The New Staple State: Political Economy and Public Policy Regimes in Canada’s Primary Industries

Chapter XI - Knotty Tales: Exploring Canadian Forest Policy Narratives - Jocelyn Thorpe and L. Anders Sandberg (York)

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Chapter XI - Knotty Tales: Exploring Canadian Forest Policy Narratives - Jocelyn Thorpe and L. Anders Sandberg (York)


Political economists have typically understood the forest sector as part of the Canadian staples economy: early European settlers used forests for fuel, farming and construction purposes, and industry began later to cut raw timber and manufacture pulp and paper for export (Howlett and Rayner 2001: 25-26). According to the staples narrative, introduced by William Mackintosh (see essays collection published in 1974 [1967]) and elaborated by Harold Innis (1930), in order to settle the land and extract its resources, including forest products, colonists and settlers built an entire society and economy “organized around the labour force, technological regime, legal order, and financial system needed to serve the ends of resource extraction” (Luke 2003: 95). Building upon Innis’ work, a nationalist political economy school has criticized the domination of the Canadian resource economy by foreign capital, markets and technology, and advocated a ‘made-in-Canada’ industrial strategy. Studies on the forest sector have been especially prominent in probing the contingencies, specificities, and possibilities of building a forest policy that is more socially equitable, more value added oriented, and more integrated into the national economy.

More recently, however, many observers in the political economy and policy community tradition have noted a shift from an “extractive to an attractive model of development” (Luke 2003: 92, emphasis ours) within the forest sector, or what Hutton in this volume calls the “staples in decline syndrome” (citation: page 2 in my copy). Though he concedes that it is possible to overstate the staples in decline syndrome, he maintains that “we may be at the advent of a ‘post-staples’ state, in which resource extraction is essentially a residual of the national economic structure, a vestige of an historical development which sustained many Canadian regions” (citation: page 2 in my copy).

In order to evaluate the extent to which Hutton’s observations ring true, this chapter grapples with divergent methods of approaching and analysing forestry. This allows us room not only to evaluate historical and contemporary forestry concerns, but also to explore how specific concerns have come to be understood as central through the approaches employed to analyse the sector. For example, political economy perspectives typically concentrate on European settlers’ impact on an ‘unexploited frontier’ and the subsequent development of a resource extractive, export-oriented economy. Concerns stemming from this approach often centre upon how to create a forest sector that is domestically owned and controlled and integrated through backward and forward linkages into a national economy. Peripheral to this narrative is First Nations’ presence in and claim to forest land, as well as their often violent removal from the land upon which the Canadian forest sector is built (Willems-Braun 1997). In contrast, accounts that foreground the colonial encounter often focus on First Nations communities’ particular relationships with and claims to the land, and understand European immigration and policy-making as influencing, disrupting and shaping, but never completely severing, relationships between First Nations and the land. Concerns based on this approach usually foreground the importance of First Nations self government and access to land (c.f. Alfred 1995, 1999; Monture-Angus 1995, 1999). These two stories emphasize different kinds of concerns that contain different policy implications. Many scholars argue that story-telling practices cannot be separated from political and economic practices, and therefore recognize the importance of attending not only to stories themselves, but also to how and by whom the stories are told (Braun 2002; Haraway 1989; King 2003; Jacobs 1996; McLeod 2000; Said 1993).

In the first section of this chapter, we rely on a political economy perspective to review the history of forest policy. Then, using the contemporary examples of the softwood lumber dispute, forests as carbon sinks, and forests as parks, we argue that while there are some indications of a shift from a staples to a post-staples forest economy, there is also a high degree of continuity. In the second part of the chapter, we note that most of the stories of forest sector development in Canada that come from a political economy perspective focus on heroic or villainous white men in their various capacities as politicians, bureaucrats, representatives of industry, and leaders of powerful labour unions. This observation leads us to identify narratives that extend beyond the lives and roles of white men, and recognize that the forest sector includes and depends on more and different actors. In the third and final section, we question, reexamine, redefine and reformulate the very terms and assumptions upon which forest sector analysis has traditionally rested. Michel Foucault and Donna Haraway, rather than Harold Innis and William Mackintosh, prompt us to think beyond taking Canada as a staples state for granted to inquire into the conditions of this possibility. This means paying attention to how factors such as colonialism, nationalism, race, class and gender shape the emergence of Canadian forests as objects of economic, political and aesthetic calculation. In conclusion, we discuss the implications of this analysis for Canadian forest policy, and the potential for change that comes from action inspired by the different stories identified.

The Staples to Post-Staples Narrative

The staples story typically begins by discussing how early settlers cut or burned down forests in order to clear land for homes, crops and livestock, as well as to obtain wood for fuel and building purposes. The forests are here first considered impediments to settlement and ‘civilization’ in the new colony, but quickly become sources of income through extraction (Drushka 2003: 27). By 1763, both France and Britain had secured royal reserves of timber in Eastern Canada. The purpose of such early forest policies was to serve the interests of imperial powers in attaining naval timbers for masts and shipbuilding (Drushka 2003: 20, 23). Britain became dependent on Canadian lumber after U.S independence, and especially during Napoleon’s blockade of the Baltic (Lower 1973; Mackay 1985). Commentators often point out that early emphasis on the export rather than manufacturing of forest products within Canada served to stimulate the industrial capacity of Britain and France while simultaneously foreclosing the emergence of a manufacturing base in the colony (see Beyers and Sandberg 1998: 100).

Confederation in 1867 is seen as having occurred to facilitate a national staples economy. It provided the central organization and guarantees for funds to build railways and canals to transport large and heavy lumber across long distances. The 1867 Constitution Act granted the provinces ownership, legislative authority and therefore definite jurisdiction over forest land (Nelles 1974; Beyers and Sandberg 1998: 101). Political economists in the liberal tradition argue that provincial ownership of forest land and the development of an economy based on staples export were crucial in the emergence of the Canadian forest sector, and often highlight the resulting mutually beneficial relationship established between government and industry (Beyers and Sandberg 1998; Howlett and Rayner 2001). As they started to implement various tenure and licensing policies, provincial governments generated considerable revenues through allowing industry to remove trees from Crown lands (Howlett and Rayner 2001: 25-26). This system is seen to have worked well for both parties, as industry could access trees while avoiding the costs of land ownership, and governments could create jobs and use forest-generated income for measures popular with the electorate (Howlett and Rayner 2001: 33).

Nationalist narratives appearing in the 1960s argued that provincial governments’ extensive use of income generated from forests put them in the contradictory position of both regulating industrial forest practices and profiting from these same practices (Howlett and Rayner 2001: 43). This provides a very strong bargaining position for corporate interests (Howlett and Rayner 2001: 33), and serves to undermine government’s autonomy (Beyers and Sandberg 1998: 102). Stemming from this situation, closed policy networks have emerged, allowing forest policy to be decided by the state and forest industry, with provincial governments favouring large forest companies to hold long-term leases (Beyers and Sandberg 1998: 102, 103; Pratt and Urquhart 1994; Sandberg 1992).

Narratives that emphasize the role mechanization played in the development of the Canadian forest sector complement discussions of the quest to profit from and control the forest (Drushka 2003; Rajala 1998; Swift 1983). Such stories reveal how the introduction of steam-powered machinery, chain saws, mechanical wheeled skidders, and harvesting machines sped up the pace of logging (Drushka 2003: 33; Swift 1983: 133-134). As clearcut logging became increasingly common, entire watersheds were progressively emptied of trees (Drushka 2003: 34). Several forest inventories conducted in the 1930s revealed that many forests had been seriously depleted (Drushka 2003: 42).

The history of forest conservation is a relatively neglected aspect in the staples tradition in spite of the early establishment of forestry schools and the emergence of scientifically trained professionals (though see Nelles 1974; Gillis and Roach 1986; Judd 1993; Sandberg 1999). Most observers assume that economics, not preservation, was the driving force behind scientific forestry and the conservationist measures were confined to fire suppression and the creation of timber reserves (Beyers and Sandberg 1998: 103). After 1947, sustained yield, the principle which states that tree fibre removed from the forest each year should equal the amount of fibre added through tree growth, began to come into effect. In the 1970s and 1980s, foresters embraced integrated and multiple-use resource management. Its aim is to manage forests for a number of values at the same time, including timber, recreation, and animal habitat. Ecosystem management emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, with the goal of ecosystem rather than timber health (Howlett and Rayner 2001: 46-47). Authors in the political economy tradition have often pointed out that Canadian conservationist measures have resulted in the exacerbation rather than relief of the wood supply crisis, with both the volume of timber and the area of forest cut down increasing throughout the twentieth century (Drushka 2003: 59; Lawson, Levy and Sandberg 2001: 292). Critics discuss how measurements of a ‘sustainable’ extraction rate can be manipulated heavily to favour industry’s economic imperatives, and how sustained yield’s encouragement to eliminate older stands first allowed companies to persist in their preference for cutting previously uncut forests rather than forcing them to revamp their logging practices (Lawson, Levy and Sandberg 2001: 293). Canada’s staples-based economy, with its previously-established commitment to providing foreign markets with a large supply of raw material, is argued to be partially responsible for allowing forest management to be particularly open to economic dominance (Beyers and Sandberg 1998: 103).

These critiques notwithstanding, there are signs pointing to a shift away from the dominant extractive model. Some forest policy analysts propose that by the 1960s many groups and individuals beyond the forest profession were displeased with the way the forest sector favoured timber interests to the exclusion of alternative forest values. These groups included First Nations who challenged the unjust policies and practices that left them increasingly isolated from lands over which they had claim (Willems-Braun 1997: 99). They also consisted of conservation groups which differed widely from one another in terms of goals for the forest, and included hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation groups; tourism and fishing operators; and small-bush operators for whom tenure and licensing systems are difficult to obtain (Howlett and Rayner 2001: 43-44). Preservationist environmental groups also succeeded in having more lands designated as parks (Lawson, Levy and Sandberg 2001: 104-105). The mass support garnered for anti-logging protests like the ones in Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia and Temagami, Ontario also reveal that the environmental movement is a strong force contending with Canada’s dominant forestry model.

Besides the challenge from previously marginal(ized) actors, the pressure to preserve Canadian forests has also gone hand in hand with an increase in attractive capital development. The Canadian forest industry has not only faced a number of threats from environmental and First Nations groups, but also a declining resource base (Howlett and Rayner 2001: 51), and an ever-increasingly global capitalism where rival countries are able to produce and export timber less expensively than is Canada (Marchak 1995). To aggravate the situation, and despite increased production, the forest sector has experienced serious job loss (Howlett and Rayner 2001: 37), and forestry dependent communities have consequently suffered (Baldwin 2000: 30). Paradoxically, such conflicts over the fate of Canada’s forests have made them into international tourist destinations, allowing attractive development strategies to become possible ways for communities to remain viable (Luke 2003: 97-98). For example, tourism at Clayoquot Sound did not take off until the early 1980s, when the international media turned its gaze on the environmental struggle to ‘save’ the last of this forest (Luke 2003: 96). Clayoquot Sound thus became a tourist destination not only because of its beauty, but also because of the perception that that beauty might at any time disappear (Braun 2002). By the mid-1980s, several tour operators had started to provide ecotourism packages for the growing number of visitors, including whale watching, kayaking and hot springs tours.

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