Review of Benidickson, Levelling the Lake

Bass fishing near Black River on Lake of the Woods, c.1940. Canadian Science and Technology Museum, CN Images of Canada collection, X-11035.

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Jamie Benidickson, Levelling the Lake: Transboundary Resource Management in the Lake of the Woods Watershed. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2019. 366 pgs, ISBN 9780774835497

Review by Jim Mochoruk.

An expert on Canadian and international environmental law, water law, and sustainable development law, Professor Benidickson has taken on the daunting task of writing the environmental, legal, and regulatory history of an entire watershed. In this case, his focus is upon the Lake of the Woods-Rainy Lake area. And, rather than making a sustained argument, Benidickson rather modestly claims to be only seeking to describe the “institutional responses, including transboundary and interjurisdictional initiatives, to resource and environmental challenges” in this watershed (xxx).

The complex interactions of government representatives, business interests (both large and small), First Nations inhabitants, white settler populations, itinerant recreational visitors and seasonal “campers” – as they all sought (and continue to seek) to use the region’s various resources – makes for an extremely complicated story. Because his area of study crosses provincial and international boundaries and includes many different First Nations communities from Treaty Three, part of a hotly contested region (on the Canadian side of the International Boundary) known as the “Disputed Territory” at a crucial period in the late nineteenth century, Benidickson had to deal with what amounted to a jurisdictional nightmare as he crafted his story of the region’s environmental history over a 150-year period.

Benidickson is to be congratulated for both the depth and quality of his research. His understanding of the complex legal and constitutional frameworks which have been imposed upon this region from the 1860s to the present is outstanding. He shows, in considerable detail, how confusion over the establishment of boundaries, subsequent boundary disputes, different understandings of what was meant by Treaty Three negotiators, and lengthy legal proceedings over several major cases regarding water and other resource use in the area, all helped to shape the environmental history of the region. He is also able to explain the political and economic maneuverings of a diverse group of politicians and entrepreneurs as the watershed became important to white North Americans, first as a transportation route to the newly acquired Canadian West, then as a source of timber, minerals, fish, hydro-electricity, drinking water (for Winnipeg), pulp (for paper mills), and tourism and recreational opportunities.

Not surprisingly, the picture that emerges is not a pretty one. Environmental degradation proceeded at an alarming pace for most of the first 100 years covered by this study. Water levels were altered, dams built, entire fisheries were destroyed, sewage and industrial waste were dumped into the lakes and rivers – all accompanied by an almost complete disregard for First Nations’ rights and concerns. At times it seemed as if the only real controls on unfettered development were the rivalries between various business people and their political allies, who sought to block some of the more “visionary” (and potentially destructive) development schemes of men like E.W. Backus – but only because such plans would have hurt their interests.

British Pathé coverage of the underwater Steep Rock Lake Mine operation near Atikokan, ON, from 1948.

Of course, governments did intervene on occasion. The Canadian federal government and the provincial governments of Ontario and Manitoba, as well as representatives of the State of Minnesota and a few American federal agencies – to say nothing of numerous municipal governments from the region – all had axes to grind and interests to protect or expand. And the supra-national agency, the International Joint Commission, also had a role to play in this area from 1909 onwards. But all of these agencies had their own agendas when it came to making use of the resources of the watershed, and oft-times worked at cross-purposes, which often created new problems in other parts of the watershed.

Bass fishing near Black River on Lake of the Woods, c.1940.
Canadian Science and Technology Museum, CN Images of Canada collection, X-11035.

Yet, as one proceeds through the author’s carefully documented chapters – fifteen in all – it is clear that Benidickson sees some light at the end of the tunnel, and it isn’t just another train about to crash and spill its lethal load into the fragile eco-system. Even in chapters dealing with the early 20th century, when environmental degradation seemed to go on virtually unchecked, readers get a sense that the growing conservationist and environmentalist movements on both sides of the Canada-US border will have a positive impact on the long-term future of the watershed. Developments such as the establishment of forest reserves and then national and provincial parks (beginning in 1909), and a growing scientific and public awareness of matters of water quality and quality of life foreshadowed better things to come. There would be more environmental tragedies as the century wore on: the Steep Rock Lake iron mine and the use of mercury in pulp and paper production in the 1960s would both have long-term negative impacts upon the environment and the people of the region. However, by the time one gets to Benidickson’s penultimate chapter, “For Water Knows No Borders” a cautious note of optimism is clearly detectable in the author’s prose. A growing body of cross border agencies – governmental bodies, conservation groups, scientific researchers, representatives of First Nations communities and various NGOs – are clearly coming together to work on improving the ways in which the region’s resources are used and protected. Benidickson is not a Pollyanna – but he does give us some grounds for hope in the future.

This is an important work – and a pioneering one at that. It is not, however, for the faint of heart, and will be of use primarily to experts and graduate students in the fields of environmental history and law, as the levels of legal, political and organizational complexity are difficult to navigate – even with Benidickson’s expert hand on the tiller.


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