Current Research

1) Dams, Rivers and People

a) Mobilizing Rivers: Hydro-electricity in Canada during the Second World War

*Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

NY Canada exhibit 1939During the Second World War, the Canadian state sought to increase generating capacity in regions of industrial war demand and rationalize electrical systems and markets.  In the process, new dams were built to power Canada’s war effort.  Rivers were, in effect, mobilized.  Situated within an emerging international historiography on war and the environment, this research programs seeks to understand how war changed Canadian rivers and how rivers were bound up into the international material and energy flows of military conflict.

Most of my research on this project has focused on Central Canada, where the bulk of new dam building and system integration occurred.  The major outcome of this project is Allied Power: Mobilizing Hydro-electricity during Canada’s Second World War (UTP, 2015).

“Canada at Work” mural in the Canadian Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair, 1939-1940, LAC, PA 19587. Note the prominent central image of a power dam in this evocative mural of the Canadian economy made by Edwin Holgate and Albert Cloutier to represent Canada internationally on the eve of the war.

b) Power Flows: Hydro-electricity in northern British Columbia

*Funded by the Hampton Fund, University of British Columbia, and the Canadian Water History Project/Projet sur l’histoire de l’eau au Canada, which is part of the Network in Canadian History and Environment/ Nouvelle initiative canadienne en histoire de l’environnement, which receives funding from the SSHRC.

Peave River at Taylor Flats, 1972, photo by J. Lewis RobinsonIn its most recent Energy Plan, the BC government called on the provincial utility, BC Hydro, to consult with the public about building a new dam on the Peace River at Site C, near Fort St. John.  The Peace has already been dammed twice.  The W.A.C. Bennett dam, which impounds the headwaters in the Williston Reservoir, created the largest human-made lake in North America.  After a major consultation exercise that drew only modest public engagement outside of the Peace Valley, the BC government has signaled its intention to proceed.  In the first phase of this project I tried to organize events to put the Site C issue in focus and foster open and respectful discussion of the options.  This resulted in an undergraduate research project and website on Site C, a workshop amongst academics and community participants from the region, held at UBC in November 2008, and an edited forum in the Spring 2009 issue of the journal BC Studies.

In the second phase of the project, I worked with my graduate student, Jonathan Peyton (now a professor at the University of Manitoba), to place the Site C controversy into broader historical perspective and supervised MA student, Lisa Dumoulin, who completed a thesis on the place of children in the unfolding environmental politics of Site C.  Peyton and I recently co-authored a synoptic essay on the history of hydro-electricity in Canada to be published in a book on Canadian energy history, edited by Ruth Sandwell.

Image: Peace River at Taylor Flats 1972, photo by J. Lewis Robinson

2) Cities and Water

a) Urban waters

*Funded by the Canadian Water History Project/Projet sur l’histoire de l’eau au Canada, which is part of the Network in Canadian History and Environment/ Nouvelle initiative canadienne en histoire de l’environnement, which receives funding from the SSHRC, as well as a SSHRC conference grant awarded to Castonguay.

With my colleague, Stephane Castonguay, I co-edited a collection entitled, Urban Rivers, which contains a series of essays on North American and western European cities and rivers, covering periods of rapid urbanization and industrialization.  The individual chapters seek to understand the urban-riverine relationship from diverse methodological and theoretical perspectives to provide a new understanding of the environmental and spatial relationships that tied rivers and cities inextricably together, changing both in the process.

Image: View of Paris and the Seine from A Photographic Trip Around the World, John W. Illiff & Co., Chicago, 1892, wikimedia commons.

b) Potable City: An Environmental Historical Geography of Water Supply in Vancouver

* Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

This project examines the development of Vancouver’s potable water supply, one of the first initiatives of urban government after the establishment of the city in 1886.  Partly this is a socio-technical story of the development of a water supply network, connecting reservoirs on the Capliano, Coquitlam and Seymour rivers to homes, institutions and businesses across the city.  Partly it is a governance story as a district framework emerged in the early twentieth century to manage system growth, suburban and urban demand and the rising costs of maintenance and extension.  But from whatever angle, it is also an environmental story, of changing water use patterns, changing ideas of quality and necessity, and complex power dynamics over and through the water system.

Image: Capilano River, Thomas Quine, wikimedia commons

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