Twice Removed: Environmental History and the Canada-U.S. Border Through an Outsider’s Eyes

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This is the fourth in the series Outside Looking In, about the experiences of teaching and researching Canadian environmental history – from scholars working outside Canada.

Being an outsider has been a liberating experience. Research has taken me to little known archives in both Canada and the United States which have become the bedrock of my work.

Ramya Swayamprakash

As I walked into Library and Archives Canada (LAC) for the first time, on May 24, 2017, a day after the Ottawa Senators had played a cracker of a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, I passed by the statues decked in Senator t-shirts. At least I knew that reference, I realized. That gave me some much-needed confidence. 

Outside the LAC, Ottawa, May 2017. Image by author.

I wasn’t fully sure if I was on a wild-goose chase at the archives, if my query even made sense. The first archivist I spoke to at the LAC gave me only an empty look. Add to that the fact that I—a South Asian woman who had hitherto published on dams in modern India and had little historiographical insights about the United States or Canada—was researching the Detroit River after a degree in design. Imposter syndrome was at its zenith. After an educational first year in graduate school where I finally read deeply on U.S. history, I had decided to dive headfirst into research, mostly to assuage my insecurities as a scholar of North America. 

LAC was a whole new world and yet familiar in ways the National Archives in Washington, D.C. were not. The LAC reminded me of the National Archives of India (NAI)—a place I had spent many years languishing in, waiting for unfulfilled requisition slips that still live with me—in terms of the way topics were organized. Maybe I was/am projecting but seeing all those files about the rest of the British Empire (including some on India) as I searched for the Detroit River left me with a warm sense of familiarity. There was also a reinforcement of my twice removed scholarly status—I am neither American nor Canadian but study both. 

Being an outsider has been a liberating experience. Research has taken me to little known archives in both Canada and the United States which have become the bedrock of my work. I went into these collections with rudimentary historiographical background. On the one hand, I felt (and continue to feel) the need to read more. On the other, reading and researching have highlighted continuities and discontinuities. As an environmental historian writing about how dredging, and the people promoting dredging, recast the Detroit River as infrastructure by creating artificial islands and channels, a clear continuity is the modern, technological hubris in manipulating nature for control and profit. 

The lower Detroit River with Fighting Island in the foreground (on the left) and the Livingstone Channel in the background. Image by author.

Subsumed under this is the discontinuity: at least in the case of the Detroit River, there seems to be a persistent groundswell in local activism responding to and affecting dredging. For instance, when during construction of the Livingstone Channel (1907-12) a waste bank was created proximate to the Canadian shore – right in front of the Ontario community of Amherstburg. Much of the channel was in Canadian waters. This “eyesore” was one of the main reasons Amherstburg residents resisted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ actions in creating this waste bank.[1] There were other issues like blasting as part of construction that shattered house walls and shook the ground across the border.[2]

The lower Detroit River showing the shipping channel, islands, and dredged areas. Map by author.

Canadian discontent about channel construction simmered. So much so that right after construction, in 1912, the newly formed International Joint Commission (IJC) sent commissioners to listen to the community as it considered the Corps’ proposed channel expansion. The Canadians were steadfastly against any expansion, and over a thousand people signed a petition against it.[3] Eventually the IJC recommended changes that kept local concerns in mind.[4]

After the Second World War, as the St. Lawrence Seaway was announced, connecting channels like the Detroit River were dredged in preparation. These dredge spoils had to go somewhere. So, in the late 1960s, the Army Corps suggested dumping these dredged spoils into a Confined Disposal Facility (CDF).  The Army Corps had created dikes of dumped spoils through the 1930s and now just wanted to add more dredged material to these dikes, which were also in Canadian waters. 

The dikes that make Crystal Bay and Crystal Island. Map by author.

This had been designated as an area for dredged material anyway, so it should not have been a problem. Except: the people of Amherstburg did not want this CDF. At a time when the Detroit River was really polluted, this system of dikes filtered surrounding water, offering an enclosed waterscape that was cleaner than the rest of the river. Ontario and Michigan had even stocked the little lake with fish, thus making it a fishing hotspot.[5]

So when the Army Corps came forward with a proposal to fill this waterscape up, Amherstburg residents were having none of it. They spoke to their local politicians and wrote in newspapers, imploring their neighbors across the border to not create a CDF in Canadian water.[6] The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was forced to listen and created a CDF in American waters in Lake Erie. In both these instances, local voices had travelled to Ottawa and across the river, making sure they were heard and understood. This attention to local movements and activism gives us a more nuanced view of what nature and environmentalism meant for different communities. More importantly, I think, it helps us see the conflict and cooperation that undergird the U.S.-Canada relationship. 

As a non-American and non-Canadian studying both countries, I am unencumbered  by the baggage that a citizen carries. However, I do often wonder if I have enough context—the kind that one has through osmosis if nothing else—about a place that one grew up in. Having lived most of my life halfway across the world, doing other things, my outsider status also lets me see continuities about what was happening in North America with say events in South Asia. For example, the big dam impulse that resonated across the world undergirded by knowledge exchange between engineers in India and North America. Stories about how the environment was degraded and exploited got me interested in the first place. Researching these stories with both continuities and discontinuities, and for a moment, I do not feel like an outsider. 



[1] “Spoil Bank” is an eyesore,” Amherstburg Echo June 9, 1911, p. 6 and $10 Million Ditch: Building the Livingstone Channel A Timeline of the construction of the Livingstone Channel 1908-1912 as reported in the Amherstburg Echo, 55.

[2] “Marine News: Heavy Blasts Arouse Wrath. Residents Near Livingstone Channel Kick on Firing of Heavy Dynamite Charges. Plaster is shaken down in houses on Grosse Ile. Col. Townsend Announces Those Sustaining Loss May Recover From Contractors at Fault.” Detroit Free Press , May 14, 1910, p. 9. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Access provided by Michigan State University, http://ezproxy.msu.edu.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/docview/564754464?accountid=12598.

[3] International Joint Commission, “Memorial from the Residents of Amherstburg and Vicinity,” in Testimony in Re The Livingstone Channel on the Reference of the Governments of the United States and the Dominion of Canada Under Title IX of the Treaty of May 5, 1910 (Washington DC: Government Printing Press, 1913), 168, https://www.loc.gov/item/13035458/.

[4] International Joint Commission, Report on the Livingstone Channel, April 8, 1913. Recommendations in Reply to Questions Submitted by the Governments of the United States and Canada, October 16, 1912. Treaty of May 5, 1910 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1913). Available at: https://www.ijc.org/sites/default/files/Docket%205%20Final%20Report.pdf

[5] “Minutes of a Meeting Held to Discuss Dredging Spoil Disposal- Lower Detroit River,” February 18, 1970, 4 in Provincial Archives of Ontario, Dredging Operations-Crystal Bay area of Detroit River 1969-70. RG 1-282-0-118 B397139.

[6] U.S. Army Engineer Detroit, Final Environmental Statement Confined Disposal Facility at Pointe Mouillee for Detroit and Rouge Rivers, March 1974. 

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Ramya is a PhD candidate at Michigan State University where she researches dredging in the lower Detroit River. She takes tea and dredging (not necessarily in that order) seriously. In a former life, Ramya was a historian of modern India. As a survivor of domestic abuse and as a single parent, Ramya’s scholarship is driven by a commitment to social/ecological justice and equity.

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