Watching from the Future as Canada Builds the St. Lawrence Seaway

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The St. Lawrence seaway and power project – the 181.5 mile stretch of the St. Lawrence from Montreal to Lake Erie consisting of extensive navigation and hydro-power works – was an undertaking of the first magnitude: to illustrate, it is considered one of the greatest global engineering feats of the 20th century, and is the largest construction project in Canadian history. The construction of the St. Lawrence project required a massive configuring of the St. Lawrence basin, flooding some 20,000 acres of Canadian land and resulted in the dislocation of some 8,000 people, mostly in Ontario.

My doctoral dissertation looks at the Canadian federal government’s role in the creation of the St. Lawrence seaway and power project. This chiefly involves exploring Canadian-American environmental diplomacy and the tangled negotiations stretching from the first half of the twentieth century and into the 1950s that culminated in the joint agreement to construct the St. Lawrence project, which was built between 1954 and 1959.

In the wake of the Second World War, the economic and transportation advantages of a St. Lawrence project were joined by a growing need for hydro power and potential defence benefits (such as shipping iron ore from Labrador-Quebec to the Great Lakes steel mills). With the U.S. Congress continually preventing a joint Canadian-American waterway from coming to fruition, the Louis St. Laurent government began to consider “going it alone.” The idea of a unilaterally Canadian waterway seized the imaginations of Canadians, who I contend were motivated by an environmental – or hydraulic – nationalism that framed the St. Lawrence as an exclusively national resource. Moreover, this reveals a “high modernist” conception of the environment and river resources as something to be controlled and manipulated to further the goals of the state. However, the United States considered an all-Canadian seaway an economic and national security risk, and prevented Ottawa from proceeding without American participation.

The history of the St. Lawrence seaway and power project is relevant to our current and future understanding of environmental issues in a number of respects. I will discuss just two here. Firstly, it speaks to what should be done today regarding the seaway. Secondly, it can inform debate about the future of Canadian water resources, particularly vis-à-vis the United States.

The seaway has resulted in a range of environmental problems, with invasive species the most prominent. Although this was not the necessary result of the seaway and could have been avoided if there had been sufficient political will, these negative environmental effects will likely wreak further havoc in the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes basin if not adequately handled. But the seaway also provides a form of transportation (and hydro power) that is more environmentally friendly than other competing forms of moving bulk goods, which could become even more pertinent with the unstable future of fossil fuels. The St. Lawrence project thus has the potential to have either a positive or negative economic impact.

The history of the seaway indicates that both Canada and the United States tend to act in their own self-interest concerning natural assets. This is especially pertinent for the future of Canadian water resources. Over the course of the St. Lawrence negotiations, the U.S. pressured Canada into abandoning its unilateral plans and allowing American participation; we are likely approaching a point where the U.S. begins to more actively seek Canada’s abundant water resources, be they waters solely in Canada, such as in the north, or shared resources, such as the Great Lakes. What will be the result? How should Canada approach such matters in the future? Will the United States respect Canadian sovereignty if there is a water crisis?

Daniel MacFarlane at the St. Lawrence Seaway. He is a PhD Candidate at the University of Ottawa.

Featured image: Winter Ice on Lake Erie South of Ontario, 2019. Photo by Ken Lund on Wikimedia Commons.

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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: Twitter: @Danny__Mac__

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