A New Introduction to Harold Innis’ Essays in Economic History

This March, the University of Toronto Press will re-publish Harold Innis’ Essays in Canadian Economic History, which was published posthumously in 1956.  I have written a new introduction to the volume, seeking to provide some background on the author and how the book collection came to be.  I also reflect on the changing interest in and readings of Innis across the social sciences from the 1950’s forward.

Jonathan Peyton’s Unbuilt Environments

I’m delighted to see that Jonathan Peyton‘s Unbuilt  Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia will appear this fall in the UBC Press Nature/History/Society Series.  Peyton completed his PhD at UBC Geography in 2011 and is currently Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Manitoba.  Peyton and I also have a joint-authored paper on the history of hydro-electricity in Canada appearing in Ruth Sandwell (ed), Powering Up Canada: The History of Power, Fuel and Energy in Canada, 1600 to the Present (MQUP 2016)

From Political Economy & Environment to Culture, Memory & Society

nellesPoster_smallerAnnouncing: From Political Economy and Environment to Culture, Memory and Society: A symposium in honour of Viv Nelles

Friday, October 16, 2015, 12:45- 6:00 pm

Location: L. R. Wilson Room, Chester New Hall 607, McMaster University

This event recognizes and celebrates the career contributions and scholarship of Viv Nelles, outgoing L.R. Wilson Chair in Canadian History, with a series of papers presented by his former PhD students and invited guests, including: Stéphane Castonguay, Matthew Evenden, Sarah Glassford, Ken Cruikshank, Sean Kheraj, Colin McMahon, Laurence Mussio, and Liza Piper.  In addition to paper presentations, the symposium concludes with an easy walk in Cootes Paradise (weather permitting).  Please dress accordingly.

The event is open to the public, but RSVP’s to Ken Cruikshank, cruiksha@mcmaster.ca, would be appreciated.


Announcing 2015 McLean Lectures in Canadian Studies @ UBC by Tina Loo

Your invited to the 2015 McLean Lectures in Canadian Studies presented by Professor Tina Loo, “Moved by the State: Forced Relocation and a ‘Good Life’ in Postwar Canada.”  The lectures explore the relationships among poverty, development, and democracy in Canada.

28 January “Hell and Hope in the Barrenlands,” on forced relocation in the central Arctic

4 February “Developing a ‘Good Life’ in Newfoundland and Eastern Quebec”

11 February “Building Better Cities East and West”

Location: Liu Centre Multipurpose Room. Lectures start @ 7 pm

Register here.

McLean Lecture slide

Bob Brooks, “A house being moved by floating in from Silver Fox Island, Bonavista Bay, to Dover, Newfoundland,” 1961. Library and Archives Canada, e010975945

Beyond the Culture of Nature JCS special issue released

In 2012, UBC hosted the Beyond the Culture of Nature conference, sponsored by UBC and NiCHE, the Network in Canadian History and Environment/Nouvelle initiative canadienne en histoire de l’environnement.  A special issue of the The Journal of Canadian Studies emerged from this event, which has just been released.  The cover art is by UBC PhD student, Jonathan Luedee.  Can you guess the location?

The Flood Returns on the Bow River

This blog entry was simultaneously posted on the NiCHE Otter blog and the McGill-Queen’s University Press blog and was subsequently carried by The Calgary Herald.

Floods upend the world we know, our habits and our homes.  Things are taken away, foundations shift and the power goes out.  Lives are lost.  Many southern Albertans know about this in a visceral way that I do not.  As the water begins to recede on the Bow River this week, however, many people understandably search for meaning.  One way to do that is to think about flooding in historical perspective.

Although the 2013 flood will go down as the largest flood in living memory with the widest social impacts, the Bow has risen throughout its history.  Float a canoe east of Calgary and you pass high cut banks, dotted with holes for nesting birds, which reveal the outlines of past surges of water and sediment that carved the valley over centuries.

For much of its human history, the Bow figured as an obstruction for the people of the plains, a place to be crossed.  The high waters made this difficult and the best fords became central locations along indigenous trails, places for meeting, rendez-vous and crossing.  Calgary was established around one of these fords.  Treaty Seven was signed at Blackfoot Crossing, another significant ford further downstream, now at the centre of the Siksika reserve.

As people built ranches, settlements and cities along the Bow, they began to live with the risks of flooding.  One of the largest floods ever recorded occurred in June 1897, when the Bow flooded after several days of intense rainfall.  In the fledgling city of Calgary, bridges were torn out and buildings flooded.  Some floated away.  Sixty families had to relocate to higher ground.  Downstream, ranchers with homesteads on the river had to get out quickly.  When the river flooded again the following year, rancher Lachlin McKinnon recorded in his diary, “The spring of 1898 arrived and with it another stab in the back by the Bow River.”

Other floods followed and with time, engineers and government surveyors established gauges and complex instrumentation to measure river flow, assess its seasonal rhythms and forecast the likely flood threat.  Significant floods continued to occur in the early twentieth century, but none matched the big event of 1897.  Still, early Calgarians had plenty of experience with the Bow’s capacity to burst its banks.  After mid-century, however, big summer floods didn’t happen as often.  Some assumed that the river had been tamed.  Perhaps the hydro dams upriver had shaved off the flood threat?  Perhaps settlement itself had succeeded in changing river flow?  Hydrologists who built models of stream flow came to a different conclusion.  They determined that historical floods were associated with heavy rainfall in the foothills in the early summer, which saturated the ground, followed by intense bursts of high precipitation.   Those conditions might return one day, they warned, though for most of the late twentieth century they didn’t.

Calgarians worried much more about winter floods in the middle decades of the twentieth century.  A series of events from the late 1930s to the late 1940s witnessed ice jams in the dead of winter, often around bridges, followed by massive surges of slushy water into low-lying sections of the city.  Many people blamed the power company and its dams upstream for the problem, though government officials found this difficult to credit.  Winter floods also had a long history.  What had changed was the built environment along the river which placed houses and businesses in the line of danger where formerly pastures had stood.  Nevertheless, after a Royal Commission on the flood problem in 1952, a dam was built at the western edges of the city at Bearspaw to reduce the water flow through the city during the winter months.  Like a vast ice trap, the dam lowered the volume of ice through the urban sections of the river and lowered the threat of ice jams and the accompanying floods.  Dikes were also built and obstructions like the Eau Claire weir were removed.  Winter floods became rare.

In the late 1960s, the City of Calgary decided to revisit the flood threat and hired the Montreal Engineering Company to analyze the risk and make recommendations to meet it.  Against prevailing assumptions, the consultants noted that the conditions which gave rise to earlier floods remained.  As a result the city expanded its purchase of riverbank lands, dredged the main channel and built up the banks.  When government workers cleared trees around St George’s Island in 1973, however, local citizen groups reacted to the blunt aesthetic consequences of flood control work.  In response to the uproar the province and city established a Bow River Study Committee to recommend a future course on river management.  Many community groups spoke in favour of accepting a measure of flood risk with a view to preserving the natural beauty of the river and its valley bottom.  After public meetings and consultants reports, a policy emerged to guide future management, emphasizing park development along the river as well as pathway construction.

As in so many cities of the western world, a river which had once been conceived as a hard-working river, a source of drive, a log transport system and power generator, had come to be understood as a recreational amenity.  It still supplied water for power and water for drinking.  It still washed away wastes and sewage, but it was nevertheless reconceived as a site of enjoyment and beauty.  Where once industrial parks and timber mills had been located, new shopping areas, office towers and condominiums emerged.  The urban river lay at the centre of it all as a parkland and recreational space.  The threat of the century flood was not forgotten entirely, but nor was it at the forefront of thinking about urban planning.

Recent events bring us full circle to the flood of 1897 but in a radically changed geography of human settlement.  Moving forward, the imagination of the river and the human decisions about how to relate to its changing course will be fundamentally altered.  Calgary will change.  And no doubt the river will be changed as well.

See photos of historical Bow floods here: http://mqup.tumblr.com/post/53929525483/top-picture-flooding-in-calgary-1902-glenbow

The material for this blog entry draws from Christopher Armstrong, Matthew Evenden and H.V. Nelles, The River Returns: An Environmental History of the Bow (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009).  See also Stéphane Castonguay and Matthew Evenden, eds. Urban Rivers: Remaking Rivers, Cities and Space in Europe and North America (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).