Canadian Content in Kurk Dorsey's Whales and Nations

A colleague asked me whether the most recent contribution to the history of conservation diplomacy had much to say about Canada. Since Kurk Dorsey's Whales and Nations touches a number of my favourite topics, I was happy for an excuse to read it in detail. For those who want it, here's a detailed answer:

In his latest book, Whales and Nations, Prof. Dorsey does not describe the Canadian government or Canadian citizens of any era in detail, nor does he devote any significant time to Canadian whaling as a distinct subset of the industry. The only point at which this is problematic is in the fifth chapter, describing the International Whaling Commission's difficulties during the Cold War. Dorsey notes that in 1959, at a meeting when the IWC was unable to reach consensus and all members expected the organization to dissolve, a Canadian delegate made a desperate attempt to save the commission (p 179). At that point in the book, I would have been interested to know why the delegation behaved like that. He proposed to raise the global whaling quota to maintain the organization, instead of lowering it to maintain the whale populations, as conservationists recommended. Dorsey devotes several pages to the IWC members' response to the proposal, but offer no analysis of its source. (See pp 179–181)

Whales and Nations does provide interesting sidelights on two important topics in Canadian history. In the sixth chapter, Dorsey analyses an interesting media episode. One of Canada's most admired authors and naturalists, Farley Mowat, organized a public relations campaign to save a whale trapped by ice near a small town in Newfoundland and threatened by local hunters. Mowat's life and work have been extensively analysed by Canadian scholars, but it is much rarer to see them in the context of the international environmental movement. Dorsey describes Mowat's activism as an example of a Western view that whales are more precious than most edible mammals, as compared to Japanese opinions. He also argues that Mowat's complex dealings with marine scientists is characteristic of the era's save-the-whales protestors: Mowat used scientific data whenever it supported his position, but was disappointed that scientists could not give more practical help to the trapped whale and that they were not more interested in the campaign.

Dorsey's commentary also touched the conflicting currents in Canadian attitudes to wilderness and natural resources: reverence for them juxtaposed with a willingness to draw heavily on their apparent abundance. Many environmental historians are confronted with this contradiction, but it is particularly striking in the Canadian context because ‘nature’ plays such a central role in the country's symbols and stories. (See pp 216–219)

Also, in the seventh, final chapter, Dorsey analyses an American policy dilemma that bears interesting resemblance to some Canadian ones. In the 1970s, the International Whaling Commission argued that aboriginal people in the Arctic should not be allowed to hunt bowhead whales, while Alaskan Inuit contended that their local knowledge and traditional practices gave them a better idea of how many bowheads could be sustainably hunted. The U.S. government was unwilling to deny the Native American's right to hunt, but also unable to disavow the IWC's data-driven recommendations. The matter was resolved by a detailed study of the Alaskan Arctic in 1978, which showed a larger number of bowheads than expected, which vindicated the Inuit, but also an undeniable need to reduce hunting pressure, which supported the IWC. Dorsey describes the questions raised during this controversy: Can a high-tech harpoon system be considered traditional? Is an Inuit person selling whale meat by the pound a commercial whaler, or not? Is the accidental loss of a killed whale more acceptable when the hunters are traditionally organised rather than working on a factory ship? (See pp 244–252)

The account of this episode is a purely American story, but the issues are also relevant in Canadian history and politics, as demonstrated a few pages later. Dorsey explains that Canada left the IWC in 1980, partly to protect its commercial whalers and partly to avert a conflict between a foreign policy commitment to uphold the IWC's science and the domestic policy of supporting First Nations cultural expression. Dorsey does not analyse the Canadian decision in much detail, being more concerned with the impact the departure on other countries' views of the IWC. However, I think that the basis for the Canadian departure from the multilateral organization is likely to be the more interesting subject scholars of Canada. (See p 264–265)

Having done the work of answering the Can-con question, I can address a more interesting one: so, what? While I'd love every scholar of North American or Atlantic history to pay more attention to Canada, I don't think its relatively small part in Whales and Nations is problematic. Dorsey's latest work is truly transnational diplomatic history, and his focus goes where the story leads him. In this case, the Norway and the United States are particularly important. Frankly, the history of conservation diplomacy is so little known that each new work has to start from scratch. Dorsey does an excellent job of explaining the processes, places, and politics of an industry that are utterly new to his readers, and which must be grasped if we're to understand why whales are so scarce today.

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