"Three Hundred Leagues Further Into the Wilderness" Conceptualizations of the Nonhuman during Wendat-French Culture Contact, 1609--49: Implications for Environmental Social Work and Social Justice

Arielle Dylan
Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto
December, 2010


This study concerns an essential but, until recent years, little explored area of social work: environmental social work. The social work profession has long considered persons in their environment; however, use of the term environment has typically referred to social rather than nonhuman physical dimensions of space and place. It is common knowledge that we face today a number of serious environmental challenges, but less common is an understanding of how things came to be as they are. Why, for example, did things not develop differently? Why is our human-nonhuman relationship so strained? This research asserts human conceptualisations of the nonhuman other influence treatment of not only the nonhuman but also other human beings. Having an interdisciplinary focus involving social work, environmental studies and early Canadian history, Wendat and French conceptualisations of the nonhuman are explored through an ecofeminist framework in a culture-contact context to initiate consideration of, and in due course attending to, the uneasy intersection of the human and the nonhuman, social work and environmental issues, and current Aboriginal-non-Aboriginal relations. Through locating our environmental crisis within a historical context, it is possible to unsettle some contemporary assumptions about the human-nonhuman relationship, drawing attention to the fact that things could have been otherwise, that the environmental challenges experienced today were not inescapable. While there are certainly many ways to approach a history of our present environmental crisis, this investigation in the Canadian context involving a clearly defined case of culture contact between the Wendat and French in the early seventeenth century offers a variety of advantages deriving, in part, from the comparable but different complexities belonging to each group and the opportunity to explore two highly dissimilar cultural practices and belief systems from the time of initial contact. This study examines in detail how the two cultures understood and interacted with the nonhuman, and each other, through a forty-year period from 1609-1649. From this historical exploration of Wendat and French worldviews and land-use practices implications for social work are described and a model for place-based social work is generated.