these ways conservationists attempted to restore power to Indigenous peoples, directly fighting the effects of early explorers, settlers and governments in removing their power; for it was the removal of this power that paved the way for a culture of resource extraction.
The influence of early explorers and settlers is widespread, permeating our society both consciously and subconsciously. This is especially true for land management and nature ethics; however, it is only when one examines early Canadian literature that one can appreciate how truly entrenched these ideas are. With their movement to the new world, explorers and settlers introduced concepts of nature as both a barrier to civilization and a resource to be exploited, and ensured the prominence of these ethics by removing power from Indigenous people who lived in symbiosis with the land. It is these century old attitudes towards nature that conservationists in the Great Bear Rainforest have attempted to overcome by focusing on the intrinsic value of nature, and restoring power to Indigenous groups. It remains to be seen whether these practices will be successful in overcoming such widespread and established attitudes.
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