PEI Long View

The environment has played a central role in the history of Prince Edward Island
Jones archeological site excavation, 1983, St. Peter’s Bay, PEI. Photo by D. Keenlyside CMC

A Brief 5,000-Year History: Prince Edward Island and Its Contents

The environment has played a central role in the history of Prince Edward Island. Separated from the continental mainland by melting glaciers roughly 5,000 years ago, its very islandness resulted in its emergence as an independent British colony in 1769.

Its peopling, first by the Mi’kmaq and then Europeans, was inspired by its fertile soils, excellent fishing grounds, and an abundant supply of timber. Its unique identity – the so-called “Island way of life” – was forged by the isolation brought about by the Northumberland Strait. And every summer, tourists flood the province, drawn by the same beaches and landscapes that Lucy Maud Montgomery celebrated in her florid prose.

Lobster labels from various canning plants on PEI in the late 1800s.

Despite its significance, the environment has typically been relegated to the margins of the province’s historiography, in favour of the social and political activities of the human populations. Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island, a co-publication of McGill-Queen’s University Press and Island Studies Press, is a collection of essays that aims to rectify this oversight by placing the environment in the spotlight.

Environmental history first emerged as a distinct area of study in the 1970s, an unexpected but welcome side effect of a burgeoning ecological consciousness. Drawing upon such disciplines as historical geography, the earth sciences, and anthropology, it has grown by leaps and bounds in the years since. While Acadiensis Press released Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada in 2013, Time and a Place holds the distinction of being the first collection to zero in on a single Canadian province.

Diane Griffin (right) of the Island Nature Trust, led the hard-fought battle to save the sand dunes at Greenwich from cottage developers. Greenwich, near St. Peters Bay, PEI, became part of the national park system in July 1996. In this photo from 1988, Griffin explains the sand dune system to Land Use Commission members, l-r, Claude Matheson, Ron McKinnon, Maurice Fitzpatrick and Anne McPhee. Courtesy The Guardian, Charlottetown PEI

The contents of this book cover a wide range of topics, including an archaeological exploration of Prince Edward Island’s first inhabitants, a study of its forests from 1720-1900, agricultural land use and its effect upon the environment, the fishery and tourism. Graeme Wynn of the University of British Columbia provides an eloquent look at earlier writing about Prince Edward Island, including Andrew H. Clark’s Three Centuries and the Island, a now-classic work of historical geography, and Sir Andrew Macphail’s The Master’s Wife, collating his observations and setting them within the broader context of environmental developments in Canada and beyond.

Potato Harvest, Albany PEI, circa 1930


The cover of Prince Edward Island: The Birthplace of Canada (1942)

In another essay of note, Rosemary Curley, a retired biologist with the province, writes about evolving public attitudes towards habitat and wildlife. In it she discusses how some species were hunted close to extinction, such as the cormorant, which competed for food with local fishermen; how certain animals, such as the white-tailed deer, partridges and pheasants, have been introduced by sportsmen looking for game; and how individuals (such as Harvey Moore), organizations (such as the Island Nature Trust) and government have worked to protect at-risk species.

The otherwise high-quality collection occasionally fetishizes island life. For example, the epilogue, which does an excellent job of assessing what lessons can be drawn from the preceding essays, states that “Islands invoke a sensual echo of memory, an older perspective.”

Perhaps this is true for some tourists, but as a Prince Edward Islander this sort of statement leads to rolled eyes and guffaws. Upon receiving this book I expected to find some discussion of the environmental debate and consequences of the Confederation Bridge, but aside from a few scattered references, the fixed link is noticeably absent. And while the prose is relatively free of academic jargon, the fact that this is the product of an academic press, with a quarter of the book devoted to endnotes and bibliography, may limit its potential audience. If this is the case, it is unfortunate, as Time and a Place is a thoroughly researched collection that has much to offer those interested in the history of Prince Edward Island and its environment.

Written By

Ryan O'Connor is a Canadian author and historical consultant. He is author of The First Green Wave.

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