Author Tags: Early B.C., First Nations, Geography

Richard Colebrook "Cole" Harris, OC FRSC was born on July 4, 1936. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree (1958) from the University of British Columbia, a Master of Science degree (1962), and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison (1964). He joined the University of Toronto as an Assistant Professor in 1964 and became an Associate Professor in 1971. Later that year he joined the University of British Columbia as an Associate Professor. He became a Professor at IBC in 1973. Harris was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1982. The Royal Canadian Geographical Society awarded Harris a Gold Medal in 1988 and awarded him the Massey Medal in 2003. Harris was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2004.

For eight years UBC geography professor Cole Harris edited the research of more than 240 contributors from 28 Canadian universities to complete the first volume of a projected three-volume work, Historical Atlas of Canada (University of Toronto, 1987 $85). Prior to its publication, this project received $5 million of subsidization since 1979.

A review of Cole Harris' The Reluctant Land: Society, Space and Environment in Canada Before Confederation (UBC Press, 2008) is provided below.

Some people treated the 2002 B.C. provincial referendum on land claims, etc., as junk mail, or as a sad joke, tossing it straight into the trash. Others expressed their indignation about Natives who never signed away the rights to their lands being able to control it. Cole Harris, upon his retirement from teaching, considered how and why patches of land—-known as Indian reserves—-were set aside amid the emerging settler society in Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance and Reserves in British Columbia (UBC $29.95). In particular he compares the careers of provincial land administrators Gilbert Sproat, to whom the book is dedicated, and his successor Peter O'Reilly. Harris portrays Sproat favourably as a defender of Aboriginal rights while criticizing the long career (1880-1898) of O'Reilly who efficiently laid out hundreds of small reserves to serve the interests of colonialism. Canadian Literature reviewer Sophie McCall noted, "The story of confinement is the quintessential story of colonial takeover; in Frantz Fanon's words, colonialism creates 'a world divided into compartments'."

Harris also co-edited a Phillips family memoir of pioneer life in southeastern B.C., consisting mainly of letters. He has received the Macdonald Prize from the Canadian Historical Association (2002) for the best book in Canadian history; the Clio Award from the Canadian Historical Association (2002) for exceptional contributions to regional history; the Massey Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (2003) for outstanding acchievement in Canadian geography; and the K.D. Shivastava Prize from UBC Press for excellence in scholarly publishing.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Letters from Windermere 1912-1914
Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia
The Reluctant Land: Society, Space, and Environment in Canada before Confederation
The Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism and Geographic Change


The Seigneurial System in Early Canada: A Geographical Study (1966)

Canada Before Confederation: A Study in Historical Geography (1974) Co-edited with John Warkentin

Letters from Windermere, 1912-1914 (UBC Press, 1984). Co-edited with Elizabeth Phillips ISBN: 0774803940

Historical Atlas of Canada, vol. I: From the Beginning to 1800-1987 (University of Toronto, 1987)

The Resettlement of British Columbia: Essays on Colonialism and Geographical Change (UBC Press 1997)

Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance and Reserves in British Columbia (UBC Press 2002) 0-7748-0900-0 Nominated for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize.

The Reluctant Land: Society, Space and Environment in Canada Before Confederation (UBC Press, 2008). 9780774814492 hc

[Photo by Raymon Torchinsky, 2009]

[BCBW 2009]

Reluctant Land, Ho

from Raymon Torchinsky
Retirement, for Order of Canada recipient Cole Harris, has meant getting back to work. There is that unfinished wattle-and-daub house in the Slocan Valley that should be attended to, as well as the attraction of honing his wood-working skills, but mainly the Professor Emeritus has taken four years to integrate 40 years of study and geography teaching at UBC for The Reluctant Land (UBC Press $95 hc $39.95 pb), an impressive overview of the character and experience of Canada before Confederation.

This is a welcome antidote to the simplistic renderings of early Canadian history we are exposed to in high school social studies courses, political speeches and CBC mini-series. There is no March of Progress, no Heroic Moments or Triumphant Forging of a Nation. Instead, Harris has crafted a deeply insightful account of the history of what would become Canada, “not to promote, preach or create a national vision but to understand and thereby bring into clearer focus what this country is and what it is not.”

The Reluctant Land will be used in historical geography courses for many years to come—but it’s more than that, because Harris set himself the task of writing a scholarly book accessible to the general reader. For the most part he has succeeded.

Encountering The Reluctant Land is like listening to a series of articulate public lectures, organized on a regional basis, allowing for an exploration of each part of the country, in turn.

The writing style is spare, straightforward, free of jargon. There are no footnotes. Instead, each chapter is followed by a succinct bibliographic essay to encourage further reading.

Cartographer Eric Leinberger has done an excellent job in preparing the many maps that illustrate the text. And most importantly, Harris provides the reader with a clear account of his thinking process as he assembles evidence from a vast range of research and emphasizes the distinctive features of the Canadian experience.

In stressing the unique nature of Canada’s pre-confederation development, Harris has shown the extent to which development theories applicable to development of the American colonies, and the broad forces underlying nation building in Europe, have little explanatory power for Canada.

Harris provides an understanding of the country based on inter-relationships between Native peoples, the physical environment, as well as the three major forms of European expansion: the imperial system, commercial capital and agricultural settlement.

This is not the Berton-esque People magazine approach to history. Harris has not used illustrative stories of individuals to entertain. Rather he explores the experiences of fur-traders, pioneer settlers, Native hunters, lumber camp workers and merchants by vividly describing the environmental, social and economic contexts in which they lived.

Harris’ somewhat detached style can be compelling. A good example is the discussion of the disastrous social and ecological consequences the Pacific maritime fur trade—the first rush for quick profit on the West Coast. Even if the unintended consequences had been foreseeable, it is unlikely they would have posed any moral concern for the fur traders.

After Captain Cook’s crew accidentally discovered the value of sea otter pelts in China in the 1780s, European transportation technology and Asian demand almost wiped out the West Coast sea otter population by the 1820s. Over 650 sailings, mainly by ships from England and New England, were made to the West Coast to obtain pelts.

The combination of greed and disdain for ‘savages’ led to an often violent struggle to coerce the Native population to supply the fiercely desired pelts. Even before Europeans built settlements and took away land control, the impact on indigenous societies was immense: their populations were decimated by new diseases brought from Europe (for which they had no defense); they were forced into a global trading network to supply the demand for furs; and their way of life was forever changed by the introduction of European trade goods (blankets, iron goods, firearms, liquor).

Environmental effects were also devastating. Sea otters feed on sea urchins, which in turn feed on kelp. Destruction of the sea otters resulted in unchecked growth of the sea urchin population, which in turn vastly reduced the kelp beds that sheltered in-shore fish stocks. Harris contends the subsequent changes in the Pacific coast ecology, with regards to Native livelihoods, have yet to be fully understood.

Even though events of the past 140 years are not mentioned in the final chapter of summation—about how the grounds for Confederation were prepared, both advertently and inadvertently—Harris makes an eloquent explanatory argument as relevant to current political and social concerns as anything in today’s editorial pages.

“At its best,” he concludes, “Canada is a society that respects and appreciates the differences of which it is composed, and, ironically, in so doing establishes its own identity more clearly.”

With minimal pandering and maximal knowledge, Cole Harris has built his case for the uniqueness of Canada. But the wattle-and-daub house will still have to wait. Harris, general editor of The Historical Atlas of Canada, Vol. 1: From the Beginning to 1800, now plans to complete an even broader overview: an examination of the expansion of European society into Africa and the Americas.


--review by Raymon Torchinsky

[BCBW 2009]