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From Reclamation to Conservation: A History of Settler Place-Making in Burns Bog, British Columbia

From Reclamation to Conservation: A History of Settler Place-Making in Burns Bog, British Columbia

Written by: Cameron Butler
Published in: Outstanding Papers - Year: 2019
Book Line: Vol. 25 No. 21 ISSN 1702-3548

Wetlands are, in the Canadian settler imaginary, ambiguous spaces that are neither strictly landmasses nor only bodies of water. This paper explores how Canadian settler-colonialism has
incorporated wetlands into systems of land ownership and control by tracing the history a specific wetland, a peat bog known as Burns Bog since the 1930s in the area settlers call Delta,
British Columbia. Given its presence as one of the largest wetlands in the region, settlers failed to drain the bog in its entirety. As a result, the bog persisted throughout the history of settlers’ presence on the west coast and has been subjected to waves of settler approaches, making it an ideal case study to consider how ongoing settler-colonialism has shaped, and continues to shape, wetlands.

Previous historical works on wetlands in Canada and the United States have documented how early settlers, through to roughly the mid-twentieth century, worked to “reclaim” wetlands and
transform them into arable land. However, these accounts have often neglected to continue their analysis of settler-colonialism beyond this period and have, as a result, treated settlers’ more
contemporary views of wetlands — as ecologically valuable ecosystems that need to be conserved or restored — as a break in colonial dynamics. This research intervenes in this existing body of work by treating shifting practices towards wetlands as successive stages in efforts to incorporate wetlands into settler-colonial logics. I argue that these different practices need to be interrogated for how they both rely on similar logics, frameworks, and approaches to the nonhuman, and for how they further the settler-colonial project of suppressing Indigenous voices, histories, and relations to land.

The paper draws upon Indigenous studies, queer ecology, and posthumanism to develop a more theoretically robust framework through which to approach the history of Burns Bog. I use a
collection of archival and secondary materials—particularly early ethnographies of the region—to trace Indigenous and settler relations to the bog. In chapter 1, I present a framework that pays particular attention to settler practices and conceptions of land, biopolitical capitalist subsumption of the nonhuman, and methods of thinking with and through water. In chapter 2, I trace the bog’s history from its formation through to the 1920s, including Indigenous peoples’ relations to the bog and early settler efforts to reclaim the bog. Chapter 3 explores the rise of different settler practices in the bog from the 1930s to the 1980s, especially peat extraction, cranberry farming, and the use of the bog as a landfill. Chapter 4 presents the rise in scientific and conservation approaches to Burns Bog, highlighting how they provide a means for making the bog more legible and enabling more extensive settler direction of nonhuman beings within the bog as well as the resurgence of Indigenous claims to the bog. I argue that by viewing wetlands as ongoing and overlapping collections of material and narrative practices, we can see how contemporary conservation politics often function as an extension of settler domination of land.