Canadian Lumber

Review: William Marr on Gordon Hak

Gordon Hak, Turning Trees into Dollars: The British Columbia Coastal Lumber Industry, 1858-1913. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. ix + 239 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8020-4745-9; $22.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8020-8305-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by William Marr, Department of Economics, Wilfrid Laurier University.
Published by EH.NET, November 2000.

Whenever we turn our attention to the economic history of Canada in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, the importance of raw resources and their exploitation are key factors in any story of economic growth and economic development. This is never truer than in the lumber industry, which includes both logging and sawmilling. The availability of markets both in the interior of Canada and in Australia, Mexico, Asia, and South America provided a ready opportunity for the sale of lumber in a rapidly changing environment. There were, of course, cyclical patterns to those sales, but for the most part the trend was one of expanding opportunities with a resultant increasing demand. While the lumber industry was growing elsewhere in Canada, and indeed in North America, the growth of this industry was perhaps best exemplified by the changes to it on Canada's west coast -- in British Columbia. Here all the ingredients were in place by the middle of the nineteenth century for sustained development and change; they awaited only the appearance of entrepreneurial talents and a further expansion of markets that would enable the "turning of trees into dollars."

Gordon Hak, in the Department of History at Malaspina University-College, has written a thorough, fascinating, and important book about that development and change. In its totality, his book examines the changes and pressures that influenced the coastal British Columbia lumber industry from about 1858 to 1913, covering both logging operations and sawmilling as two related yet distinct activities. Hak's time period begins with the first major excursions into those coastal forests and ends with the year that the United States changed its tariffs and removed the duties on wood imports, which did indeed begin a new period in the history of the North American lumber industry and trade. It is interesting to note that Hak sets out to place the changes in the coastal lumber industry into a wider context than just the economic and political circumstances of British Columbia, which would have been a very narrow focus indeed. While he describes that industry, he consistently relates his description to wider Canadian and United States development throughout the time period. Those wider areas provided competition for British Columbia's coastal lumber industry and markets for its forest products. As with Canada's economic history in general, the lumber industry must be studied with one eye always on conditions and circumstances outside of that region. It should be noted that Hak also places the coastal lumber industry into the context of British Columbia's interior lumber industry, which was growing at the same time. Both external and internal relationships are emphasised.

After an introduction to the general study of British Columbia's coastal lumber industry, the book's chapters are organized by topic rather than by chronological considerations. Separate chapters are devoted to the markets for those lumber products, the major companies in this industry, the entrepreneurs' business strategies, government policies towards this industry, the critics of management strategy and government policy, the logging operations, the sawmill firms, the loggers, and the millworkers. This topical approach makes it difficult for someone who wants to know, for example, all about the industry in the 1890's because reference has to be made to several chapters. But Hak aids such reference by organizing each chapter in a roughly chronological fashion, which makes it relatively easy to locate all information on, say, the 1890's. My preference is for his topical approach since the historical material appears to fit very nicely into the general structure of markets, firms, the government, and labor.

Because enough detail is provided in this book on those aspects of the coastal lumber industry, the reader finishes with a sense of knowing the main developments and changes that took place, and yet is not overwhelmed with details about firms and people. This is a short book. But readers who want that detail can explore the narrative more thoroughly on their own. This book is not weighed down with long descriptions of the people and places that are sometimes thought to be necessary in the study of one industry in one region. Hak blends very appropriately the descriptive information about this industry with broader and more abstract frames of reference. Two examples are his reference to the staple thesis and his discussion of industrialization. Following a brief outline of the staple thesis, he argues that it can be used in a general way to inform certain aspects of the growth and development of the coastal lumber industry. The reader can see in the book the general themes of resources and exports that are the main tenets of the staple thesis. My only comment is that Hak could have made more use from that thesis of diversification around the staple base through linkages, which helps to transform a region during a period when "staples" may be the main ingredient in economic growth and economic development. Hak, in the chapter on industrialization, very clearly relates his discussion of machinery, technology, and the organization of production to conditions in markets and to the relative cost of inputs. The model of choice under constraints and the influence of relative factor costs clearly inform his discussion as well as the changes that took place in this industry.

Gordon Hak has written an interesting and important book. It studies another piece of the picture that was Canada's economic history during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Bill Marr is a professor in the Department of Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. His current research interests include nineteenth century agricultural change in Ontario and the use that contemporary immigrants to Canada made of unemployment insurance.

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Posted: 30 November 2000