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  • Hunters at the Margin: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories
  • Christina Sawchuk
Hunters at the Margin: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories. John Sandlos. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006. Pp. 360. $85.00 cloth, $32.95 paper

Sandlos's inaugural book, based on his doctoral dissertation, is a welcome addition to the recently burgeoning field of Canadian environmental history. It will scarcely be of less interest, however, to scholars of Aboriginal history, northern history, or political history. It recounts the conflict between the Aboriginal inhabitants of the Northwest Territories and the federal government over the right to utilize and control northern wildlife throughout the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. Sandlos's primary argument is that the federal government, motivated not least by racial stereotypes, demonstrated an unsympathetic attitude toward traditional hunting and trapping, and undertook to manage wildlife populations on a scientific and rational basis instead. By controlling the use of large game animals – which were important sources of Aboriginal subsistence – through the creation of national parks, game laws, and systems of surveillance, the federal government was able to intervene materially, and often detrimentally, in the lives of northern residents. [End Page 182]

The narrative is shaped into three case studies, each of which is devoted to the conflict over bison, muskox, and caribou, in turn. Sandlos first describes the circumstances leading to the formation of Wood Buffalo National Park, and then dwells upon the episode in which plains bison were sent north from Buffalo National Park. He also emphasizes the constantly changing legal regime that was meant to limit Aboriginal hunting in the park. The section on muskox details the explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson's scheme to base a northern ranching economy on these beasts, and the later creation of the Thelon Game Sanctuary (a radical example of preservationist policy, in that no one was allowed to enter the sanctuary without express permission of the federal government). Lastly, Sandlos recounts the 'caribou crises' that were manufactured throughout the first half of the twentieth century, and that eventually played a part in the relocation of various Inuit communities in the post–Second World War era. Each of these sections contains variations on three themes that span the book: the contradictory philosophies of bureaucrats on the subject of wildlife management, as described below; the bureaucratic desire to control northern wildlife – and by extension, people – using whatever justification was necessary; and the resistance of northern inhabitants on practical and political grounds.

As a result of his extensive archival research, Sandlos is able to offer a fresh perspective on the history of Canadian wildlife management. Perhaps most interesting is his contention that, time and again, federal civil servants pursued seemingly contradictory ends in formulating policy. As is well known, they subscribed to the preservationist sentiment then popular in North American culture, which viewed declining animal populations with alarm, and mandated the protection of wildlife and wilderness for future generations. But these bureaucrats also possessed a utilitarian, even commercial mindset, which was made manifest in their constant invention of schemes by which animals might profit the nation and its citizens. Sandlos demonstrates that this latter desire often led to the suppression of prior Aboriginal claims for the 'good' of the nation, and therefore the enactment of restrictions on Aboriginal access to wildlife resources.

Given Sandlos's heavy reliance on government documents, it is to his credit that his analysis is so delicately nuanced; he gives consideration and voice to many segments of northern society. Sandlos admits an intellectual debt to the political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott, who is best known for his work on the efforts of modern states to colonize the ecological spaces held by their lower-class citizens by imposing regimes of resource management [End Page 183] from afar. Yet Sandlos is careful to note that 'the state is not a one-dimensional entity that automatically militates against local patterns of resource use' (263n 65). He demonstrates the inconsistencies in federal wildlife policy over time, the impact of personalities on pieces of legislation, and the continual antagonism between federal departments over game regulations.

He is similarly devoted to reproducing the gamut of...


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