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Fish versus Power: An Environmental History of the Fraser River

By Matthew Evenden

Review By Joseph Taylor

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 142-143 Summer-Autumn 2004  | p. 297-9

IN CIRCLES WHERE SALMON management gets debated, the Fraser River looms large because it helps drive a neat syllogism, which goes something like this: Columbia River runs imploded because American scientists supported a massive dam-building program and* then failed to offset losses through an equally massive hatchery system; Fraser River runs are vibrant because science helped to rebuild degraded habitat and then protected fish from similar dam and hatchery programs; therefore Canadian salmon management was enlightened and US policies were not. Unfortunately for people who like this just-so story, Matthew Evenden’s Fish versus Power undermines the separation of Canadian and American in the history of salmon and river management. No tidy boundaries remain but, rather, messy intellectual, material, and political relationships that leave readers with abiding and, perhaps, depressing respect for the contingencies of the past. 

Although salmon frame the questions the author pursues, they have only a marginal presence in this book. The title says Fish, but the book’s primary focus is “the institutional and political contexts of scientific knowledge” (12). Evenden’s targets are the broad frameworks within which policies were formed, and the result is a narrative with a sort of tectonic quality about it. Steeped in primary documents produced by governments, quasi-gov-ernments, and corporations, Evenden produces a sort of Weberian morality play. Public and private organizations rise, thrive, vie, and fall. Bureaucracies take on lives of their own, and original missions morph in distressing and bizarre ways. Salmon often get lost in the shuffle as entities maneuver for power or profit or fame or god-knows-what. In the end salmon survive, but this is not a success story. 

Evenden draws out these lessons early with a sophisticated analysis of the confusions surrounding efforts to help salmon pass Hell’s Gate. The Gate, a notorious narrows on the Fraser, was made far more turbulent after a series of railroad-induced landslides from 1911 to 1913. The river bed was so altered that adult salmon could not pass, and lucrative sockeye runs crashed. Nearly all understood that a catastrophe had occurred, but it took years to comprehend the full impact, decades to realize that problems were festering, and nearly a half century to muster the knowledge and will to fix things. Evenden’s careful reading of the science and engineering behind this project, however, reveals how tenuous a solution it was. Good-intentioned scientists descend into nasty, nationalistic spats, and, as Milo Bell later admitted, if anyone had understood how little was known about Hell’s Gate, they “might not have given us authorization to build [a fish ladder]” (236). 

The remainder of the book concentrates on efforts to develop hydroelectricity on the Fraser. Like its neighbours to the north and south, British Columbia was blessed with vast latent hydraulic energy and cursed by limited demand. This frustrating blend of contingencies vexed developers during the early twentieth century, but whereas American boosters had willing and powerful allies in the federal government, in British Columbia federal and provincial forces were often at odds over funding public projects, and private utilities added capacity only after demand emerged. Ironically, BC Electric was a saving grace for Fraser salmon because it would not risk capital on a mainstem dam without an obvious energy market. 

A conservative strategy served BC Electric well in the Great Depression, but a rush of industrial development during the Second World War resulted in chronic brownouts and calls for a more anticipatory approach to power development. The pressures that transformed the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s and 1930s finally reshaped British Columbia in the postwar years. Unlike south of the 49th parallel, however, industry and government could never align behind a dam-building program. Politicians cajoled BC Electric to move forward on projects, but the company’s main goal was to deflect efforts to make it a public utility. The Aluminum Company of Canada (ALCAN) diverted the Nechako River to power a smelter at Kitimat, in part by playing the Nechako off the Chilko River as the lesser of two evils, but ALCAN’S victory created a potent coalition of industry, management, and science concerned about salmon habitat. Electric policy produced a Newtonian dynamic. Each new project inspired an equal and opposite reaction. The province’s fractured industrial base prevented that coalition of cities, industry, and bureaucracy which drove dam-building in the Pacific Northwest. 

Running through this book is an attention to transnational themes. Nature, ideas, and policies transgressed borders and made it impossible to understand events within a provincial or national framework. Salmon migrations entangled fishers in messy treaties; floods triggered major changes in dam politics on the Fraser and the Columbia. An international assemblage of scientists and engineers at Hell’s Gate engaged each other so intensively that calling their work “Canadian” or “American” obscured the inherent dynamism. The most significant implication of transnationalism was the formation of hydroelectric policy. Well-placed boosters lobbied to dam the Fraser and even divert the Columbia into the Thompson River, but they were opposed by adamant salmon interests. Industrial forces were evenly matched, but this only forestalled the Fraser ‘s fate. Although General Andrew McNaughton insisted that more dams would enable BC to be “entirely masters of our own destiny” (223), he miscalculated the entangling alliances. Diplomacy and technology made the Fraser irrelevant in 1961 when Canada and the US agreed to dam.the upper Columbia so that both American river management and Canadian economic concerns were addressed. Meanwhile engineers perfected long-distance power transmission, ensuring that dams on the Columbia and Peace rivers could substitute for the Fraser. 

In the end the Fraser, an almost completely provincial river, remained damless because of the transnational nature of Columbia waters and electrical transmission. This is why facile contrasts between Canadian and American management fare poorly, and why the transnational focus is imperative. Evenden’s arguments are deft, but he could push them further. The floods that were exploited by Fraser advocates were also seized upon by American boosters. A discussion of the different contexts in which these visions played out would underscore the importance of provincial political and economic contexts. Conversely, Evenden’s treatment of the impact of the ALCAN project on the Cheslatta T’en is important, but this was anything but an isolated incident. Attention to the regional impact of dams on Native peoples would underscore how tales about salmon expand our understanding of modernity and colonialism. The bias toward the impact of dams on salmon habitat did deflect fish research from concerns about the ocean, but earlier research had bared thorny regulatory issues no government wanted to address, and key océanographie problems had to await satellite technology. 

Fish versus Power is very good history, but it contains a chastening conclusion. British Columbians spared Fraser salmon not because they had great empathy for nature, but because their electrical demands increased only after technological innovations enabled them to exploit the already-devastated Columbia and soon-to-be devastated Peace. This is not the sort of tale that makes readers proud – the just-so stories are much more effective on that score – but this is why Matthew Evenden’s book is so important. It reminds us that the frontiers more often constrain our ability to understand and that novel spatial constructs can create original and needed insights into the past and present.