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Allied Power: Mobilizing Hydro-electricity during Canada’s Second World War

By Matthew Evenden

Review By Jonathan McQuarrie

November 12, 2015

BC Studies no. 190 Summer 2016  | p. 161-162

In Allied Power, Matthew Evenden expertly demonstrates how private and public power commissions and corporations throughout Canada expanded hydro-electric capacity in response to the ballooning demands for power and production during the Second World War. He argues that the war “facilitated an unprecedented expansion of state control over hydro-electric development” (8). To establish this, the book traces the federal efforts, particularly those directed by power controller Herbert J. Symington, to increase and channel hydro capacity to essential war industries like aluminium and ammonium nitrate production, all while navigating a tangled web of private, provincial, and international power interests. In some sense, these federal efforts are presented as relatively successful, as hydro capacity increased significantly in some parts of the country. However, Evenden demonstrates that this expansion of hydro power in the name of wartime expediency came at significant costs, including displacement of aboriginal peoples like the Innu along the Peribonka River, disruption of parkland near Lake Minnewaka, Alberta, and exacerbation of regional cleavages in industrial development, as provinces without significant hydro power (such as Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia) were left further behind.

Drawing from a range of archival collections throughout Canada, this book weaves several provincial accounts — notably ones in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and Alberta — into a fascinating narrative that contributes to North American histories of international relations, energy, environment, political economy, and consumption. For instance, chapter four explores the impact of wartime power restrictions and how they intersected with gendered understandings of citizenship and consumption patterns, within the context of long stalled Canada-US negotiations over water diversions along the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin. Sensory experiences of the darkened city, reminiscent of Joy Parr’s Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday (2010), are considered alongside the protracted St. Lawrence Seaway negotiations that were recently studied by Daniel MacFarlane in Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway (2014). A great strength of this book is the sheer number of historical conversations it adds to.

Readers of BC Studies might be particularly interested in chapter seven, “Wringing the last Kilowat,” which explores the origins of particularly sharp energy shortages in British Columbia in 1944, even as the war had turned decisively in the Allies’ favour. In particular, Evenden reveals how difficulties in interconnecting the two main power companies (the BC Electric Company and the West Kootenay Power and Light Company), combined with limited federal knowledge, corporate unease over public power campaigns, and an ill-timed dry spell in 1943 all contributed to power shortages. The completion of the Brilliant dam on the Kootenay River eased these shortages, but difficulties with connecting to the BC Electric’s Lower Mainland system meant that capacity problems and debates over energy in British Columbia persisted well after the war. Evenden has explored aspects of these postwar debates in his previous work, Fish versus Power: An Environmental History of the Fraser River (2004).

Many of the accounts in the book speak to studies of the state perspective of modernization, which explore the ramifications of the technocratic perspective that emphasized centralized planning and diminished local knowledges. The book produces glimpses of the interplay between state and local knowledges, such as the labour of Nakoda people during the dam construction near Lake Minnewaka, Alberta, (148) and of Doukhobor people in the Kootenay Valley (173). More theoretical scaffolding for studying and understanding modernization would have helped to further clarify the significance of these encounters between the central and the local. A recent model can be found in Tina Loo and Megan Stanley’s examination of postwar high modernity on the Peace and Columbia River (Canadian Historical Review, 92 (3), September 2011). Further, the extent to which wartime conditions produced exceptions in the firm connection between modernization and capitalism in Canada would bear more explicit commentary, although some discussion about Symington’s link to private power concerns are suggestive (24).

Befitting a book with national scope and wide ambitions, much of the analysis suggests new directions for study. To give but one example, the relationship between the need for constant power and the “temporal rhythms of the market” is noted, and merits further consideration in other forums (104). How do rhythms, seasonality, and dry spells operate alongside the abstract views of energy marketplaces produced by state representatives like Symington which prized predictability and measurability? I finished Evenden’s work with a mind full of new ideas and unexpected connections, and I strongly suspect that other readers will enjoy a similar experience.

Allied Power: Mobilizing Hydro-electricity during Canada’s Second World War
Matthew Evenden
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. 290 pp. $32.95 paper