Lake Abitibi Revisited

Scroll this

As a Master’s student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Environmental History appeared to me as something of a revelation.  Here was a discipline that combined the scope and grandeur of the entirety of human history with the sense of mystery and urgency of life’s tenuous imprint on the planet.  It was like finding an ancient parchment map annotated in runes and then scanning it into a three-dimensional digital image.  Environmental History is a decidedly “big picture” discipline and is well-adapted to a generation of students who, like me, are equally fascinated by Google Earth and the cinematic imagery of Edward Burtynsky or Ron Fricke.

Indeed, it was while cruising over satellite images of Lake Abitibi in northeastern Ontario that I immediately recalled Jared Diamond’s description of the border dividing Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola.[1]  Situated in the cross hairs of a north-south axis drawn by the interprovincial border and an east-west axis of rail lines and highways stretching through Quebec and Ontario, Lake Abitibi struck me as a fascinating borderland.

Abitibi, meaning ‘middle water,’ is a shallow lake surrounded by white cedar, spruce, and swampy, low-lying hills which is divided into eastern and western sections by the interprovincial border between Ontario and Quebec.  Lake Abitibi also sits just to the north of the Height of Land delimiting the northern watershed where rivers flow toward James Bay.

Ontario Watersheds

Figure 1: The Height of Land divides the Great Lakes and Hudson’s Bay watersheds.  Treaty No. 9 covers all of the land in the Hudson’s Bay watershed inside Ontario. Lake Abitibi is located on the eastern border with Quebec just north of where the Hudson Bay watershed begins.

I had some passing knowledge of Lake Abitibi, having worked as a tree planter in northeastern Ontario for several summers, and the area seemed like an ideal case-study for what John McNeill called a “controlled comparison” of two political entities “experimenting” with different approaches in their interactions with the natural environment.[2]

Ontario Quebec Border

Figure 2: The northeastern shore of Lake Abitibi across the interprovincial border.

After some initial research, I learned that not only was Lake Abitibi arguably at the hydrological heart of northeastern Ontario, it was also the site of two crucial events in the region’s history: the establishment of hydroelectric dams that flooded the shoreline of the lake in 1914 and the signing of Treaty No. 9 in 1906 just eight years earlier.[3]  An agreement to share the land in over two-thirds of what would become northern Ontario, Treaty No. 9 was, simply put, a big deal.

It was also in 1906 that the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario was first created – only six years before the interprovincial border running through the lake was drawn definitively in 1912.[4]  The plot had thickened.  I therefore directed my research toward untangling the knot of treaty-making, industrialization, and the development of hydroelectric power in the region, hoping to sketch out a clearer picture of the historical processes underlying the environmental transformation of the lake.

The story came down to three phases of hydroelectric exploitation starting right around the time that the national railway was being completed in the late 19th century.  The first phase involved re-imagining the landscape in terms of its potential for agricultural and industrial purposes. The second phase had to do with the building of hydroelectric dams on the Abitibi River by the Abitibi Power and Paper Company in 1914 and 1915. Then, during the third phase of the story, several residents of the area, including members of First Nations communities, petitioned the Abitibi Pulp and Paper Company for compensation.

For my M.A. project, I explored all three phases, but here I will only look at the third. The Abitibi dams inundated land that was intended for use as part of a First Nations reserve along the southern shores of the lake.  Letters written between First Nations representatives and Indian Affairs agents in Ottawa suggests that both parties held conflicting understandings of the intended purpose of the reserves according to Treaty No. 9.  Thus, my research on the 1914-1915 floods seemed to confirm John S. Long’s contention that Treaty No. 9 granted rights for First Nations signatories, while for the federal and provincial authorities it merely granted privileges.[5]

What’s more, while sifting through the microfilm reels in the national archives, I found more than twenty similar incidents of flooding on Indian reserves in Ontario documented by the federal Department of Indian Affairs beginning at least as early as 1891.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the early 20th century was a period of rapid hydroelectric development proliferating across the province, causing flooding on territory recently reorganized by First Nations treaties.

The history of Treaty No. 9 can therefore be situated within an imperialist, industrialist discourse on nature which aimed to bind the physical environment to market-driven processes of production and consumption.  The environmental changes to the Abitibi region and much of north-eastern Ontario during this period may be understood as being part of a wider process called hydraulic imperialism whereby the Canadian state used waterways to exercise control of the James Bay watershed and its First Nations communities.

The research process was long, but fulfilling.  If anything, it was the ways of thinking, the analysis, and the long hours imagining (as environmental historians might call it) the longue durée in tangible terms.  I came to appreciate that in EH, I’d found a facet of History as a discipline that wasn’t so much about being the guy who wins the World War Two trivia game, but rather about being the cool-headed seer, recognizing a time-lapse vision of changes in the landscape and the role that people have in making those changes.  This was a sigh of relief.   As a High School teacher, I felt more confidence in my History and Geography classroom. Academically speaking, I felt that I’d heard my calling.  And even if this is the last degree I ever complete, it was a journey well worth taking and I was happy to have done it.


[1] Jared Diamond. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed (New York: Viking, 2005)

[2] J.R. McNeill, “The State of the Field in Environmental History.” Annual Review of Environmental History 35, 2010: 345-374.

[3] Treaty No. 9 was signed in three rounds.  The first occurred in 1905, the second in 1906, and the third beginning in 1929.  Because this paper focuses on Lake Abitibi, I have defined this first period by the year in which the treaty was signed at Abitibi, in 1906.

[4] H.V. Nelles, The Politics of Development: Forests, Mines and Hydro-electric power in Ontario, 1849-1941 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974)

[5] John S. Long, Treaty No. 9: Making the Agreement to Share the Land in Far Northern Ontario in1905 (Kingston and Montreal: McGill Queens University Press, 2010)


NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.