The Business of Power: Hydroelectricity in Southeastern British Columbia, 1897-1997

The Business of Power: Hydroelectricity in Southeastern British Columbia, 1897-1997

Jeremy Mouat

Reviewed by Phillip Van Huizen

When Jeremy Mouat’s The Business of Power first came out in 1997, both Cominco and West Kootenay Power and Light, the main corporate subjects of Mouat’s book (the latter of which commissioned it), had recently been sold to Vancouver’s Teck corporation and Missouri’s UtiliCorp, respectively, and Canada and the United States had just renewed the Columbia River Treaty, all of which Mouat addresses in his short and easily-digestible review of the history of hydroelectric power production in the Kootenay region. This welcome reprint of The Business of Power affords an opportunity to revisit the book, as well as this recent history, after nearly twenty years.

Mouat’s work stands on the respectable side of commissioned histories, not quite at the level of David Breen’s masterful Alberta’s Petroleum Industry and the Conservation Board (1993), but comparable to other noteworthy examples, such as Meg Stanley’s Voices from Two Rivers (2010). The book moves chronologically through the twentieth century, tracing Kootenay Power’s genesis during the late nineteenth century’s gold, copper, and silver mining craze in southeastern British Columbia, particularly the importance of American and British financing interests; its purchase by the CPR and its subsidiary Cominco; its aggressive expansion due to its association with Cominco’s lead and zinc smelting operations in the first half of the twentieth century; and its eventual de-coupling from Cominco as domestic consumption and public regulation rules came to define its post-1950s existence.

Most noteworthy is Mouat’s attention to context. Alongside the expected biographies of corporate bigwigs, such as Charles Ross, one of the founders of West Kootenay Power and the creator of the infamous Ross rifle, and Lorne Campbell, the long-time general manager of West Kootenay Power (1899-1947), Mouat also details how the global development of electricity, the influence of two world wars, Doukhobor immigration, and especially the history of mining and smelting all played complicated and important roles in West Kootenay’s history. Indeed, mining proved to be the single most important reason for power production in southeastern British Columbia, propelling West Kootenay Power into the number one producer of electricity in the province until the creation of BC Hydro in 1961. Mouat’s strongest contribution with The Business of Power is thus in reminding us of the importance of resource processing and the East Kootenay region to British Columbia’s history of power.

The book is not without its flaws, however. Mouat spends far more time on the history of Cominco and West Kootenay Power’s early investors, presidents, and general managers than he does on the impact of individual dam projects. In fact, we are given no idea how large early West Kootenay dams and reservoirs like the Upper Bonnington, Corra Lynn, and Brilliant are, nor any sense of their impact on Kootenay people and places. First Nations communities, in particular, do not even merit a mention. Nor do we really get a sense of how West Kootenay Power and Light, and Cominco more generally, operated in and influenced the British Columbia political landscape after 1930, as the book delves more into the larger and well-trodden narratives such as the Columbia River Treaty than into the local details of how Cominco managed to get dams like the Waneta built in the 1950s.

The Business of Power thus also serves as a reminder that more still needs to be written about this important company and its place in British Columbia’s history.

The Business of Power: Hydroelectricity in Southeastern British Columbia, 1897-1997
Jeremy Mouat
Winlaw: Sono Nis Press, 2014 [1997]. 200 pp. 

BC Studies no. 193 Spring 2017