Evolution of a forest nation: A short history

Since long before Confederation, forests have played a crucial role in the lives of this land’s inhabitants: Indigenous peoples, explorers, settlers, residents of the young Dominion of Canada and now all Canadians. Indeed, forests are part of our national identity – and not just because of our highly prized maple syrup.

A map of North America and Greenland showing latitude and longitude lines and the extent of the glacier covering the continent during the ice age.

End of the ice age

C. 18,000 to 13,000 years before present: The planet warms and the ice sheets covering northern North America retreat, giving plants and trees the chance to re-establish. Forests slowly reclaim the once glaciated continent.

Indigenous peoples’ use of the forest

Thousands of years to pre-1600s: Indigenous peoples live in the continent’s many and varied forests. Forests are culturally and spiritually important, and the way Indigenous peoples relate to and live off the resources forms the basis for their societies. They create permanent settlements in and near forests that provide food and materials for tools, shelter, medicine and clothing. In what are now southern Ontario and Quebec, Indigenous peoples practice shifting agriculture, where areas of forests are cleared for crops and then, after several years, are left to return to forest.

European settlers’ arrival and use of the forest

1600s to 1700s: Explorers and other newcomers begin arriving from Europe, Asia and elsewhere. Indigenous peoples’ contact with Europeans occurs first on the Atlantic and Arctic coasts and la ter on the Pacific coast. The fur trade is the first European harvest from the forest and the main economic activity for 200 years. Furs, taken largely from forest-dwelling animals, are the financial incentive for European exploration and settlement. Settlers clear the forest for agriculture.

An historical black and white photo showing two horses hitched to a sled piled high with a brag load of cut logs. Four men are sitting on top of the pile of logs and two men are standing in front of the sled.

Early industrial use of the forest

Early 1800s to 1890s: Forest use shifts from small-scale wood cutting by individual farmers to large-scale harvesting and milling involving thousands of people working for a handful of employers. Wood is used for fuel, in ship building and to make potash. The American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in Europe boost Canada’s timber trade. Nearly 50% of Canada’s male popula tion work in the timber and lumber industries.

As settlers and the timber industry spread from the Atlantic region into central Canada, the northern Prairies and British Columbia, forest clearing and the rise in human-started fires dramatically alter the landscape. In south-central Canada, significant deforestation occurs.

Pressure on forests to meet demand for wooden ship building declines in the late 1800s but is replaced by the demand for railway and bridge building. The emergence of new transportation modes, notably wood-fuelled steamboats and railroad engines, adds to the need for vast amounts of firewood. The first seeds of the pulp and paper industry are sown.

Securing a sustainable timber supply

Early 1900s to 1950s: Canada’s forests, especially near settled areas and close to railways and river corridors, are left seriously depleted by industrialization and fires. At the end of the First World War, most of eastern Canada’s available sawlog supply is depleted.

An historical black and white photo of a steam engine on a trestle bridge pushing train cars full of logs up a steep grade through a forest.

As demand for newspapers, magazines and books grows in the United States, Canada’s production of pulp and paper expands, centred mostly in the Atlantic provinces. The need for a “sustained yield” – a large and secure timber supply to support the industry – arises, and so does the idea of “perpetual forests” that need to be managed.

Forestry schools open across the country, reforestation efforts are launched, fire detection and suppression begin and professional foresters are for the first time recognized as the best equipped to make decisions about how to manage forests. The Canadian Institute of Forestry is established as Canada’s first forest society and “the voice of forest practitioners.”

In the post-Second World War boom, improvements in timber-processing technologies help meet growing demand for industrial timber to supply expanding world markets. At the same time, new technologies reduce demand for wood as fuel. This, combined with the end of unrestrained harvesting, eases pressures on forests.

A colour photo from the 1970s depicting a forest educator showing a small snake to a boy and a girl wearing life jackets in a canoe.

Forest management for multiple values

1960s to 1970s: Recognition of the need for environmental protection begins to take hold in North America. Public pressure to use the forest for recreation, hunting and fishing increases.

Awareness that forests provide more than economic benefits pushes several provinces to regulate the industry and take responsibility for the environmental and socioeconomic protection of values beyond timber. Forest research increases. Starting in the early 1970s, forest management planning begins to extend to non-timber elements such as wildlife, fisheries and ecological values, like old growth.

A colour photo of four Indigenous forest workers wearing hard hats and safety equipment. Two are holding brush cutters.

Evolution of sustainable forest management

1980s to early 2000s: The United Nations’ 1987 Brundtland Report and 1992 Rio Earth Summit put the concept of “sustainable development” in motion. In response, Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial governments expand forest research and forest policy to consider long-term economic and environmental needs balanced with social needs. Markets demand voluntary certification systems to define and monitor economic, environmental and social standards of forest management.

Greater public consultation by government and industry gives forest users more direct involvement in decision-making processes in Canada. And Indigenous communities become more directly involved in the forest industry as their access to forest tenure expands in the wake of land claim settlements, modern treaties and changes to forest management governance.

In 1982, the United States Department of Commerce begins the first in a series of investigations related to imports of certain Canadian softwood lumber products into the United States, leading to a cycle of alternating periods of trade disputes and managed trade.

The U.S. housing collapse of the mid-2000s leads to the largest drop in Canadian lumber production in more than 70 years. And the rise of electronic media reduces the demand for pulp and newsprint.

A colour photo of the construction of a partially completed tall wood building with concrete elevator towers extending beyond the wood construction. A crane is on the right side of the building, and a cement mixer is in the foreground.

The path forward for forestry in Canada

2010s to the future: In response to the economic downturn of the previous decade, Canada’s forest sector pushes to accelerate the industry’s shift to bioproduct development and production. This focus on scientific research, industry transformation and market diversification (notably, moving into Asia) makes Canada a leader in bringing action and investment to the forest bioeconomy.

Canada’s forests and forest sector are recognized for their key roles in mitigating climate change and the nation’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

In 2014, Canada endorses the United Nations New York Declaration on Forests to cut global natural forest loss in half by 2020 and strive to end it by 2030. And in 2016, Canada adds its signature to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a framework for broader legal recognition and protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples with regard to land and resources, including ownership, use, development and control.

These significant developments suggest that this country’s forests will continue playing a crucial role in the lives of all Canadians for the next 150 years and beyond.


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Photo credits
  • Image of glacier retreat: Excerpt from Fig. 2. Deglaciation in North America from the last glacial maximum at 21 400 – 6300 calendar years BP (adapted from Dyke et al. 2003). Reproduced with permission from An introduction to Canada’s boreal zone: ecosystem processes, health, sustainability, and environmental issues. 2013. Brandt, J.P.; Flannigan, M.D.; Maynard, D.G.; Thompson, I.D.; Volney, W.J.A. Environmental Reviews 21(4): 207–226.
  • Image d-03623 (Columbia River Lumber Company); Image f-09192 (Engine backing down a steep grade) and Image i-05785 (Naturalist and students at Creston Wildlife Centre) courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.
  • Indigenous forest workers: Waswanipi Cree Model Forest.
  • Construction of Brock Commons Phase 1 courtesy of naturally:wood®.