Beyond the City Limits: Rural History in British Columbia

By R. W. Sandwell | Go to book overview

Introduction: Finding Rural British Columbia

R. W. Sandwell

Rural is not a term that British Columbia historians often use in their work. As Martin Robin generalized in 1972, '[t]he geography of British Columbia, which historically relegated farming to a supplementary rather than primary component of the economic system, has severely restricted the development of extensive cultivation, checked the growth of a large rural population and hindered the emergence of a broadly shared rural consciousness.'1 Twenty-five years later, most historians of the province would still concur that evidence of a rural consciousness or even of a rural society has failed to emerge from a historiography that is dominated by mining, logging, and fishing, and theorized within the context of large-scale, laissez- faire capitalism and economic individualism. 2

Silences in the historical record lend tacit support to the dominance of resource-based capitalism as the shaping force in British Columbia history. Scholarly articles concerning British Columbia agriculture have been scarce; indeed, when they do appear, they almost invariably discuss agriculture as yet another large-scale, capital-intensive enterprise. Similarly, until recently, provincial historians have shown little interest in non-Native, non-urban land settlement in the province, and the only comprehensive history of land policy in British Columbia has been out of print for years. 3 Detailed scholarly studies of populations outside of Victoria, Greater Vancouver, and Nanaimo are also few, and tend to portray ephemeral societies dominated by young men characterized by liberal individualism, cultural alienation, waged labour, and high geographic mobility. 4

The modern, industrial, and highly mobile populations described in the historical literature stand in stark contrast to the cluster of attributes that have most commonly been used to identify rural with agriculture: the family farm and the pre-industrial labour patterns of 'traditional' society. Therefore, although more than half of British Columbians lived outside of cities and large towns in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see Figure 1.1), the discourse of capitalist enterprise that dominates British Columbia

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