What inspired you to write this book?
I wondered how I might contribute to these ideas in a Canadian and international context. Around the same time, I was completing work on earlier studies of rivers in which the politics of river development in wartime seemed anomalous. Things happened during the war which could not happen otherwise. Compromises were made, understandings changed, and policies overridden. How did war frame the use of rivers, I asked, and in what ways did war transform the politics of development? Once I started to poke around in the federal archives in search of answers, I realized that a fairly broad field of investigation lay ahead of me, beyond the provincial scale projects I had tackled to date. And so I launched into a national study, not yet entirely aware of the number of archival visits across the country that lay ahead of me!
What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?
There were a lot of exciting archival finds, but maybe my favourite was a diary entry by Prime Minister Mackenzie King, made on 28 November, 1944. In reflecting on his day, Mackenzie King recounted a major episode in the conscription crisis and then spoke in lyrical, nostalgic terms about the brightly lit streets of Ottawa. He was noticing, without quite realizing it, the end of wartime lighting restrictions, which had occurred a month before. After years of darkened and dreary streets, Ottawa was lit up like a Christmas tree and Mackenzie King felt elated and read the experience as an almost divine statement about his wartime contributions. I quote the diary entry at length to make the point that wartime electricity restrictions had both the intended effects on distribution but also a range of unanticipated effects on the perception of cities and nighttime as well as memory and modern experience.
Do you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of your book?
If you want to know about historical events across Canada, you need to be prepared to spend a good deal of time in Ottawa working your way through the national archives. But water is one of those subjects that produces jurisdictional complications—it’s partly under provincial control, partly under federal control. For a historian that means that a lot of your evidence will be dispersed in different provincial archives. In addition, interested as I was by how electricity was used and conserved during the war, I had to investigate a range of corporate and city archives to find relevant evidence. I think my most unusual archival visit took me to a transformer station in east Toronto where I read old papers with the buzz and hum of equipment next door. Since this book was also about the Second World War and how hydro-electricity figured in Canada’s wartime alliances, and since water both defines and flows across the Canada-US border, I needed to attend to research sources abroad, such as the vast wartime records held by the US National Archives in Washington, DC.
Apart from the paper traces that historians track and read, an environmental historian also benefits from field work. I’ve visited many of the places I write about. During site visits, I’ve tried to understand the traces of historical landscapes and the relations of places to their surrounding contexts. I doubt I could have understood the complex hydro development in Banff National Park, for example, without hiking the canal routes and the trails around Lake Minnewanka. I also would not have understood the close connections between the Brilliant dam and Doukhobor communities in southern British Columbia without spending time travelling around Castlegar, Nelson and vicinity. And I never would have appreciated the scope and scale of the Shipshaw project in Quebec without spending time in the upper Saguenay.
What did you learn from writing your book?
I learned that Canada depended critically on hydro-electricity to power its war economy. I learned that Canada’s hydro-electricity powered a range of specialized goods and commodities, such as aluminum, that were hugely important to the allied war effort. And I learned how the war overrode pre-existing plans for river development and governance and framed the projects that would provide the foundation for the post-war big dam era.
What are your current/future projects?
I’m currently writing about the history of drinking water in Vancouver, a city that has famously bragged about its pure water supply since the late nineteenth century. But what is pure water, and what actions must be taken to preserve that purity? How do people react when evidence emerges that undermines the claims of purity or when authorities propose adding things to drinking water, like chlorine or fluoride? What people think about water reveals a great deal about notions of purity, place, and environment, as well as pollution, risk, and the body.
What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?
I read fiction for pleasure and over the past several years I’ve been deeply drawn to Nordic noir. Henning Mankell’s Wallander series was my gateway into that world. At this very moment, however, I’m indulging in my love for memoirs with John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor, a book that weaves together autobiography, a portrait of Oxford over the years and a lifetime with books. Its opinionated, sometimes funny and deeply evocative of time and place.
If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?
Who knows! I’d like to say a back-country skiing guide, but let’s be realistic. Given my interest in the environment and history, perhaps I might have followed my interests into the heritage sector, or environmental law, or government work in public policy and the environment.