Canadian Confederation and the Environment
Later this month, I’ll be presenting at a scholarly workshop on Confederation that will be held in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. As many readers of this blog will know, Charlottetown hosted a conference in September 1864 that led to the federation of the British North American colonies. This process is known as Confederation. A rather boring version of Confederation’s history is taught to every Canadian schoolchild, usually in Grade 7. Most Canadians vaguely associate Charlottetown with Confederation and this is something the city’s tourist and convention bureau uses to attract visitors. (The natural beauty of Prince Edward Island is the main draw, of course). Charlottetown is using the 150th anniversary of Confederation as a hook to lure in tourists from other parts of Canada. As you can see from the images I’ve pasted below, the authorities are going into overdrive with the Confederation references. I also like that a local craft brewery is producing special beers in honour of the Fathers of Confederation.
Anyway, the theme of the workshop is the relationship between Canadian Confederation and the environmental history of the period. How did federation a collection of British colonies into a nation-state of transcontinental proportions change the relationship between people and the environment? My paper looks at the implications of Confederation for fisheries and fishermen. In its very first session, the Canadian parliament passed the Dominion Fisheries Act, which was designed to centralize control over the new nation’s fisheries in the hands of a bureaucratic hierarchy controlled by the new federal government. My paper shows that this experiment in top-down bureaucratic control didn’t work terribly well in practice. I draw on the theories of knowledge and governance developed by Vincent and Elinor Ostrom and the other members of the Bloomington School of Political Economy in explaining why this legislation had such negative results.
My paper is also designed to get us thinking about the broader implications of the constitution of 1867 for the environment. That’s a question of more than historical interests- since the 1867 constitution is still, albeit in amended form, in force. In recent months, Canadians have debated the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project. The Premier of the province of British Columbia, through which the pipeline will pass, had vowed to block construction. The thing is, she can’t, thanks to the Fathers of Confederation. (See a helpful little article by Kristen Pue). Even though local majorities in the communities throughout which it will pass appear to be opposed to its construction, that doesn’t matter, since the 1867 constitution vests ultimate control with the federal government, which is strongly supportive of the project. This feature of the Canadian constitution reflects the values of its long-dead authors. Some of the Fathers of Confederation wanted the new country to be a unitary state like the United Kingdom. They couldn’t quite get away with that, so they created a constitution that was superficially a federal one but which was really highly centralised. That choice has implications for environmental policy in Canada today.
It would be simplistic to say that the decision of the Fathers of Confederation to centralize power in the hands of the federal government was “good for business” and “bad for the environment”, because “business” and the “environment” are heterogeneous categories. However, allocating control over the main levers of environmental policy to a senior level of government certainly made it easier for certain types of businesses, especially those that fall into the category of Big Business, to engage in activities that produced negative environmental externalities that were felt mainly by residents of communities located far from the centres of economic and political power. There are numerous examples of this one could provide, particularly in the period before 1930, when Crown lands in the Prairie Provinces were micromanaged by a bureaucracy under the control over the national government, not local government. The bureaucracy was captured by particular Big Business interests, most notably the Canadian Pacific Railway Company.
In thinking about the relationship between national constitutions and the environment, there is a fair bit of political science literature we can draw on. National constitutions influence how individuals interact with the natural environment. Ceteris paribus, democratic constitutions tend to produce better environmental policies than non-democratic ones (Midlarsky, 1998). Although the differences are less pronounced, centralized democratic regimes generate different environmental policies than federal democracies (Wälti, 2004; Fredriksson and Wollscheid, 2007). This research has helped to frame my research into fisheries policy in the years immediately after Confederation.
P.S. My book British Businessmen and Canadian Confederation suggested that the real Fathers of Confederation were a clique of London financiers that included Baring Brothers. To be truly historically accurate, perhaps the brewery should a beer that honours these financiers. The beer should be light, frothy, and vaguely red in colour as as to reflect the financial state of some of the investors who held Canadian securities in the 1860s.