How the Battle of Britain Changed Canadian Rivers

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, 2010. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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The Battle of Britain, which began 10 July seventy-five years ago, is mainly remembered as a great test of British defences and patriotic valour. Bombs detonating city streets and churches by night, crews clearing debris by day, children boarding trains for the countryside and families huddled on tube platforms and in air raid shelters—these are the images that the Battle of Britain evokes today. The commemoration of the Battle in London in 2015 focused on the pilots and the planes, as Spitfires and Hurricanes swooped over Buckingham Palace while the Queen and Royal family and six surviving veterans looked on as well as countless throngs gathered around the Victoria Memorial.

The Battle of Britain was a crucial phase in the war and for Canada as well. As the Battle raged, the Canadian government rapidly turned to war production, re-doubled efforts to mobilize the military and, in August 1940, entered into a military alliance with the United States under the Ogdensburg Agreement. While this phase of our military history is well known, there is another dimension to the Battle of Britain which touched Canada in unanticipated and unacknowledged ways. Because air power was so crucial to the Second World War, the production of aircraft became a critical part of economic mobilization. To build planes, countries needed a range of materials, most notably aluminum, a flexible and lightweight metal.

During the Second World War, the vast majority of British and Commonwealth aluminum supply came from Canada. In the United Kingdom, some aluminum was smelted in Scotland, but bauxite, the raw ingredient, was difficult to source. Former deliveries from the continent ended with the Fall of France in June 1940. Former aluminum imports from Norway, a major producer, also ended as German troops rolled north. This left Canada as the most important British supplier of aluminum, all of which came from a series of smelters in Quebec owned and operated by the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan), the most important located along the Saguenay River at Arvida.

Besides bauxite, the most crucial ingredient in aluminum production is energy. Smelter pots rise to 900 degrees Celsius to form molten aluminum. In World War Two Canada, that kind of energy intensity could only came from one source: hydro-electricity. Hydro-electricity accounted for over ninety percent of Canada’s electricity supply in the 1940s, and during the war the Canadian government prioritized electricity for war needs. Aluminum was at the top of the list. As the United States entered the war, and found its own aluminum industry underperforming, it too found it convenient to trade with Canada for this strategic metal. As aircraft rolled off plant floors on both sides of the Atlantic, Canadian aluminum made it possible.

As Alcan expanded its facilities to meet Allied needs, its appetite for electricity only grew. Neighbouring power systems interconnected to balance loads between regions, new dams and power houses were built on the Saguenay River, water was diverted from the Hudson Bay drainage into the Great Lakes to support increased water taking at Canadian and American hydro facilities at Niagara Falls. Across Canada from British Columbia’s Kootenay River to Alberta’s Bow to Quebec’s Saguenay, reservoirs filled, dams rose and hydro generation grew. By the end of the war, Canada held 40% more hydro-electric generating capacity than it had in 1939. Much of this expansion came at the behest of wartime industry, and its greatest energy hog, aluminum production.

While the commemoration of the Battle of Britain draws our view upwards to the passing aircraft, we should also reflect on the long-distance repercussions and ripples of global warfare. When planes fought and cities were bombed, societies at a distance changed, as did the rivers from which they drew energy; people and settlements were displaced by dams; and new infrastructure wired the country anew setting in motion directions and path dependencies for the future.

For more on the development of energy in Canada during WW2, check out Matthew Evenden’s new book, Allied Power: Mobilizing Hydro-Electricity During Canada’s Second World War.

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Matthew Evenden is a professor in the Department of Geography and the Associate Vice-President, Research & Innovation at the University of British Columbia. His research lies in environmental history and water history and focuses on the history and politics of large rivers, particularly in Canada.

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