Review of Bouchier and Cruikshank, The People and the Bay

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Reviewed by Daniel Macfarlane

Bouchier, Nancy B. and Ken Cruikshank. The People and the Bay: A Social and Environmental History of Hamilton Harbour. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016. ISBN 9780774830416.

Hamilton Harbour is one of those places that the majority of people probably experience from above – i.e., the elevated view of the Skyway that links the Steel City to Burlington on Ontario’s busiest road, the QEW. Indeed, I have to be careful when driving across this bridge since I’m so sorely tempted to fixate on the harbour (a temptation repeated further south when crossing the Welland Canal and then the Niagara River). The People and the Bay mirrors elements of the view from the bridge: it provides a sweeping panorama of the constantly changing Hamilton Harbour landscape and waterscape.

Co-authored by Nancy Bouchier and Ken Cruikshank, this book project – which also spawned  a documentary – has long been in gestation. As both the title and subtitle suggest, this book is consciously a blend of social and environmental history, but it is equally urban and recreation history. At its heart, The People and the Bay is fundamentally about the mutually constitutive relationship between a growing city and its waterfront. Bouchier and Cruickshank uncover the reciprocal ways that social power – e.g., class, race, gender – shaped nature; put another way, how social order influenced the natural order, and vice versa. To be sure, the authors are very cognizant of the materiality and agency of the non-human world: “To a considerable extent, we are interested in what certain groups of people did to and in nature. Nature did talk back, however, and we do our best to recognize that” (p. 7). Bouchier and Cruikshank call the harbour an “artifact of human design” (p.228) but note that the human ability to shape this artifact was unequally distributed, as were the impacts.

The authors state that they are primarily interested in changes connected to urbanization and industrialization. The book therefore moves in a roughly chronological march from the first half of the 19th century up to the present, though a greater proportion of the book is about the 20th century. The first two chapters, which cover most of the 19th century, emphasize how Victorian-era elites tried to control both nature and self in nascent Hamilton, which became a city in the 1840s. The arrival of the Great Western Railway, and construction of the Desjardins and Burlington canals, provided a key impetus for growth. However, industrial competition for the shoreline of Hamilton Harbour, originally known as Burlington Bay, was not yet a major problem, and the growing city still had ample access to the water. Nevertheless, differing views of conservation, particularly concerning pollution and fishing (i.e., sustenance vs. leisure), created conflict.

The next chapters bring the reader to about the midpoint of the 20th century. The two McMaster University historians detail planning, industrial, and infrastructure developments from the 1890s to the start of the Second World War. Compared to their Victorian predecessors, successive denizens were more apt to “see natural spaces as a source of order and stability, but only if they were properly arranged” (p. 225) for industry, recreation, and safe public water supplies. I found the later theme particularly compelling, though that may reflect my own academic preoccupations. Hamilton was, for example, at the forefront of new methods for procuring potable water (which was actually drawn from Lake Ontario) and improving water sanitation and treatment.

The moral and social purposes of recreational activities – chiefly swimming, boating, and fishing – are analyzed in detail. I appreciated this, as well as the insights about the ways that seasonality (i.e., snow and ice) changed the accessibility of such pursuits, and fishing methods (e.g., nets vs. spears) were linked to class status. One chapter is dedicated to city planning in the interwar years. As has been the story for so many other North American cities, big-name planners were commissioned to provide sweeping and grandiose new city plans featuring grand boulevards and other beautification endeavours. Hamilton hired Thomas Baker McQueston (whose numerous other accomplishments included the Niagara Parkway and Rainbow Bridge, the QEW, and the Blue Water Bridge at Sarnia) and his scheme for a new entrance to Hamilton from the northwest came into conflict with the squatters and shacks lining the bay near the Desjardins Canal and Cootes Paradise. Similar conflicts, although with residents of higher social and economic standing, resulted from the construction of the Skyway Bridge (another of McQueston’s spans) along the unique Beach Strip separating Hamilton Harbour from Lake Ontario. As an aside, until a few years ago, I wondered whether this strip was an artificial foundation installed to support the bridge, but it is actually a naturally-occurring formation that has long separated Burlington Bay from Lake Ontario.

Steeltown earned its nickname and became dominated by industry and pollution between the 1930s and 1960s, and the city began to turn its back on the bay. Infilling for industry progressively shrank Hamilton Harbour, further cutting off the public from access to the water. The hardening of the waterfront and the shoreline was a byproduct, with environmental degradation the price to pay for progress and prosperity. Hamiltonians were forced to look outside of Hamilton Harbour for other places of leisure and natural exposure, since the bay had become a sacrifice zone of sorts.

But the degradation of the environment worried citizens, whose anxieties had parallels to their early-20th century predecessors. By the 1960s and 70s, however, there was much less trust in authority and government, and different conceptions of the relationship between city and nature.  Hamilton Harbour was identified as one of the most toxic sites in the Great Lakes under the Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) established by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements (GLWQAs). The final chapters address the ways that local environmental groups spearheaded cleanup and remediation, and the efforts of a city to get back in balance with its water, a process that continues up to the present day.

The authors do an admirable job of exploring how fuzzy ideas and values are translated into concrete (sometimes literally) landscape and waterscape changes. Throughout, Bouchier and Cruikshank uncover the ways that nature responds unpredictably (which, in the context of large-scale environmental engineering, we could call the law of unintended consequences): canals silted up; shorelines eroded; sewage befouled water quality; toxic blobs formed. There is a tendency toward presentism at times in this book, but in a positive way that doesn’t undermine its historical focus –  the authors seek lessons from the past to inform the future.

Bearing one of Graeme Wynn’s magisterial prefaces, which accompany all Nature|History|Society series books,  the book is amply illustrated with maps and images. The People and the Bay could be considered a history of environmental justice – even if the authors don’t really use that term – and it is particularly strong on questions pertaining to recreation and sport. It joins a number of recent efforts that focus on the relationship between Canadian cities and their water, though there is plenty of room for further contributions.[1] The authors of The People and the Bay draw from scholarship on other Great Lakes industrial cities, such as Andrew Hurley’s classic study of Gary, Indiana and Harold Platt’s under-appreciated comparison of Manchester and Chicago.[2] The note on sources is useful for other historians interested in Hamilton, but the lack of a bibliography is a regrettable omission.

I did find myself wishing Hamilton had been addressed in a wider context. How did Hamilton’s environmental activism in the 1960s and 1970s compare with what was going on across the lake at Toronto, for example? The staging of a mock funeral for Cootes Paradise is described (p.190), which one would guess was inspired by the mock funeral for the Don River half a decade earlier – why no mention of this predecessor action by Pollution Probe?[3] Historians have largely ignored the RAPs and GLWQAs, relative to other science and social science fields, so it was nice to see a fine-grained historical analysis of the Hamilton Harbour RAP that also made use of the existing political ecology literature. But a better explanation of the AOC/RAP process under the GLWQA, and a comparison of the Hamilton AOC to others, would have been welcome (for example, the reader might want to know that only 7 AOCs out of 43 in both Canada and the US have been delisted to date, and Hamilton Harbour isn’t one of them) .

How does the Hamilton experience compare to other industrial Great Lakes cities like Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Milwaukee, etc.? More attention could have been paid to the ways that Hamilton Harbour was shaped by transnational ideas, transportation trends, and commodity flows. Industry at Hamilton Harbour was intimately tied to wider forces. Iron ore mined in Ugava and shipped via the St. Lawrence Seaway made its way to Hamilton’s steel plants for refining and production, and from there was sent on to many points domestic and international (and though the Seaway is repeatedly mentioned it is never really explained, with the exception of mentioning that the Seaway failed to live up to “some” of its promise  – even though “most” would be a more fitting description). Since that resource flow and production was often controlled by foreign (especially American) capital, there were international forces exerting a strong influence on Hamilton, which would have directly and indirectly shaped the harbour’s environmental and social history. In other words, decisions made in far-off boardrooms had significant ramifications for Hamilton Harbour. I understand that the authors chose to put parameters on their study, as one needs to do, but incorporating at least some of this wider context would have been helpful. As it is, Hamilton is portrayed in perhaps too much of a bubble.

Nonetheless, this book would be profitably read by both the interested public and academic historians, particularly urban, environmental, and Hamilton historians. Despite bearing the imprint of two authors, the accessible prose reads as if written with one uniform voice. It highlights the need for further study of the historical relationships between Canadian cities and their connected waterbodies. Ultimately, The People and the Bay is a noteworthy contribution to the environmental history of Canadian urban spaces in particular, and Canadian environmental history in general.


[1] The list includes the following, though curiously not all are referenced in The People and the Bay: Christopher Armstrong, Matthew Evenden, and H.V. Nelles, The River Returns: An Environmental History of the Bow (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009) ; Matthew Evenden, Fish versus Power: An Environmental History of the Fraser River (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Gene Desfor and Jennefer Laidley, Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011); Colin Coates, Stephen Bocking, Ken Cruikshank, and Anders Sandberg, eds., Urban Explorations: Environmental Histories of the Toronto Region, (Hamilton, ON: L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian Studies-McMaster University, 2013); Michèle Dagenais, Montréal et l’eau: Une histoire environnementale (Montréal, Boréal, 2011); Stéphane Castonguay and Matthew Evenden, eds., Urban Rivers: Remaking Rivers, Cities, and Space in Europe and North America, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012); Stéphane Castonguay and Michèle Dagenais, eds., Metropolitan Natures: Environmental Histories of Montreal (Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011); Jennifer Bonnell, Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014); Daniel Macfarlane, Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014).

[2] Andrew Hurley, Environmental Inequities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Harold Platt, Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)

[3] The mock Don funeral is described in in two recent works: Ryan O’Connor’s The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015) and Bonnell’s Reclaiming the Don.

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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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