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

Questioning the Staples to Post-Staples Transition

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Questioning the Staples to Post-Staples Transition

But to what extent has the Canadian forest sector, as suggested by a political economy analysis, experienced a staples to post-staples transition? We contend that there are many trends revealing a continued firm hold of the staples extraction model on the Canadian forest economy. This is evidenced in the continued revenue associated with the forest resource and trade sector (Global Forest Watch 2000), but it is perhaps most obvious in the increasing grip of the market on all things forest-related. Neoliberal policies have cut the funding and reduced the capacities of forest and natural resource departments to develop and enforce forest regulations. Forest management and monitoring have been delegated to the forest companies who now more or less police themselves. The rise of certification of environmentally sustainably produced wood products that involve industry-wide initiatives as well as environmental organizations, as suggested by Ben Cashore and Stephen Bernstein in Chapter XIV, is another ingredient of this phenomenon (Clancy and Sandberg 1997). But the trend extends further and in subtler ways. In the following, we suggest that the way Canadians talk and think about the softwood lumber dispute, forest carbon sequestration, and preserved areas, not only challenge but in many ways support the extraction model.

The Softwood Lumber Dispute

The softwood lumber dispute focuses on the United States forest industry’s claims that Canadian lumber exports are unfairly subsidized through the Canadian Crown land lease system. According to the U.S. industry, provincial governments set artificially low harvesting or stumpage fees on forests cut on Crown lands, thus providing an unfair competitive advantage to Canadian lumber producers. From the Canadian perspective, by contrast, the low stumpage rates have been an integral tool to attract forest industry investment to Canada and have also allowed the forest industry to remain internationally competitive. In the see-saw battle that has ensued, various American, North American Free Trade Association and World Trade Organization trade tribunals have consistently ruled in Canada’s favour.

Apart from trade considerations, environmental or attractive issues have also been connected with the softwood lumber dispute. In recent years, Canadian environmental, labour, and First Nations groups have supported the U.S. position, maintaining that low stumpage rates are related to job loss and environmental degradation (Hayter 2003: 716; Peters 2002). They have called for forest policies that: ensure full market value for the forest; resist calls for compensation by industry when ensuring a fair market; strengthen the export ban on raw logs; implement environmental protection; and recognize Aboriginal title. Yet such trade and environmental aspects of the softwood lumber dispute have had a very low profile in the Canadian public debate. The political rhetoric is clearly pointing in favour of maintaining an uncompromising free trade in forest products. At the federal level, Prime Ministers and Trade Ministers routinely speak in favour of Canada in the softwood lumber dispute and are not adverse to supporting American interests of the same conviction. In 2001, for example, Prime Minister Chrétien cheered on the CEO of Home Depot who stated that Canadian wood is typically not replacing American wood because they are used for different purposes. Said Chrétien: “Canadian wood is stronger. The coldness of Canada makes men and wood stronger” (MacDonald 2001). In some cases, even those prominently opposed to the forest practices of the industry, have come to this position. Former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae, when in opposition, was arrested for protesting the cutting of old growth red and white pine at Temagami in the early 1990s. By 2001, however, he represented a coalition of Canadian lumber producers promoting the intercontinental free trade of lumber products (Record 2001). Prominent figures in the labour and environmentalist field, such as Jack Munro, once President of the International Woodworkers of America, and Patrick Moore, founder of Greenpeace, are similarly part of the Canadian forest industry lobby who are vehement supporters of the free trade in lumber products.

The story of the softwood lumber dispute is also routinely told as an economic story and a competition between Canada and the United States in the public, political and academic discourse. Conventional magazines and newspapers, as expressed in the Virtual News Index, contain scant references to the environmental aspects of the dispute while focussing on the trade gains or losses of Canada (Economist 2003). In the academic literature, a nationalist narrative remains prominent where the softwood lumber dispute figures in “an unanticipated and undesirable outcome [read fewer exports] for the lumber industry” or as having a “negative impact” on the forest industry (Hayter 1992: 153; Bernstein and Cashore 2001). The coverage repeats the nature of similar trade disputes in the past where the United States is portrayed as the bully and Canada as the hapless victim (Parenteau and Sandberg 1995; Sandberg and Parenteau 1997).

Forests as Carbon Sinks

Our second example is the forest’s role in carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration or the carbon sink concept operates on the principle that forests are capable of sequestering greenhouse gases and therefore play an important role in the global efforts to deal with climate change. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was the first global initiative to deal with carbon emissions, and it focussed primarily on the reduction of such emissions through conservation measures. The United States introduced the carbon sink concept at a United Nations Conference in the Hague in 2000, arguing that afforestation efforts as well as existing forests should be part of the overall calculation when determining the emission quotas for individual countries. The European Union countries were outraged by the proposal, labelling it “a farce” and a means to escape the previous commitments to carbon emission reductions. Scott (2001a; 2001b) refers to the carbon sink concept as a loophole that is based on the dubious science that tree plantations are better carbon sinks than old growth forests. In sum, forests as carbon sinks have become conveniently incorporated into the staples-based economy where both existing forests and forest plantations are put forth as important ingredients in calculating Canada’s contribution toward the reduction of carbon emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

Parks Versus Staples?

Given that Canada has always been economically dependent on the export of natural resources, it appears that the decision to set aside areas for preservation, including as provincial and national parks across the nation, indicates that Canada is moving away from its resource extractive economy. Yet a closer inspection leaves a different impression. First, it is a very small percentage of land that has actually been set aside for protection, less than eight percent across the nation (Global Forest Watch 2000: 11). While the decision to protect thirteen percent of forest land on Vancouver Island is considered an environmental accomplishment, this leaves eighty-seven percent open to industrial forestry. Similarly, provincial and national parks occupy only a very small percentage of the total land in Canada. This shows that extractive industry certainly remains dominant. Further, while national parks now have a mandate to ensure the ecological integrity of each park (Parks Canada website), provincial parks do not share this mandate, and continue to allow resource extraction to take place within park boundaries (Bella 1987: 2). Since neither industry nor provincial governments want to have exploitable resources locked up in parks, they generally prefer the opening of provincial rather than national parks (Bella 1987: 2). Also, in deciding locations for national parks, governments have attempted to ensure that resources are either exhausted within, or remain outside, park boundaries (Bella 1987: 38). National parks continue to be encroached upon by development and resource extractive activities that sometimes involve intensive resource use directly adjacent to park borders (Sandilands 2000 137).

Though it seems contrary, a productivist bias is also evident in non-extractive uses of parks. Not only do high volumes of tourist traffic and their corresponding roads and recreational services place ecological stress on parks (Hermer 2002; Sandilands 2000), but also parks in Canada have always been motivated at least as much by profit as preservation (Bella 1987). For example, Banff National Park was opened in 1885 with the explicit purpose of drawing wealthy travelers to enjoy scenic vistas while spending money on fine dining and accommodations (Stefanick 2001: 159). Bella argues that while logging exploits the timber resource, parks exploit another natural resource: scenery (1987: ix). Though M’Gonigle cautions us not to think that the industry of viewing forests is as ecologically destructive as the industry of chopping them down (2003: 131), it is also important to look at how these seemingly opposed activities may in fact not be so different. As Braun argues, by remaking forests into the image of the timber commodity, industrial forestry abstracts forests from their cultural and ecological surrounds (2002). Similarly, by valuing forests for their scenery or “viewscapes,” attractive industry like (eco)tourism creates nature as visually rather than ecologically important (Braun 2002: 143, 146). This in turn has consequences for what it is we want to preserve: scenic vistas or ecological integrity?


It has been argued that Canadian resource policy suffers from an “environmental blind spot” that is a function of Canada’s continued dependence on polluting resource industries and international markets (Williams 1992). Canada remains vulnerable to the export markets of the United States, Europe and southeast Asia, and therefore a lackey to the international demand for staple products and the requests of international customers of forest products. While this interpretation has been challenged by the environmentalist turn in Canadian society, we here suggest that it still holds considerable validity. The Canadian position on the softwood lumber dispute overlooks environmental concerns and fiercely objects to American lumber producers’ claims about subsidized wood from provincial Crown lands. Canadian forests are constructed as carbon sinks that let Canada off the hook in meeting its commitments to carbon emission reduction under the Kyoto Protocol. And the Canadian parks system is seriously compromised by its limited extent and the eco-commerce that is central to its very existence.

Staples By and For More People

While the staples narrative of the forest sector is the most often told in Canada, this does not mean it is the story about forestry in Canada. In this section, we review various other stories that both add to and challenge the dominant political economy narrative. One important story increasingly told in the 1970s and 1980s is by labour and social historians. Ian Radforth and Richard Rajala, for example, focus specifically on how mechanization affected forest labour (Radforth 1987; Rajala 1998). While mechanization of the forest sector was a boon to industry since it allowed for access to new forest land and enabled trees to be cut down more quickly, these authors show how workers suffered from mechanization. They demonstrate that pre-industrial logging practices like oxen or horse logging required a great deal of skill and knowledge on the part of wage workers and contract labour, particularly those in charge of driving animal teams. Consequently, employers depended heavily on this labour, which resulted in a high degree of labour control over the workplace. Radforth (1987; see also Radforth 1986) argues that the introduction of machinery in northern Ontario was a way employers could overcome the independence, skills, and militancy as well as, after the Second World War, the labour scarcity of bush workers. Rajala (1998) similarly contends that mechanization in British Columbia was an attempt to make the ‘working forest’ operate like a factory, where employers would seize relatively more power, and workers receive relatively less. Other authors show how technological innovations continue to negatively affect forest workers, for example through creating huge mills and machines that process more wood with fewer workers, thus substantially lowering employment and union membership in the forest sector (M’Gonigle and Parfitt 1994; see also Mercure 1996; Howlett and Rayner 2001).

Some stories challenge the assumption that it was entirely workers of European descent who participated in Canadian forestry (McManus 1999). Knight (1978: 118) and Van Wyck (1979) show that many First Nations people laboured in the forest industry in British Columbia and Ontario beginning in the very earliest days of logging. Some bands prospered early from trading timber with Europeans, others performed wage work as loggers and mill employees and sometimes made independent contracts with the lumber industry to cut saw logs or railway ties (Van Wyck 1979: 78-87). Such studies reveal that Native people were not only present within, but also essential to, the emergence of the forest industry, disrupting both the common assumption that the lives of First Nations were and remain peripheral to the development of Canadian society, and the popular stereotype that Native people are somehow inherently ecological beings opposed to extractive industry (Drushka 2003; Swift 1983; see also Furniss 1999: Perry 2001). Indeed, Aboriginal people remain active in the forest industry, and some narratives emphasize their struggle for benefits associated with the current industrial regime: employment, revenue and timber (Westman 2001: 4). Many recent discussions about First Nations involvement in the forest sector focus on “joint business ventures” between industry and various First Nations (Hayter 2000: 339). These partnerships allow corporations access to timber on Native reserves, as well as secure resources for corporations at a time when corporate access is increasingly threatened by First Nations land claim and treaty-making processes (Hayter 2003: 723). Yet these partnerships are often touted as “win-win” situations, for industry because “it’s increasingly becoming a marketplace expectation that businesses demonstrate good corporate citizenship,” and for First Nations because “they’ve been able to provide employment opportunities for their people” (First Perspective 1998; Kimble 2003). Partnerships have also been criticized for potentially lessening the chances for more radical changes by taking attention away from land claim issues (Lawson, Levy and Sandberg 2001: 301).

Along similar lines, various authors show that immigrants of colour, and not only white Europeans, built the forest sector. While colonial officials believed that Canada should become a white settler nation, or a “Britain of the North” (Berger 1966: 4), this racist desire often conflicted with Canada’s growing demand for labour with which to build the nation (Mackey 1999; Perry 2001). Indeed, since the Canadian government had difficulty attracting enough British and European migrants, it allowed immigration from China, India and Japan. But in the context of attempting to build a white settler colony, racial hierarchies of citizenship emerged, and Asian migrants were considered temporary workers rather than potential citizens, a bias which was reflected in the regulated entry of Asian men according to labour market needs, and a differential residency and citizenship status (Dua 1999a: 244). Attempts to restrict entry to Asian women through a serious of changing regulations designed to prevent the permanent settlement of Asian men, lasted until 1947 (Dua 1999a: 245; see also Dua 1999b).

Some commentators show how racial hierarchies of citizenship directly impacted the forest sector. Adachi, for example, discusses how Japanese labourers at sawmills in British Columbia worked in the early 1900s for lower pay than white workers (Adachi 1976: 27). In 1922, British Columbia “passed a resolution asking the federal government to… empower the province to make laws prohibiting ‘Asiatics’ from acquiring proprietory interests in… timber lands… and other industries as well as employment in them” (Adachi 1976: 140). In 1934 the Board of Industrial Relations in British Columbia developed a minimum wage system for the province’s sawmill industry. This system also allowed for up to 25% of the total number of employees to be paid less than the minimum wage, an allowance created so that employers could hire low-paid Asian workers (Li 1988: 45). This research shows that immigrants who differed from the “British norms of racial, cultural, and political acceptability” (Abele and Stasiulis 1989: 241) were less fortunate in the forest sector than were white male workers, thus revealing racial hierarchies in the labour force which contributed to the profitability of the forest industry. Indeed, as Li points out, white workers and capitalists directly benefited from racist labour policies; because Asian workers were paid less, white workers were paid more, and profit margins remained high (Li 1988: 45).

Though it is not generally disputed that the forestry profession and the forest industry are historically and contemporarily closely tied, various authors have a more complex view of professional foresters and forest workers than an understanding of them simply as lackeys to industry’s demands, caring only to maintain the status quo of timber liquidation for staples export. Dunk (1994) explicates the complex relationships forest workers have with forests, and reveals that they do not simply view forests as resources to be cut down for profit. Kuhlberg argues that early in the history of professional forestry, Ontario foresters came up with management schemes that indicated their attention to other than timber forest values (Kuhlberg 1996). Sandberg and Clancy (2000; 2002) similarly argue that it is not useful to paint all foresters with the same broad brushstrokes, and show that some dissenting Canadian foresters advocated on behalf of more ecologically and socially responsible kinds of forest management, though they were often unsuccessful in altering the dominant paradigm of forest management.

While most political economy approaches to the forest sector focus on the activities of European men, some studies reveal the critical role played by women. Scholars argue that even during periods of mostly male migration to Canada, women, though undervalued and unpaid or underpaid, have always performed essential labour, for example as household workers or cooks in logging camps (Abele and Stasiulis 1989; Marchak 1983; Reed 2003). In a recent study, Reed explores the lives and perceptions of women who support industrial forestry in British Columbia, demonstrating how the socially and historically constructed notion of ‘working forest’ history as a story of white workingman’s culture (Dunk 1991) has dramatically shaped women’s experiences in forest communities. Reed highlights how even though most jobs in the forest sector are currently unstable due in part to restructuring and job loss, women who work in the forest industry frequently have jobs that are more economically marginalized than men’s (2003: 37; see also Hayter 2000: 266). Perhaps more revealing, however, is the difficulty women face in obtaining steady, well-paying jobs in forestry towns. They are more than three times as likely than are men to enter into a service occupation, whereas men are more than six times more likely than women to be employed in primary industries (Reed 2003: 88). As one of Reed’s interviewees, who works four part-time jobs, states, “a woman in this area cannot get a one full-time, forty-hour-a-week job that pays properly to support a family… women are still making seven-fifty an hour” (quoted in Reed 2003: 93). Reed and other authors show that this difficulty is shaped by race as well as gender, and it is typically people of colour, Aboriginal people and white women who do the majority of nonunion and low-paid work, for example in the service sector, in forestry towns.31


Many of the above stories could be said to be part of a ‘legal rights-recognition-and-resistance discourse’ that records and often celebrates the role of marginalized people in the building of Canadian society. The quest for legal rights and recognition through ‘rights’ and affirmative action is part of this narrative. The policy implications favour restitution of past injustices, affirmative action in employment, and a fair deal for all actors in the forest economy. Their largest shortcoming is that they often remain rooted in reformist measures that do not challenge the social injustices and environmental degradation that are arguably endemic to capitalist society.

Beyond the Staples to Post-Staples Transition

Innis’ early studies, as well as more recent political economy accounts, allow us to comprehend how Canada’s position as a European colony has led to Canada’s historical and contemporary situation as an exporter of staples products. Other stories demonstrate the essential roles played by various actors not generally featured in the political economy and policy community tradition, thereby providing a more nuanced reading of the history of the Canadian forest sector. We turn now to stories inspired by feminist and postcolonial studies which inquire into the conditions of possibility for the emergence of Canada as a staples economy, and thus allow us to fundamentally rethink forest policy analysis.

Eva Mackey (1999) reminds us that while Canada can be usefully considered as a European colony, it is also important to remember Canada’s role as a colonizing power with respect to First Nations peoples. A narrative which takes this fact seriously must push beyond the political economy approach and recognize that the emergence of a staples economy depended not only upon Canada’s position as a European colony, but also on the “conquest and control of other people’s land and goods” (Loomba 1998: 2), as well as the perception of trees (and fish, furs and minerals) as commodities to be extracted for profit. Though the land supposedly ‘discovered’ by explorers like Champlain and Cartier had already been populated by Aboriginal peoples for many thousands of years (“discovery,” as Anne McClintock (1995: 28) famously notes, “is always late”), Kuehls (2003: 181-182) traces how a colonial logic operated to erase First Nations presence in and ownership over the land through the representation of Aboriginal peoples’ land use patterns as insufficient to merit title. Mackey argues that Enlightenment notions of progress, which held European style ‘civilization’ to be the epitome of human evolution and assumed that ‘uncivilized’ Aboriginal peoples would die out in the steady march of progress, helped to justify the European apprehension of Native land (Mackey 1999; see also Francis 1992). Cree historian Winona Stevenson gives lie to this self-serving colonialist logic by revealing its profit-driven motives, arguing that colonists continually desired more from First Nations peoples; “mercantilists wanted our furs, missionaries wanted our souls, colonial governments, and later Canada, wanted our lands” (1999: 49). These analyses beg for a rethinking of the Canadian staples economy, and reveal the story to be much more complex, and nefarious, than generally discussed in political economy accounts.

In his study of the British Columbia rainforest, Braun gives an account of the emergence of a staples-based economy in Canada from a postcolonial perspective, arguing that the Canadian staples state became achievable only through the colonial representation, or “political fiction,” of the land as empty (2002: 31). Abele and Stasiulis similarly understand a staples economy to be possible only because lands and resources were “taken… from Native societies, at great cost to the members of those societies” (1989: 242). Colonial subjects enacted their vision onto the landscape and “into the very administration of the nation and its lands” (Willems-Braun 1997: 112) by forcing Aboriginal peoples onto small, geographically isolated reserves, and restricting them access to their own lands, while at the same time creating the rest of the land as national resource space, open for exploitation by settlers and colonists (Willems-Braun 1997: 99). Indeed, not only were First Nations peoples restricted access to their traditional territories, but the federal government also retained control over forests on Native reserves. Unlike many political economy narratives, which conceptualize colonialism as an exceptional “ugly chapter” of Canadian history, this kind of narrative allows us to understand how colonialism is instead “a constituent and explanatory feature of Canadian historical development” (Abele and Stasiulis 1989: 244). Following Abele and Stasiulis, Braun argues that sustained yield reenacts and reinforces earlier colonial displacements of First Nations peoples by aiming to remake the entire forest in the image of the timber commodity, thus reproducing the colonial vision of the land as empty of First Nations peoples and their use of and claim to forest land (Braun 2002: 31-32; Willems-Braun 1997: 102). Simultaneously, by focusing exclusively on the timber commodity, the sustained yield paradigm also functions to displace forests from their ecological surrounds (Braun 2002: 35). Taking this critique in another direction, feminist analysis points to how sustained yield’s attempt to force forests into supposedly more efficient timber-producing factories is symptomatic of a wider western assumption that nature, gendered female, is in and of it/herself inadequate, and needs to be improved upon by rational management, embodied in this case by the male forestry professional, government and industry.32

This kind of narrative also enables a look at how environmentalist pressure to ‘save’ ‘pristine’ forests (for examples of environmentalist groups that emphasize the importance of pristine nature, see the websites of The Wilderness Committee, Sierra Club of Canada and Earthroots), while disrupting the dominant view of the forest as a commodity to be extracted, also reproduces colonial erasures of First Nations peoples who, not surprisingly, often find the term ‘pristine wilderness’ highly offensive (Magnusson 2003: 9). It does not take much to see the similarity between representing previously-inhabited land as pristine wilderness for saving, and representing inhabited land as empty and open for exploitation. Sometimes Aboriginal peoples themselves are constructed within the environmental movement as part of the nature in need of saving, a representation which serves to place Aboriginal peoples in the past, as part of tradition or premodernity, and therefore of pristine wilderness (Braun 2002; Lawrence 2004). As Gayatri Spivak reminds us, part of the “long-term toxic effect” of imperialism is the fantasy of imperialist (read environmentalist) as saviour (1992: 781). To the long list of things colonists desired, and continue to desire, from First Nations peoples, Stevenson might add the environmentalist desire for an ecological-spiritual “imaginary Indian” (Francis 1992). Needless to say, the neocolonial language employed by environmentalists reveals that preservationist concerns cannot be easily mapped onto Native land claims or interests (Willems-Braun 1997: 116), and can make it quite difficult for First Nations peoples to articulate their will to use forest land in ways deemed ‘untraditional’. Despite these difficulties, Aboriginal peoples across North America continue to use various strategies in attempts to maintain or regain their rights and responsibilities to the land (Barker and Soyez 1994; see also Alfred 1995 and 1999; Atleo 2003; Blanchet-Cohen 1996).

Abele and Stasiulis argue that the Canadian staples economy cannot be sufficiently comprehended without attending to the ways in which hierarchies of gender, race and ethnicity led to the exploitation of some groups more than others (1989: 242; see also Adachi 1976; Li 1988), and therefore to “significant conflicts, contradictions, and hierarchies in the structuring of the Canadian working class” (Abele and Stasiulis 1989: 260). As the narrative describes, white male subjects were particularly desired by colonial officials to provide leadership and labour in settlement and resource extraction, women being considered unfit for these tasks here as elsewhere in the world (Perry 2001: 16). The logic followed that the building of a strong, hardy, virulent nation, all traits which are gendered male (Mackey 1999), meant the recruitment of white European subjects to Canada. Though, as previously discussed, the racial composition of Canada never matched the colonial intention to inhabit the nation with white Europeans, Abele and Stasiulis’ work shows how power operated to shape a system of forest governance whereby white male subjects comprised the decision-making elite. Racial and gender hierarchies continue to shape the forest sector today (Reed 2003).

Earlier we suggested that though there are some signs of a shift away from large-scale industrial forestry, there is also much evidence supporting Canada’s continued dependence on the export of the timber staple. Here we examine the staples to post-staples transition in a different light. Recalling that environmentalist pressure to save forests is closely tied with an increase in attractive industries, the insight of some authors that those privileged in terms of class, those who can afford to visit pristine sites of attractive development, are the ones who have usually benefited from environmentalist initiatives will not come as a surprise (Stefanick 2001; Lawson, Levy and Sandberg 2001; Bella 1987). Yet, as Sandlilands demonstrates, attractive capital activities like ecotourism are often represented by environmentalists as liberation, whereas other kinds of capitalist pursuits (like logging) are interpreted as the evil representatives of multinational capitalism (2003: 141). Within this imagination, forest workers, despite their increasingly threatened economic positions within industry, are often seen as the enemy, as “beer-can-crushing environmental vandals” (Sandilands 2003: 156). What this interpretation misses are the similarities between extractive and attractive activities, for example that they are both part of an increasingly global capitalist economy. One trades in timber and the other in commodified images of pristine nature.

Luke complicates the extractive to attractive discourse by arguing that attractive development strategies have been historically tied to locations where there is no other alternative to extractive or manufacturing industry, and can provide job opportunities only “if these attractions can be made alluring enough by aggressive mass-media promotions” (2003: 97). Further, employment in attractive industry is often low-paid nonunion service work, most often performed by women and people of colour (Luke 2003: 98). His study makes clear the consequences of viewing this form of capitalist development as innocent, since constructing a good attractive capitalism against a bad extractive capitalism may serve to further marginalize forestry workers while failing to inquire into the consumptive practices of (eco)tourists (Sandilands 2003: 153). Injustices associated with attractive development, for example in job insecurity and unlivable wages, are also masked. This representation also has the potential to allow an extremely commodified notion of nature – the image commodity – to pass as ‘true’ nature, thereby foreclosing discussions about what kinds of human-nature interactions should be fostered (Cronon 1995: 81). Thus while attractive industry may provide some alternative employment opportunities for suffering communities in resource towns, and this may have some positive ecological outcomes, this work shows that attractive industry is not the solution, either economically or environmentally, that it is sometimes represented to be.

Summary and Policy Implications

But what are the policy implications and alternatives suggested by the stories in this section? The stories told by postcolonial and feminist authors force us to examine some “uncomfortable facts about Canada” (Abele and Stasiulis 1989: 242), including the ways in which the marginalization of First Nations peoples preceded and has been inscribed into forest policy, and how different groups of immigrants have been incorporated differently into Canadian political economy. They also reveal that changes within the forest sector, for example through increased environmental concern and attractive industry, while perhaps indicating a shift away from environmentally destructive resource extraction, do not necessarily mean a move towards social and environmental justice. This section demonstrates that the way a problem is framed shapes its possible solutions. While the policy implications for nationalist political economy approaches often advocate an emphasis on increased production within Canada, the policy implications here require a rethinking of the premises upon which the forest sector has historically stood. It is not enough to merely incorporate First Nations as new actors into a system based on their marginalization; rather, the entire colonial system must be rethought.

For First Nations it may mean a thorough exploration and recapture of traditional governance structures and dynamics that are based on oral and spiritual foundations that emphasize sharing, nurturing and promoting place-based inter-personal, inter-species and inter-generational responsibilities. While this may resemble the much maligned concept of identity politics, and the essentializing of First Nations, it is much more. Its distinguishing feature is the rejection of being measured against the norms of the dominant society. Caroline Desbiens (2004) explores the tensions between traditionalists among the Cree people in northern Quebec who support a hunting, fishing and trapping economy and a group of Aboriginal leaders and professional negotiators, trained in Canadian law and policy, who support an economy based on the generation of hydro-electricity. Desbiens suggests that in the establishment of a nation to nation relationship between the province of Quebec and the Cree, the differences, permutations and compromises between the two perspectives need to be negotiated very carefully.

These ideas bear perhaps some resemblance to the ideas of ecoforestry and bioregionalism, the notion that place centredness, ecological integrity and social equity ought to be the point of departure in any forest activity endeavour (Drengson and Taylor 1998). They also point to the different dimensions that other marginal groups could bring to the forest (Clare 1999), and challenge the spatialized notions that are common in the dominant forest discourse. We are thus forced to reexamine spatially separate units, such as wood fibre reserves, Native reserves, and nature reserves to consider the interconnectedness of culture and nature and the place of all human interaction with all forests. Finally, they suggest we reexamine the dominant view of nature as commodity which has informed the construction of forests both as resources to be extracted and as viewscapes to be commodified. In sum, these alternative approaches call upon those interested in social and environmental justice to explore the ways in which colonialism, capitalism, and a neoliberal economy have fundamentally shaped the forest sector in Canada, and to attempt to think about forests, and forest policy, in dramatically new ways.


A very unfortunate but plausible conclusion that can be drawn from this account is that most progressive attempts at reforming Canadian forest policy, be they oriented towards extractive or attractive goals, are hopelessly compromised. The federal and provincial governments’ fight for access to the American market for lumber through the pursuit of a ‘fair’ softwood lumber agreement, and the prominence this debate takes in the public sphere, continue to chain the Canadian forest industry to the role of staple supplier of crude material and the neglect of environmental concerns. The invention of the carbon sink concept in the context of the climate change debate has allowed Canada to divert attention from reducing carbon emissions to lobbying hard for having its forests, and better still its forest plantations (though based on a questionable science), count towards meeting its Kyoto targets. Parks and preserved areas, we conclude, form a limited strategy to protect forests. Many areas are confined to marginal areas, others are compromised by their commercialization, and both constitute part of a mind trick that suggests that forest preservation is all about setting aside a small percentage of protected forests while vigorously exploiting the rest.

We have also been critical of the historical and contemporary work that recognizes the role of marginal and dissenting groups within the forest sector. These studies are surely important in telling and celebrating the often untold stories of contributions and challenges posed by allegedly marginal (while in fact central) actors in the Canadian forest sector. We have cautioned, though, that such stories may lead to affirmative action policies that assist such groups in becoming integrated into the very social forest structure that marginalized them in the first place. The last set of analyses provides, we suggest, the most critical lens with the widest implications for forest policy. It suggests that we question the very categories we use to define the forest industry and preservation sectors and the social relationships that go along with them. This involves critically examining the notion of forests as ‘resources’ and ‘commodities’, and the very notion of a market economy with the private property rights and profit incentives that are part of it.

Our analysis suggests many different angles from which forest reform can occur. The criticisms of the staples and the staples to post-staples transition are strategically important in that, given the strength of the market economy as ‘normal’, they may have the most immediate ability to put a dent in that same normal. The stemming of raw log exports of lumber and protection of important forest ecosystems (however isolated) could well be achieved through such criticism and activism. The search for recognition and rights is clearly also of utmost importance and part of the quest to dispel the myths of ethnic, racial and gender ‘deficiencies’ and the adjustment, however marginal, of historical injustices. The settling of First Nations land claims or increased access to forest resources, for example, is clearly important in meeting the immediate material needs of struggling communities.

But it is also important to consider the policy implications of a broader historical critique of the market economy, and its categories and definitions, and the way in which they shape so-called alternatives. If forest reforms in First Nations, for example, result in the same forest industry activities and social divisions as in the dominant society, they fail to meet the immediate needs of all members of society. At the same time, they provide fuel for the proposition that there are no alternatives beyond the market economy. Surely, change will need to come about through a consideration of all policy analyses and their respective policy implications. In the end, the path ahead needs to be determined by communities themselves where critical analyses and self-reflection form important ingredients in taking short-term strategic action while at the same time working for long-term fundamental change.

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