Powering Up! A Symposium Advancing Canadian Energy History

"Powering Up" Symposium Participants, Bloomfield, ON, May 2013

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Do you know what’s weird? There are almost no studies of energy in Canadian history! It’s true. Across the country, there are many courses taught on the history of energy in Canada, but readings must often draw on articles and monographs that are superficially about energy, or are only tangentially related to the topic. Moreover, for those of us carrying out research on the relationship between Canadians and natural world, issues related to fuels and other forms of energy used by people in the past quite often need to be addressed. Yet, when we attempt to learn more about how Canadians produced or consumed energy during the time periods, and in the places, we study, or aim to situate our own findings within a broader historiography, again we often end up struggling to find the relevant scholarship – sometimes because it is not overtly energy history, and sometimes because there simply is nothing out there! As a result, Canadian historians are obliged to refer to the American scholarship on the history of energy production as a (rough) proxy for the Canadian setting. (In particular see Sam H. Schurr and Bruce C. Netschert, eds., Energy in the American Economy, 1850-1975: An Economic Study of its History and Prospects (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1977) on a thorough economic history of energy in the United States.)

Addressing this gaping hole was the purpose of a symposium organized by Ruth Sandwell, entitled ‘Powering Up: A Short History of the Fuels and Energies that Created Modern Canada’ convened on May 27 & 28 at a comfortable country inn in Prince Edward County, Ontario. Bringing together a group of historians whose work deals with energy in a variety of diverse ways, the Bloomfield Symposium (so named in honour of the small village where the inn was set) sought to lay the groundwork for the first comprehensive collection of essays on energy in Canadian history. On day one, contributors delivered papers on the role of pemmican in extending the geographical reach of the fur trade (George Colpitts), the importance and changing context of horses as a source of motive energy in both the countryside (Jack Little) and the industrializing city (Joanna Dean and Lucas Wilson), as well as the persistent importance of fuelwood in Canadian homes during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Josh MacFadyen). The morning of day two began with papers on wind used for transportation, work and electricity generation (Eric Sager), direct drive watermill power (Jenny Clayton and Phillip van Huizen), the development of large-scale hydroelectric systems (Matthew Evenden and Jonathan Peyton), and the overlapping history of different interior lighting sources (Ruth Sandwell). In the afternoon of day two featured papers on fossil fuels: coal (Andrew Watson), petroleum (Steve Penfold), manufactured and natural gases (Colin Duncan), and nuclear energy (Laurel MacDowell).

Each author took twenty minutes to present a condensed version of his/her paper, which was followed by five minutes of prepared comments from another participant, and then a final twenty minutes of general discussion on each paper/topic. Ruth Sandwell, as the collection’s editor, provided all contributors with the same four over-arching questions intended to bring cohesion to the papers and inform the purpose of the collection.

1. How and when did the fuel/energy source come into use?
2. What were the necessary material conditions of production, extraction, transportation and consumption?
3. How much (or how much can we estimate) was ‘produced’ and consumed of this fuel or form of energy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?
4. What proportion was commodified? (i.e. bought and sold in markets as opposed to being grown or ‘harvested’ for home use?)
5. And what general observations can be made about the changes that its production, transportation, consumption and waste products brought about a) for the environment, b) for the economy and c) for society?

"Powering Up" Symposium Participants, Bloomfield, ON, May 2013
“Powering Up” Symposium Participants, Bloomfield, ON, May 2013

Generally the discussion tended to focus on ways of improving each paper, but throughout the two days broader issues regarding the nature of energy in Canada, the commonalities and differences between energy sources, and the variety of ways energy use was transformed over time, came up repeatedly. While it was generally agreed upon that each paper would necessarily focus on different social, cultural, economic, and environmental factors, there was less agreement on the ways each paper would relate to one another. How much emphasis would be placed on price or cost, versus cultural preferences or technological path dependency? People often opted for the cheapest energy source available, but quite often were willing to pay more or work harder to obtain and use a particular energy source. How would each chapter provide the reader with a sense of how people in the past made choices between different energy sources and fuels? Much depended on what was available and how the fuel/energy source was used (motive power, light, or heat). And, how should different energy sources be measured and compared? Fuels such as wood and coal were usually measured in terms of BTUs (British Thermal Units) since they are burned to generate heat, while horsepower units were commonly used to measure hydropower and, well, horses! But, horses and coal just did not logically have a metric to compare their usage. And, of course the magnitude of some energy sources simply dwarfed that of others, so how were we to deal with the issue of significance without resorting to simplistic issues of scale?

Ultimately, we raised just as many questions as we answered. But this reinforced for everyone the importance of our project. In the coming months we will revise our papers and consider more thoughtfully the ways our papers work together. Is will be impossible to provide an entirely consistent narrative to the history of energy in Canada, because the nature of energy use is constantly shifting in response to other social, economic and political factors. But, by bringing all these papers together in one collection, the Bloomfield Symposium has taken the first steps in providing scholars and students with the first comprehensive history of energy in modern Canada.

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Andrew is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. His current research includes the history of sustainability and tourism on the Canadian Shield in Muskoka, Ontario; the environmental, social, and economic history of coal in Canada; and the role of energy in shaping agroecosystems on the Great Plains of the United States. His first book, Making Muskoka: Tourism, Rural Identity, and Sustainability, 1870-1920, was published in 2022 with UBC Press.

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