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  • The Beaver Hills Country: A History of Land and Life
  • Peter Fortna
The Beaver Hills Country: A History of Land and Life. Graham A. MacDonald. Edmonton: Athabasca University, 2009. Pp. 253, $29.95

The Beaver Hills Country: A History of Land and Life by Graham A. MacDonald is a history of the wooded parkland located east of Edmonton, AB, bounded by the Victoria trail to the north and the Battle Hills Trail to the south. Gathering a wide range of literary, archaeological, ecological, and ethnographic sources, and using this specific area as the geographic focus of his analysis, MacDonald follows the region's history, beginning with the glaciers that covered the Hills twenty thousand years ago, and ending with a consideration of the increasing pressures that modern living placed on the unique landscape in the late twentieth century. The study's expansive scope is tied together by the theme of human interactions in the Beaver Hills over time, specifically how different land-use choices have influenced the region's character. Within this overarching theme, MacDonald divides his narrative roughly into two sections focused on the time before and after 1880, considering in both periods how natural processes helped to shape the social, economic, and environmental history of the region.

The project began as an 'enquiry into the history of the bison conservation story at Elk Island National Park undertaken for Parks Canada' (vii), but as the initial project concluded, MacDonald felt that the region's 'natural, social, and economic' history deserved more attention. The book links a number of diverse disciplines, demonstrating how the Beaver Hills' ecological transitional qualities mirrored the region's cultural divisions. In the book's first chapters, MacDonald argues that the Beaver Hills served as a key meeting place for Blackfoot, Cree, and Metis peoples who utilized the area's diverse resource base. The Hills offered diverse cultures a place where they could replenish and recoup after spending extended periods on the plains, [End Page 369] a place where they could hunt, fish, and gather other needed resources. The region's ability to provide resources became even more important by the turn of the nineteenth century; the complex political situation after 1885, coupled with epidemics and the overuse of the prairie's natural resources, led to the increasing importance of the Beaver Hills for Blackfoot, Cree, and later Metis people. The Hills offered many Aboriginal people a place of last refuge, though they too eventually became strained by overuse and were ultimately transformed by the arrival of surveyors, politicians, and settlers. These newcomers had a different vision for the region that would eventually lead to the disenfranchisement of Aboriginal people in these traditional hunting grounds.

The second half of the book considers the post-settlement era, with a particular focus on the region's cultural and natural landscapes. MacDonald makes good use of local community histories and newspaper sources, describing the process where settlers from Scandinavia, Ukraine, the United States, and Central Canada came together to form 'one of the most diverse patchworks of group settlements in Canada' (119). This diversity, argues MacDonald, came to form an 'egalitarian' society, connected through a broad range of cultural and religious organizations. The book moves on to consider the story of wildlife and land preservation in the Beaver Hills. Here MacDonald is most comfortable, telling the history of Elk Island National Park, which — thanks to the farsightedness and co-operation of land-owners, National Park officials, and concerned citizens — helped to preserve a significant portion of the Beaver Hills region for future generations. Woven into this broader narrative is the story of increased academic interest in bison and land conservation in the region. The book's final chapter considers how the preservation of the Beaver Hills' diverse cultural and natural landscapes has come into conflict with 'Postwar Urbanism.' Here the author brings to light the conflicting goals of a modernizing National Parks system where Elk Island National Park became 'a curious amalgam of game ranch, zoo, recreation centre, and nature area' (162). MacDonald also considers the increasing pressures facing communities attempting to modernize while maintaining their unique cultural identity preserved most notably in the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage...


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pp. 369-371
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