Christopher Armstrong, Matthew Evenden, and H. V. Nelles, The River Returns; Michèle Dagenais, Montréal et l'eau; David Massell, Québec Hydropolitics
Pierre Lanthier Environmental history is flourishing in Canada, and the three books under review are representative of this trend. They share a common theme: the relationship of human beings with rivers. More than any other natural resource, water is essential for human settlement. In the North American context, water helped the First Nations, and later the Europeans, to penetrate deeply into the continent. Through time, people have used water for many functions, from navigation to sanitation to recreation, irrigation, and power generation, not to mention fishing and drinking. People have settled close to rivers and lakes in order to harness this protean resource, often having to deal with floods or, in a more Canadian context, ice, as the price to pay for the water’s bounty.
The three books all hold that human activity constantly redefines nature. To be sure, every natural resource and landscape has its physical specificities—each river is unique. Nevertheless, humans will adapt to them and eventually modify them. That much of the story is universal. One might think, then, that the three books would tell the same story, simply transposed to a different context each time. But this is not so. There is another aspect of environmental history: the way that the functions given to nature by humans relate to one another. Do they combine or, conversely, conflict? On this, the books offer different answers. This is partly due to their specific rivers of study: the Bow, the St. Lawrence, and the Peribonka. But the difference is also due to their approaches: each book has its own temporal and spatial dimensions. Two of them have a broad temporal perspective, while the third one focuses on a specific timespan of only a few years. And while two survey their respective rivers in toto, the other limits itself to the impact of its subject river on a specific city. These variances give each book a different perspective on the relationships among the functions ascribed to water.
The Bow River in Alberta is the subject of Christopher Armstrong, Matthew Evenden, and H. V. Nelles’s The River Returns: An Environmental History of the Bow (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv+488. $34.95). The volume is the most comprehensive study of the three under review here, covering the river in its geographic totality and from the beginning of human settlement up to the present. It is the political, social, and economic complement to Armstrong and Nelles’s 2007 cultural history of the river.1 Of the three books, this one insists the most on assigning its river a personality of its own; for example: “The Bow River had character or, rather, its neighbours anthropomorphized its changeability. It wound its way into the lives of many people who settled on its banks. Indigenous peoples, ranchers, townfolks, and farmers had to adjust to what they called the mood of the river” (p. 85).
The Bow indeed has distinctive physical characteristics: it is not a major waterway; it is a dangerous river with only two crossings; and its volume of water allows only limited hydroelectric development. But it serves as the setting of an impressive array of human activities, which the authors present thematically in thirteen chapters. For instance, its banks were the home of the Blackfoot Indian Reserve, then of farmers, and later of a growing immigrant population, which in time would lead to the formation of the city of Calgary. It was a river useful for buffalo hunting, then for cattle ranching, and later for wheat production, irrigation becoming a major activity. Demands for flood control and potable water and sanitation would lead to big projects like the Glenmore Reservoir, which was built during the Great Depression. The river provided opportunities for leisure activities by the creation of a national park through which it flowed and the tourist town of Banff. Thereafter, it was only a matter of time before conservationism and ecological considerations would guide the use of the Bow.
The River Returns shows the many faces of the river through space and time. The transition from one function to the other can be gradual, even almost imperceptible. The uses of the river can also be conflicted and contested, as shown by the many examples presented in chapter 12. But all these activities contribute to the Bow’s identity, which the book demonstrates.
Michèle Dagenais, in Montréal et l’eau. Une histoire environnementale(Montréal: Boréal, 2011. Pp. 308. $27.95), surely would have come to similar conclusions had she studied the St. Lawrence River per se. She chose a different perspective, however, analyzing the relationship the island of Montréal has with water. Dagenais’s book, like The River Returns, deals with the longer term (from 1800 to the present) and offers numerous examples of successive visions of the relationship between the city and its water. A comparison could be made between the two studies, which cover issues that both Calgary and Montréal experienced. Flooding in particular is thoroughly detailed in both. However, the portrait that Dagenais draws of the St. Lawrence’s water management is one of less consensus than that of Armstrong and colleagues. Montréal has the dual distinction of being a densely populated area that is continually expanding and being located at the center of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Because of this the river has to serve many functions and needs. But what Montréal et l’eau emphasizes is the ongoing, quasi-permanent negotiations among the institutions responsible for the many functions the river must serve. This focus on negotiations fits the author’s decision to organize her study not according to functions or activities, but instead time.
Dagenais begins her narrative in the early nineteenth century, at a time when it became urgent to link Montréal by bridges to the surrounding areas and when canals were being built to connect the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. The bridges could not interfere with navigation and vice versa. Similar frictions occurred elsewhere. For example, what to do when sewers discharge in areas too close to wharves? If sewers must be moved, they are redirected toward the suburbs. Navigation and dam-building are likewise incompatible demands on the St. Lawrence. In the 1950s the enlargement of the seaway called into question the role of Montréal as a transshipment harbor. Today, ecological issues pit concerned groups against proposed changes detrimental to the environment. Montréal et l’eau has the merit of showing how infrastructures are constantly adjusted and readjusted not only according to technological, economic, social, or environmental changes, but also by the unavoidable clashes these changes create among players responsible for their implementation.
While Montréal et l’eau looks at municipal administrative negotiations, David Massell, in Québec Hydropolitics: The Peribonka Concessions of the Second World War (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011. Pp. xvi+242. $32.95), explores a different political dimension of environmental history. A specific event—the harnessing of the Peribonka River in northern Québec during World War II—resulted from the persistent lobbying by the Aluminum Company of Canada Ltd (hereafter Alcan) of the Government of Québec, with the encouragement of both Ottawa and Washington. Although Alcan did manage to lease the territory necessary to build two reservoirs, Lake Manouan and Passe Dangereuse, and construct a central power generating station in Shipshaw for the purpose of supplying electricity to both Alcan and Alcoa’s plant in Massena, the building of the reservoirs deprived the Innu from its fishing and hunting territories. Members of the First Nations could not vote and had no say in such matters.
The book focuses mainly on the negotiations between Alcan and the provincial and federal governments to achieve the harnessing of the Peribonka. Initially, these negotiations were not difficult because Québec’s prime minister Adélard Godbout was already committed to the war effort. The big issue came from the criticism made by the opposition party, Union Nationale, led by Maurice Duplessis, who accused Godbout of treason for having leased land at a low rate to Alcan. This attack caused the prime minister to be less receptive to additional Alcan requests concerning the Bersimis River and Lake Manicouagan. According to Massell, it may even have pushed Godbout in 1944 to nationalize Montréal Light, Heat & Power Company, which then became Hydro-Québec. Massell’s hypothesis is worth considering; his book is a stimulating one, even if it would have gained by extending its scope beyond the decision-makers and the Innu traditional way of life.
In sum, these three volumes illustrate the various levels of human intervention in harnessing natural resources. Although none makes an in-depth analysis of the technologies associated with water, they provide useful social, political, and economic information. Many environmental historians separate nature and culture, consequently conferring a relative autonomy on the former. These books, however, reinforce the idea that environmental history remains, above all, a history of human decision-making. A river may have a personality all its own, but the authors here agree that this personality is continuously transformed by humans.
Pierre Lanthier is a professor of history in the department of human sciences at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and a researcher at the Centre interuniversitaire dʼétudes québécoises (CIEQ).
Armstrong, Christopher, and H. V. Nelles. The Painted Valley: Artists Along Alberta’s Bow River, 1845–2000. Calgary: University of Calgary Press and East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2007. Footnotes 1. Christopher Armstrong and H. V. Nelles, The Painted Valley.