Review of Dagenais, City of Water

"Shoving of Ice upon Wharves in Front of Montreal," Kell Bros. (1860). Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection, JRR 1859 Cab II.

Scroll this

Michèle Dagenais, Montreal, City of Water: An Environmental History. Translated by Peter Feldstein. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017. 256 pgs, ISBN 9780774836234

Review by Dale Barbour.


The past was never paradise. Michèle Dagenais’s Montreal, City of Water: An Environmental History takes on the myth that Montrealers once enjoyed an idyllic relationship with the city’s streams and the St. Lawrence River; a relationship supposedly lost during the nineteenth century only to await recovery after the 1970s. Instead, Dagenais shows that there was never a break between people and the environment, but rather “what changed over time were the ways in which water presented itself in the urban landscape, and the relationship between it and the city” (169).

There are several strengths to Dagenais’s urban environmental history. First, as the title suggests, she centres her discussion around water, looking at it as both a physical element and a socio-cultural phenomenon that shaped Montreal’s history. This perspective gives her work a coherent focus. Second, Dagenais does not simply contrast the present with the past but rather demonstrates how the intellectual systems intended to manage relationships between people and water evolved over the past 200 years. Experts attempted to manage Montreal’s natural environment throughout that time but their solutions were always intellectual creatures of the moment, and as a result, efforts to solve problems often created new ones. There was never a perfect fix; solutions imposed remained perpetual works-in-progress.

The first half of Montreal, City of Water looks at efforts to create a water supply and sewer system within Montreal and to tap the St. Lawrence River as a tool for development in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The second half brings us up-to-date by looking at a series of twentieth-century projects, including development of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Dagenais begins with the moment when the walls around old Montreal came down at the start of the nineteenth century. That moment transformed Montreal from a discrete space to a new (and here Dagenais gives a nod to Michel Foucault’s work on governance) administrative terrain that engaged with and disciplined the physical environment. Municipal power expanded to mediate the encounter between people and water—attempting, for example, to chase bathers away from the city’s port—but for the most part water was seen as a geographic hindrance to be bridged or as a resource to be used.

The Ice Castle, Montréal, Winter Carnival, 1887. J. T. Henderson. Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, e011074265.

Montreal’s growth during the mid-nineteenth century forced the city to more closely integrate itself with the natural environment: drawing drinking water from the St. Lawrence while turning creeks and streams into sewage conduits. The intellectual framework of that moment viewed stagnant water as a source of miasma and disease while flowing water was seen as cleansing and healthy: “Filth rather than workers’ extreme fatigue or inadequate diet, was held responsible for disease” (53). That logic guided efforts to pipe water throughout the city and commoditize it as a “technology of power” to cleanse and uplift the urban environment (54). As Dagenais notes, efforts to supply water to homes tethered the public sphere to the private and created a new collective responsibility for Montreal’s municipal government. During the mid-century, the St. Lawrence was re-evaluated, coming to be seen as a tool of economic development and a link with the rest of North America. There were moments when the course of history could have taken a different turn: engineers such as John P. Doyle called for the separation of sewer and run-off water as early as the 1850s, but their calls were ignored for a cheaper merged system that could be easily overloaded during heavy rains or from spring run-off, and which continues to haunt how Montreal manages its waste water (57-59).

Flooding in Chaboillez Square, Montreal, Quebec, 1887. Unknown photographer. Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, MIKAN 3194926.

Dagenais focuses on the Rivière des Prairies in Chapter 5, and considers how this branch of the Ottawa River running north of Montreal Island was used in the twentieth century as a sump for wastewater and also a reservoir for generating power. The dam improved the river’s recreation potential but ensured waste dumped into the river couldn’t be readily dispersed, which led to a rapid decline in water quality. City of Water’s last chapters trace Montreal’s post-war history, including the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the rise of the environmental movement, and the emergence of a watershed perspective that views managing water resources in Montreal, and protecting the city against flooding, as a regional process. The environmental movement and deindustrialization are shown to have worked in tandem to allow the recreational repurposing of portions of Montreal’s shoreline.

Ontario Avenue after snowstorm, Montreal, Quebec, ca. 1900–1925. Albertype Company. Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, PA-032299.

Dagenais’s original book, Montréal at L’eau: une histoire environmentale, was published in 2011, but this 2017 translation allows her to conclude by examining “flushgate,” the city’s controversial 2015 decision to dump 8 billion litres of untreated wastewater into the St. Lawrence while it replaced a snow chute whose contents had previously flowed into the sewer system (168). This incident was a reminder that past decisions still haunt Montreal, and that its relationship with water continues to need constant maintenance and adjustment.

The challenge of framing a city’s complex relationship with water is that at times that relationship appears to come through a bird’s eye view. Human agency is demonstrated through the work of environmental and sports groups but the more intimate contact between people and environment receives less attention. As much as this book focuses on water, the people within it rarely get wet. Similarly, while class and ethnicity are regularly shown to have differentiated people’s experiences, gender is less present here, and sexuality not at all. However, these are minor concerns, given that one book can only do so much work, and the coverage of the Rivière des Prairies in Chapter 5 does an excellent job of capturing the messy relationship between people, water, and waste.

The following two tabs change content below.

Dale Barbour

University of Toronto PhD and now H. Sanford Riley Post-doctoral Fellow in Canadian History at University of Winnipeg (2021). Penned a book on Winnipeg Beach and new this fall is Undressed Toronto, an innovative look at how Toronto used its waterfront in the nineteenth century.

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.