Hydro Democracy in Canada

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In his 2011 book Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Timothy Mitchell argues that the materiality of energy has a profound impact on politics and governance. If, as Mitchell believes, fossil fuels can explain a great deal about the evolution of political structures and democracy, how have Canada’s hydro-electric resources historically impacted the nation’s political development?

This blog post is a condensed version of a longer think-piece that I’m writing with Andrew Watson for a special edition of Scientia Canadensis on the intersections of environmental and technological history. The foregrounding of energy as a central player is one of the strengths of Mitchell’s book. Our intention is to use Mitchell’s arguments as a launching point for assessing the Canadian hydro-electric context, to tease out ideas and probe potential areas for further analysis. Our key points are these: The historical location and spatial set-up of hydro sites are very important for the industrial, metropolitan-hinterland, and settler-First Nations evolution of the Canadian nation. Public ownership of most hydro power meant that hydro-electricity structurally shaped democracy in Canada, and was also frequently a key electoral issue. Finally, hydro-electric development played a pivotal role in making Canadians accustomed to state intervention, and had profound effects on Canadian nationalism and identity, as well as relations with the United States.

There is not space in this post to provide detailed evidence for every claim, so for the sake of illustrative brevity I’ll focus on Ontario. There also isn’t space for an extended review or synopsis of Carbon Democracy (but here is a review by somebody else) aside from some select points. Mitchell claims that his revisionist history of carbon energy, premised on a materialist (i.e., socio-technical)[1] approach, can explain the history of modern democracy. He defines democracy in two ways, as “making effective claims for a more just and egalitarian world. Or… a mode of governing populations that employs popular consent as a means of limiting claims for greater equality and justice by dividing up the common world.”[2]  To provide just one example from Mitchell’s book, he argues that during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, coal was a catalyst for democracy: the mines were an underground environment that unions controlled, and from which they could make democratic claims that they then imported to the surface.

Historically, Canada is a hydro pioneer and leader. (In many Canadian provinces, “hydro bill” has become synonymous with any form of domestic electricity). Hydro-electric generating stations were appearing here before the end of the nineteenth century, well before they surfaced in most other countries. As of 1920, hydro represented 97% of the electricity produced in Canada (as compared to 20% in the United States). A century later, Canada is still the largest producer of hydro power in the world.


Start of hydro-electricity in Toronto


Working on power lines

Ontario’s early development of major hydro sources in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, particularly at Niagara Falls, first powered manufacturing growth, and allowed Ontario to become an economic and political hub. The availability of hydropower played a central role in structuring the growth of southern Ontario as the center of manufacturing, finance, and urban growth in Canada. Elsewhere in the country, the availability of hydro power also helps explain why certain regions became centres of particular types of industrial production, with all the attendant long-range impacts and path dependencies.

Celebrating the start of Ontario Hydro

The economic promise of hydropower translated directly into hydro democracy. Most hydro development in Canada turned out to be public and government-organized. The rise of Ontario Hydro and “people’s power” in the first decade of the twentieth century was a unique development in North American energy history. A number of provinces followed suit at various stages, including Quebec in the 1930s and British Columbia in the 1960s. Hydro-electric development became a part of party platforms, and a subject of electoral and democratic contestation in provincial elections. This was especially true in Ontario, from the original Ontario Hydro push to the 1930s “Back to Niagara” campaign and all the way up to contemporary hydro rates.

In Ontario, as well as other provinces well-endowed with water sites, hydro became key to province-building and identity (e.g., maîtres chez nous – or “masters in our own house” – in Quebec). And, as I’ve argued on many other occasions, there is an apparent “hydro nationalism” for the nation as a whole. Many prime hydro sites also became central to federalism and constitutional debates about water jurisdiction. A number of these also form the border with the United States and therefore require federal involvement in a different way: diplomatic relations with the United States.

A slogan from Jean Lesage’s Quebec Liberal Party during the Quiet Revolution

Hydro-electricity has therefore played a formative role in Canadian-American relations. Not only did the earliest Canadian waters exploited for energy tend to be on the border, and thus potentially subject to American cooperation and capital, but the proximity to the more industrially developed United States also meant that much of Canada’s hydro-electricity has been exported to the United States, both initially and subsequently.[3]  Hydro-electricity reduced Canadian reliance on American sources of energy, particularly coal. However, shared hydro-electric megaprojects in the post-1945 era entrenched Canadian-U.S. energy relations and paved the way for the development of the transborder electricity grids that proliferated from the 1960s onward.[4] Few other developed nations export natural resources and energy to a neighbouring nation to the extent that Canada does, and the democratic and political implications of that fact are legion.

Opening ceremonies for the St. Lawrence Power Project

Much like oil and gas, hydro power gave rise to quasi-utopian visions of society, which in turn had profound implications for conceptions of the democratic state in Canada. In line with Mitchell’s arguments about coal and oil, hydro-electric producers in Canada had to initially create demand for their supply (e.g., give away appliances), but then later “produced scarcity.” Affordable hydro power allowed for a significant competitive advantage. Electricity was generally seen as egalitarian and thus democratic – at least for those in or near major centres who had access to electricity. However, the (public) monopolies that often resulted from hydro created undemocratic  “hydraulic bureaucracies” – state actors and technocrats, often unelected, who make key hydraulic engineering decisions.

Hydro installations are also implicated in settler state strategies and hydraulic imperialism. They are placed at a riverine location where there is a water drop. Such places are often historically important sites for First Nations groups, whether for fishing, portage, or settlement. Hydro development has tended to inundate land of irreplacable value to Canada’s First Peoples, and these individuals have borne a disproportionate burden in projects framed as progress for the greater good. Relocating thousands of Indigenous, and non-Indigenous, peoples for reservoirs reveal a great deal about a nation’s notions of democracy and consent.

Fishing at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River

Canadian comfort with an interventionist state can also be traced back to its hydro-electric history. Canadians’ experience with publicly developed power over the first two-thirds of the twentieth century conditioned them to tolerate heavy government involvement. This paved the way for defining features of Canada’s modern political economy, such as single-payer health care and social support networks.

It is probably safe to say that carbon-based fuels and their attendant infrastructures, such as pipelines, are now shaping Canadian democracy to a greater degree than is hydro power.[5] Fossil fuels and electricity are two of the main stories of twentieth-century history, and not just from an energy or materialist perspective. However, I would argue that electricity will prove the more important and lasting historical process in the longue durée. (I should add that the opinion is mine alone, and not necessarily that of my co-author!) Whereas there is a global movement to stop the use of fossil fuels – one that will hopefully be successful within the next century – no one is calling to get rid of electricity. Our current lifestyles can exist for the most part without fossil fuels, but not without electricity. Maybe that’s why they call it “current.”

In sum, the public development of large-scale hydro power stands as one of the most formative experiences for the Canadian state, one which has had tremendous long-term repercussions. Since this blog post serves as a work-in-progress, I would welcome any feedback.



[1] I would suggest that Mitchell’s  “socio-technical” approach  leaves environment unduly out of the equation. An “envirotechnical” approach would seem more appropriate if we want to imbue environmental factors with agency and properly evaluate ecological impacts.

[2] Carbon Democracy does not directly explain as much about democracy, per se, as the author and title suggest; it is about the ways that oil prevents and thwarts democracy, a term that is deployed and defined in ambiguous ways in the book. Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2011), 9.

[3] The Canadian federal government initially adopted a laissez-faire approach to electricity exports, and by 1910 about one-third of Canada’s electricity was being exported. Since the Second World War, non-firm (i.e., interruptible) power sales have dominated the Canada-U.S. electricity trade. Up to the 1960s, the majority of energy – of any kind, including oil – exported from Canada to the US was electricity. Janet Martin-Nielsen, “South over the Wires: Hydro-electricity Exports from Canada, 1900-1925,” Water History 1 (2009): 109-29; Daniel Macfarlane, “Current Concerns: Canadian-American Energy Relations and the St. Lawrence and Niagara Megaprojects,” in Amelie Kiddle, ed., Energy in the Americas: Critical Reflections on Energy and History (CalgaryUniversity of Calgary Press, forthcoming).

[4] By 1975, there were 65 international interconnections, with a total transfer capability of over 6,000 megawatts. Although new Canadian hydro-electric developments moved away from the border (e.g., northern Quebec), much of the electricity was wheeled to northern US states.

[5] There is certainly much more to say about applying Mitchell’s ideas to fossil fuels in Canada. Andrew Watson has proposed a roundtable on Carbon Democracy and Canada’s different energy regimes for the 2018 meeting of the Canadian Historical Association.


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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of five books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be released in 2024. Website: https://danielmacfarlane.wordpress.com Twitter: @Danny__Mac__


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