Download PDF

Reviewed by
J. Alexander Burnett. A Passion for Wildlife: The History of the Canadian Wildlife Service University of British Columbia Press. xiii, 332. $85.00, $27.95

J. Alexander Burnett's monograph A Passion for Wildlife builds on the earlier work of Janet Foster, whose Working for Wildlife was the first comprehensive study of wildlife policy in Canada before the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) was established in 1947, a period outlined in Burnett's first chapter.

Burnett's institutional history of the CWS, 'one of Canada's most important and valuable cultural institutions,' is timely, and useful for environmental historians and anyone interested in wildlife policy in Canada. It is organized both thematically and chronologically from 1947 to 1997, as the author traces the agency's growth, and increasing awareness of what a national wildlife program in Canada should entail. He begins with the Migratory Birds Convention Act, its enforcement and broadening [End Page 507] mandate, and ends with the significant Green Plan and the considerable reorganization of CWS within Environment Canada in the context of budget cuts in the 1990s. The study would have been less confusing had Burnett presented the history of institutional, legislative, and policy changes in one substantive chapter, and then written about some of the interesting people at CWS 'among our unsung Canadian heroes' and their complex work with birds, mammals, and fish. Instead, he tacks on parts of the institutional history to the thematic chapters, which necessitates overlap and frequent cross-referencing to earlier sections, and is confusing for the reader. Despite this organizational problem, the book is well written, sometimes humorous, and uses interviews, anecdotes, and photos effectively.

Several themes are important. The first is that Canada had a great abundance of wildlife, which was over-exploited in the fur trade and settlement eras of our history so that the existence of wild creatures of all types became and remained vulnerable. Early in the twentieth century, as a result of a limited conservation movement in Canada with a mostly utilitarian philosophy, the Migratory Birds Treaty (1916) with the United States was negotiated, which led to early conservation legislation and provided a framework for wildlife policy and protection. Even after Canada's conservation commission was disbanded in 1921, some bird sanctuaries were established, and public education work and scientific studies of wildlife expanded over our vast terrain. After the CWS was founded in 1947, its staff enforced the protection of wildlife - never an easy job - by increasingly working with the police, local and provincial wildlife protection staff, and volunteers among the public.

A second theme of importance is the predominantly utilitarian conservationist approach the CWS took in the 1950s and 1960s to wildlife management, so that many decisions affecting wildlife were taken for economic reasons. Their focus was the recreational value of wildlife to promote tourism, and to provide bountiful resources for hunters and anglers, whose associations worked closely with CWS. Partly this approach was to ensure financial support from the politicians for the excellent scientific research the CWS did, but it also reflected a belief that wildlife management was about control, that wildlife was for people to use and dominate as they saw fit, or according to the rules laid out in the country's wildlife policies. This view reflected the times - the economic prosperity, an optimistic view of both technology and the bureaucratic method - and the fact that CWS was staffed entirely by male employees, had few women staff and for short periods only, and would not have any women in senior leadership positions until the late 1990s.

In the 1970s, with the creation of the Department of the Environment, and the impact of the modern environmental movement, a more ecological, holistic approach to wildlife gradually emerged whereby all species in various ecosystems were protected, as opposed to individual creatures that [End Page 508] were seen to be useful. The approach moved away from domination to accommodation of nature. With growing public appreciation of wildlife for itself, to watch, photograph, paint, and live with, as opposed to hunt, pressure increased on government agencies including CWS to protect wilderness and animal habitat, enhance biodiversity, and rehabilitate those creatures on the growing list of endangered species. As with all modern environmental issues, even as the CWS got better at fulfilling its mandate, its responsibilities became greater as the number of endangered species increased, and as toxicity in the environment developed rapidly after the Second World War.

Despite the large amount of complex information the book needs to convey as the first history of the CWS, Burnett is to be commended for introducing readers to some of the committed individuals, professionals who worked for the service 'who actually care about wildlife in Canada.' His book conveys the diversity of responsibilities, the range of publications, and the mostly worthwhile, positive, and needed programs the CWS undertook in research, fieldwork, public education, community involvement, and the establishment of interpretation centres, all to sustain wild creatures that enrich our lives. The achievements have been considerable, but continued stewardship of the environment by all Canadians is essential, if we are to prevent continuing environmental degradation, and to create a sustainable society that nurtures all species.

Laurel Sefton MacDowell

Laurel Sefton MacDowell, Department of History, University of Toronto