Nature’s Past Episode 50: Canadian Energy History

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Episode 50: Canadian Energy History

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According to a study by Richard Unger and John Thistle, Canadians consumed 430 petajoules of energy in 1867. Combining energy from animal labour, food, firewood, wind, water, coal, crude oil, natural gas and electricity, by 2004 Canadians reached a historic peak of energy consumption at 11,526 petajoules. For reference, a petajoule is a unit of energy measurement roughly equivalent to 31.6 million cubic metres of natural gas or 277.78 million kilowatt hours of electricity.

Since Confederation, Canadians have been high per capita energy consumers and our appetites for energy have grown substantially over the past 148 years. The way we consume energy has changed quite a bit over that time period too. In 1867, Canadians drew energy primarily from organic sources: animal labour, wood, and agricultural produce. Since the mid-twentieth century, we have drawn increasingly from mineral sources of energy: coal, crude oil, and natural gas.

This shift in energy consumption since Confederation has arguably been one of the most consequential changes in Canadian history. It changed our relationships with one another as much as it changed our relationships with nature. The energy history of Canada is as much a concern for environmental history as it is for social history, political history, and cultural history.

Energy history is an emerging field in Canada, but one with long historiographical roots. To learn more about Canadian energy history and the development of this new approach to thinking about environment, history, and society, this episode features a round-table discussion with three Canadian historians each of whom were part of an energy history working group at the University of Toronto in 2014-15.


Steve Penfold
Ruth Sandwell
Andrew Watson

Works Cited:

Evenden, Matthew. Allied Power: Mobilizing Hydro-Electricity During Canada’s Second World War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

Jones, Christopher F. Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.

McNeill, J. R. Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York: Norton, 2000.

Unger, Richard W., and John Thistle. Energy Consumption in Canada in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, 2013.

Wrigley, E. A. Continuity, Chance, and Change: The Character of the Industrial Revolution in England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Wrigley, E.A. Energy and the English Industrial Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Music Credits:

“Counting Faces in the Clouds” by Martijn de Boer

“Musical Instrumental” by Stefan Kartenberg

“All of the World” by Jeris feat. Snowflake

Photo Credit:

[A.W. Boland and family; Fort Franklin and views of the flora and fauna of Great Bear Lake, N.W.T., 1928]” Credit: Canada. Dept. Indian and Northern Affairs / Library and Archives Canada / e010983441


Kheraj, Sean. “Episode 50: Canadian Energy History” Nature’s Past: Canadian Environmental History Podcast. 24 November 2015.

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Sean Kheraj

Associate Professor and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University
Sean Kheraj is a member of the executive committee of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at


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