[Editor’s note: Acclaimed Vancouver author John Vaillant’s anticipated new book, ‘Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast’ arrived in bookstores this week. In a book review that ran yesterday, Tyee contributing editor Crawford Kilian explored the role that climate denialism and big business played in the Fort McMurray wildfire of 2016. He also considered the legacy of our own follies that led up to it and other disasters.
In this special excerpt from ‘Fire Weather,’ Vaillant makes the connections between colonialism, profit motives and our current climate crisis.]
At its peak, during the first half of the 19th century, the Hudson’s Bay Co. enjoyed a virtual monopoly, operating hundreds of trading posts from coast to coast, with satellite “offices” as far away as Alaska, Hawaii, California and the High Arctic. The company’s vast domain fit perfectly the description used by the Irish philosopher and politician Edmund Burke to describe its southern counterpart, the East India Co.: “A state in the guise of a merchant.”
Encompassing nearly 10 per cent of the Earth’s landmass, the company’s territory was — geographically speaking — the greatest commercial empire the world has ever known, and its network of trading posts effectively staked out the boundaries for what is now the world’s second-largest nation after Russia.
The profits once reaped by the Hudson’s Bay Co.’s remote and secretive “governors” in London were spectacular, in part because the company’s practices and policies, dutifully enforced by its Scottish proxies, were so ruthless.
As a longtime employee named John M’Lean wrote in 1849:
Since , the dividends have been on the decline, nor are they ever likely to reach the same amount, for several reasons, the chief of which is the destruction of the fur-bearing animals. In certain parts of the country, it is the Company’s policy to destroy them along the whole frontier; and our general instructions [were] that every effort be made to lay waste the country, so as to offer no inducement to petty traders to encroach on the Company’s limits. Those instructions have indeed had the effect of ruining the country, but not of protecting the Company’s domains.
As barbaric as this policy might seem today, it is no different, in practice or principle, than the competition-killing tactics used by Standard Oil, Walmart, Amazon, Netflix or Uber. In this way, corporations and wildfires follow similar growth patterns in that, once they reach a certain size, they are able to dictate their own terms across a landscape — even if it destroys the very ecosystem that enabled them to grow so powerful in the first place.
The Hudson’s Bay Co.’s potent combination of offshore capital (often borrowed) and indebted local labour is how modern Canada — a continental beaver farm and trading company serving Europe’s hat industry — came into being. By making beaver skins a standardized unit of currency, and offering irresistibly attractive and useful things in return, the company and its aggressive competitors turned the inhabitants of the boreal forest, human and animal alike, into a huge, surprisingly efficient profit-making machine — until they exhausted the resource.
In so doing, the fur trade shaped Canada’s creation myth and set the tone for how extractive industries continue to operate there. Through this lens, Canada in general, and Alberta in particular, could be seen not as “a state in the guise of a merchant,” but as a merchant in the guise of a state. This colonial model, which systematically commodifies natural resources and binds local people to the trading post system with company store-style debt, has replicated itself in resource towns across the continent.
In the post-fur trade world, banks, big-box stores and car dealerships have taken the place of the all-purpose trading post.
Employees in Alberta’s bitumen industry are among the highest-paid petroleum workers in the world; nonetheless, heavy debt is rampant, and bankruptcies, layoffs and foreclosures are common. (In 2019, Canadian household debt, expressed as a percentage of gross national product, was the highest in the Group of 7.)
This legacy is keenly felt across the boreal, particularly in extractive industries. When it comes to rapidly and radically altering a landscape along with the lives of those who live upon it, only a few things compare to a big boreal fire, and one of them is the profit motive.
In May 2016, Fort McMurray was the rare place where one could witness both of these energies unleashing simultaneously.
Excerpted from ‘Fire Weather’ by John Vaillant. Copyright © 2023 John Vaillant. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
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