Southern Identity and Northern Territory: Review of Desbiens, Power from the North: Territory, Identity, and the Culture of Hydroelectricity in Quebec.

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DesbiensCaroline Desbiens, Power from the North: Territory, Identity, and the Culture of Hydroelectricity in Quebec. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014). xxiii + 281 pp. $34.95 paper (ISBN 9780774824170).

At well over one and a half million square kilometres, Quebec is Canada’s largest province. But most people – Quebecers and Canadians more generally – know only a relatively thin band of this vast territory lying within a hundred kilometres of the St. Lawrence River. Indeed, the Québécois nation and cultural imagination finds its origins in, and deepest connections with, the agricultural landscapes of the St. Lawrence Valley. According to Caroline Desbiens, in her book Power from the North: Territory, Identity, and the Culture of Hydroelectricity in Quebec, this conception of Québécois territoriality barely changed until after the Second World War when hydroelectric development in the James Bay watershed broadened its spatial meaning to encompass – and colonize – much more of the province. Informed by the context of the Quiet Revolution, Desbiens argues, Quebecers updated their understanding of nationhood by modifying aspects of their long-standing attachment to places in the south to incorporate similar attachments to places in the north.

Power from the North tackles some rather weighty questions in Quebec history, including “Who are the Québécois people? What are the contours of their national territory? [and] Is their claim to Aboriginal lands and resources legitimate?”(2) Desbiens’ approach to answering these questions weaves together strands of Québécois political history, literary criticism, and historical geography. The analytical heart of her examination of late twentieth century Québécois identity rests on theories of space and place by combining the conceptual framework of territoriality with more tangible representations of belonging. For Desbiens, postwar hydroelectric development in James Bay fits into a longer history of nation-building stretching back to the Conquest, the 1837-38 Rebellions, and the Durham Report, which connect the Québécois imagination to nature and the land. Attentive to the impacts that hydroelectric development has had on the north’s Cree, Inuit, Innu, and Naskkapi Indigenous peoples, Desbiens also frames her focus on Québécois nationhood as a way of understanding and grappling with the colonization of Eeyou Istchee (“the Cree people’s land”). The subject of the book is clearly the culture of the majority population living in southern Quebec. Rather than explaining the experiences of the colonized, Desbiens explains the construction of a cultural imagination that mobilized and justified a colonial framework and colonizing efforts.

rupertDesbiens’ thesis can be broken down into two parts. First, the James Bay hydroelectric project extended Québécois territoriality and cultural imagination into the north. Here, Desbiens makes a compelling case by demonstrating how both scientific knowledge of a remote environment and the spectacular scale of hydroelectric infrastructure allowed the Québécois in the south to imagine their national territory extending into the northern reaches of the province. Second, the James Bay project served the same function for Québécois national identity in the late twentieth century as agricultural settlement in the St. Lawrence Valley did during the nineteenth century. In each case, Québécois sovereignty emerges from territoriality based on an attachment to place. But that attachment to place shifts from one that demands physical proximity, to one that can be represented entirely by the imagination – from place as something specific (i.e. hereditary farmland), to something much more abstract (i.e. natural resources or energy). Here, Desbiens struggles to explain the continuity between a Québécois cultural imagination based on two fundamentally different attachments to two fundamentally different kinds of places. Nineteenth and twentieth century attachments to place combine to helpfully explain the history of Québécois territoriality and nationhood. But attachment to places in the south during the late nineteenth century was profoundly different from attachment to places in the north during the late twentieth century.

Power to the North is organized into three sections, the order of which helps explain why Desbiens constructs her arguments around notions of continuity, rather than change over time, in Québécois territoriality. Part 1 of the book explores the political and cultural context of the James Bay hydroelectric project during the era of the Quiet Revolution. During the 1960s and 1970s, Quebecers sought to break with the religious and conservative national character of the past and engage with new manifestations of nationhood. According to Desbiens, postwar Québécois political leaders believed this shift in Québécois cultural imagination required a more ambitious conceptualization of Québécois territoriality, one that encompassed the enormous northern spaces of the province and brought it into the productive orbit of the south. Oddly, in Part 2, Desbiens shifts focus to the period between the Conquest and late nineteenth century to explore the role of Québécois emotional bonds with, and literary representations of, an earlier version of territoriality. In particular, Desbiens draws on the nineteenth century literary genre of the roman de la terre, which drew its inspiration from the need to articulate a distinct Québécois attachment to the agricultural landscapes of the St. Lawrence Valley. In Desbiens’ analysis, these novels reveal a bold Québécois cultural identity that directly informs how later generations imagined the north through hydroelectric development. Part 3 turns to the north to consider the ways in which the James Bay project mobilized imagery and discourse from earlier generations to reconceptualize Québécois territoriality and nationhood.

Antoine Gérin-Lajoie, Jean Rivard. One of the many 19th century Québécois roman de la terre
Antoine Gérin-Lajoie, Jean Rivard. One of the many 19th century Québécois roman de la terre

By book-ending her treatment of Québécois national discourse during the nineteenth century with first, the Quiet Revolution’s national crisis and renewal, and then later, manifestations of a new territoriality, Desbiens tries to convince the reader that Québécois politicians simply repurposed notions of territoriality, rather than fundamentally altered them. There are two problems with this argument, one methodological and the other conceptual. First, to build the link between the late nineteenth century roman de la terre and the late twentieth century enthusiasm for northern resource development, Desbiens conflates the meanings of “agricultural” and “rural.” In describing the crystallization of a Québécois attachment to place in the roman de la terre, Desbiens refers to places being “fully rural” (99), “rural nature” (100), “rural space” (102), “rural environment” (104), and “rural locale” (107). In all cases, these are references to a specific type of rural place: agricultural land. By blurring the distinction between these terms, in the last section of the book Desbiens allows the north’s non-agricultural, but rural, places to stand in for, and serve the same function as, the symbolic landscapes of the south’s agricultural places. Second, hydroelectricity is not farming. By arguing that the former performed the same service for the Québécois cultural imagination as the latter, Desbiens ignores the very different rationality, functions, and historical contexts of each, not to mention the scale of environmental transformations involved.

To understand how late twentieth century territoriality contributed to the Québécois national imagination it is necessary to understand the agricultural-based territoriality of the late nineteenth century. But it is not sufficient, because the geographical and historical context are fundamentally different. Her thesis – that attachments to northern territory during the late twentieth century became just as important to Québécois national identity as attachments to southern territory had been in the late nineteenth century – would be just as convincing without the additional argument that those attachments were identical. There is indeed a connection between Québécois attachments to place over time, but the changes appear just as striking, if not more so, as the continuities.

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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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