Pandemic of COVID-19 Virus Underscores Significance of Canadian Environmental Hero Gordon Hewitt

Photo: by Jeff Smith on In the 1880s, St. Lawrence Market (Toronto, Ontario) sold passenger pigeons which later became extinct. Market hunting became banned throughout North America following passage of the Migratory Bird Convention.

The catastrophic global pandemic of the COVID-19 virus underscores the heroic accomplishments of the Canadian environmental hero, Charles Gordon Hewitt. Hewitt through being the architect of the Migratory Bird Convention, a treaty between Great Britain (before Canadian independence) and the United States, in effect banned wildlife markets throughout the North American continent.  The treaty was later applied to Mexico in 1924 and to smaller Western Hemisphere states. A  market in Wuhan, China where wildlife is sold was the incubator of the current COVID plague upon humanity. Similar markets, which were subsequently temporarily banned, were also the incubator for the earlier SARS pandemic. 

Despite their absence here today Canadians should not feel self-righteous about the origins of the COVID-19 virus in the “wet market” (meaning live animals), the Huanan Seafood Market of Wuhan. It was only because of Hewitt’s combination of intense mastery of science and acumen of government administration that such blights vanished from our nation in the early 20th century.

Wet markets, now temporarily banned in China and Vietnam are sinister places. What is most distressing is that a possible candidate as a carrier of the virus, the pangolin, (an endangered species, similar to the armadillo with armoured scales) was sold caged and live for its supposed medical benefits in the Huanan market. Also sold were another suspected intermediate carrier the horseshoe bat. Although not suspected as a potential carrier of the virus, imported crocodiles chopped up, not live, are also commonly sold in Chinese wet markets.

Markets that sell wild animals in Canada and the United States vanished in 1917 after the Migratory Bird Treaty came into effect. At that time, however, the only wildlife that was still sold in markets was the mallard duck. This was largely because many of the wild species previously sold in markets had become extinct or quite rare. 

The passenger pigeon, the most numerous bird ever to fly the skies of North America, became extinct since it was mass slaughtered, and shipped by rail for sale in city markets. The near-extinction of the American bison came about rapidly through the sale of its meat in the markets of American cities. 

In a tragic twist of fate Hewitt died from flu and pneumonia symptoms in 1920 at the age of 36 during the height of the Spanish flu pandemic. Environmental historians are haunted by the impact Hewitt, a Canadian public servant, may have had if he'd reached normal life expectancy for his era. 

Hewitt’s Migratory Bird Treaty (MBT) had an impact on North America comparable to the jolt of a revolution. Since Newfoundland was not part of Canada when it was signed, the dramatic impact of the convention when it joined Confederation exploded a separatist movement. 

The MBT was complimented by similar regulations that protected mammals by state and provincial governments. Essentially all hunting on the continent became tightly restricted to subsistence purposes. 

Duck hunters that once profited from the sale of mallards in city markets were forced to pay substantial fees to hunt for their personal use, that of friends and family, and heavily-regulated wild game dinners. Revenues from such fees, which in the United States are termed Duck Stamps, are used to purchase and protect waterfowl habitat. The treaty also banned all hunting for hundreds of species, notably seabirds and songbirds such as robins. Before the treaty, as the disturbing children's song says, blackbirds were baked in pies for arrogant rulers such as kings. 

It is appalling that rather than being strengthened now the MBT is being assaulted in the United States with no protests from Canada. The Trump Administration is attempting to deny the MTB application to the energy sector.  According to some American state governors, this administration is increasingly monarchical and as a result is facing lawsuits from eight American states, including New York and California.

The conservation treaties of the Progressive Era (generally the 1890s-1920s) are a vivid contrast to the sordid trade agreements of the past twenty years. This pattern puts the Sierra Club in an admirable position of being the only environmental protection group to have consistently opposed this faddish tide of neo-liberalism. Ultimately, neo-libs have done nothing to protect global trade, now at a standstill from the COVID-19 virus. Serious treaties to prohibit market hunting should be an urgent priority for the Canadian government.

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