Skip to main content

Boreal Community Media

Book Review: Ebb and Flow

Jan 04, 2020 06:10AM ● By Editor
By David Leitch of the Winnipeg Free Press - January 4, 2020

Northwestern Ontario may not have had much farmland — the thing most immigrants to Canada were looking for in the late 1800s and the early 1900s — but it had plenty of other economic assets: beautiful scenery for tourists, abundant fish stocks, vast forests of marketable timber, promising mining sites and huge lakes and powerful rivers that could be harnessed to generate hydroelectric power, the new engine of economic growth.

Focusing on the Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake watershed in his new book, Jamie Benidickson recounts how the exploitation of these valuable resources over the next 100-plus years either preserved the region’s natural environment (Quetico Provincial Park, for example) or, more often, degraded it — such as with the mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Benidickson teaches environmental law at the University of Ottawa, and is a member of the Centre for Environmental Law and Global Sustainability.

This is essentially a metropolis-hinterland story. But, as Benidickson shows, there were really three metropolitan centres pulling the development levers in northwestern Ontario: Toronto, Ottawa and Winnipeg.

In fact, all three capitals initially claimed the region. Ottawa argued that by signing treaties in the region, Indigenous Peoples had conveyed "every acre... to the people of Canada and not to the people of Ontario."

Winnipeg maintained that Manitoba needed to annex the region for its rich timber resources and to get a port on Lake Superior.

Toronto won the contest in court in the late 1880s, but by the early 1900s, Winnipeg needed more hydroelectric power and a better source of drinking water.

Since Winnipeg was the gateway to western expansion, Ottawa played a critical role in making sure it got both.

To generate more electricity, Winnipeg’s power producers required a "dependable flow" of water through the Winnipeg River — that is, a flow that did not wane in the winter. To get it, Ottawa planned to "store" the water for the winter months behind dams built at the outlets of the two northwestern Ontario lakes that flowed into the Winnipeg River: Lake of the Woods and Lac Seul.

When Toronto balked at the plan in 1921, Ottawa introduced legislation declaring the dams to be for the "general advantage" of Canada. Toronto immediately denounced the legislation as an invasion of provincial authority to serve extra-provincial interests. But the only real political resistance to the project was based in the hinterland itself.

Soon, Toronto was reconciled to providing Winnipeg with "dependable flow" and Ottawa repealed the offending legislation.

The result was that Winnipeg got more hydro power and the people living around the Lake of the Woods and Lac Seul got flooded shorelines and the fluctuating water levels required to produce electricity. The impact on Aboriginal wild rice cultivation, navigation and domestic water supply was Benidickson says, "commonly dismissed or inadequately considered."

As for drinking water, Winnipeg has piped it in from Shoal Lake in northwestern Ontario since 1919. But, as Benidickson notes, the water aqueduct divided Shoal Lake 40 First Nation in two, forcing part of the community onto an island without road access and onto a long-term boil-water advisory.

This is not a "detail" one would expect to find in a history of Canada or even of Winnipeg. But herein lies the value of Benidickson’s regional environmental history: it offers the backstory on the environmental cost to northwestern Ontario in the making of Winnipeg.

He says he offers this volume as "a potential source of guidance to those concerned with managing other shared water systems."

If we are to do better in the future, we need to understand where we went wrong in the past.

David Leitch is a lawyer representing First Nations in northwestern Ontario.

To read the original review and see related stories, follow this link to the Winnipeg Free Press website.