The Biggest Oil Pipeline Spills in Canadian History

William H. Willis, Governor of Vermont State and Hon. C.D. Howe, Minister of Munitions and Supply at official ceremony for opening of Portland-Montreal Pipeline, 1941. Source: Library and Archives Canada, 3195990.

William H. Willis, Governor of Vermont State and Hon. C.D. Howe, Minister of Munitions and Supply at official ceremony for opening of Portland-Montreal Pipeline, 1941. Source: Library and Archives Canada, 3195990.

By Sean Kheraj

In March 1950, four Alberta “pipeline walkers” spoke with a reporter from Canadian Press about their tireless work. Each worker walked twelve to fifteen miles per day, checking on pipeline facilities in the Edmonton district and looking for leaks, a consistent problem for Alberta’s booming oil industry in the mid-twentieth century. A day’s work was long, exhausting, and ultimately fruitless. The reporter noted that 18 separate leaks occurred in the district in 1949 with one substantial oil spill near Leduc where “several thousand barrels of oil escaped before the leak was discovered.” Considering the number of leaks to occur in the district in spite of the walking inspections, the report captured the futility of the men’s labour: “Resembling northern trappers walking their trap lines, the men walk miles over their designated routes the year around. It’s a monotonous job — few leaks are found.” After walking more than 800 miles on the job, Dick Caws, one of the “pipeline walkers,” confessed, “The funny thing about my job is that I’m supposed to be looking for oil leaks, but since I started last October 1 I haven’t found one.”[1] Sixty-five years later, a contractor discovered one of the largest leaks on an oil pipeline in Canadian history, using the same method of detection.

Following Imperial Oil’s discoveries of substantial oil and gas resources in Leduc and Redwater in the late 1940s, oil companies and their pipeline subsidiaries began to build the province’s modern oil and gas pipeline systems, an extensive transportation network that now consists of nearly 400,000 km of energy pipelines.[2] Those companies also built Canada’s first long-distance pipelines for the delivery of Alberta crude and natural gas to urban industrial markets in Vancouver, central Canada, and parts of the US. These conduits for the movement of oil and natural gas unlocked Canada’s transition to a new energy regime in the second half of the twentieth century that saw the country become one of the world’s highest per capita consumers of high-energy fossil fuels. According to Richard Unger and John Thistle, “Canada and Canadians have long used relatively large quantities of energy and that total energy consumption in the country has risen dramatically over what is historically, and compared to many other countries, a short period of time.”[3] This would not have been possible without the development of large-scale pipeline infrastructure. Continue reading

Film Friday: British Columbia’s Contact Zone Classrooms, 1849–1925

Film Fridays give active historians a chance to share their work in a new format. If you would like to submit a film about history, get in touch!

By Sean Carleton


Indigenous and settler children outside a public school in Prince George, Lheidli T’enneh Territory, BC, 1911. Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

Canada’s sordid history of colonial education has yet again become a topic of controversy and debate. While the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is coming to an end, new layers are still being added to Canada’s history of colonial schooling, including the horrific findings of abuse and torture and nutritional experiments in residential schools. The overall picture, of course, is disturbing. This is why many historians were confused and dismayed by Ken Coates’ recent suggestion that now is the time to move beyond this difficult past. In response, Crystal Fraser and Ian Mosby rightly reject such an assertion and argue that there is still much to learn about the complexities of colonialism and schooling in Canada, past and present.

My own research confirms this position, and, though I am still writing my PhD dissertation, I wanted to contribute to this important dialogue. Inspired by recent words of encouragement from award-winning filmmakers Alanis Obomsawin and Peter Raymont about the importance of history, activism, and film, I decided to make a short film to share part of my research that supports calls for the need to continue to critically examine Canada’s history of colonial schooling. Continue reading

Indebted to History

By Jonathan McQuarrie



Personal and household debt has become a defining issue of the post-2008 world. In a series on debt, The Globe and Mail proposes to “[Explore] our dependence on debt—from the average household to global institutions—and the looming risks for a nation addicted to cheap money.” The “addiction” stems in part from the lengthy period of low interest rates set by the Bank of Canada, which currently sits at 0.75%. According to the Bank of Canada, these low rates, below the thirty-year average of approximately 5.5%, have contributed to increased mortgage debts. Debt from consumer spending has also been trending upwards, with consumer credit constituting nearly 45% of disposable income for Canadian households in 2011. Warnings about Canada’s high debt to income ratios have sounded since the 2008 recession, and continue to concern both policymakers and people trying to stretch budgets. Anxiety over high debt extends well beyond the household, shaping government fiscal policy orientated around balanced budgets—to the point of proposals for balanced budget legislation. According to the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives, focus on balanced budgets have had the effect of further burdening households, which have to make up for the reduced government spending.

History has much to tell us about debt. The most obvious and frequent use of history is through historical statistics. Many of the reports noted above tended to draw on data sets on interest rates and household debts of thirty years or so. However, reliance on such data is imperfect. As a 2012 C.D. Howe Institute report on household debt noted, the U.S. mortgage crisis emerged in part because of overconfidence in the lack of a fall in nationwide average housing prices since World War II. Data works best when placed in social and cultural context, which is where historians come in.

Here are two ways in which history nuances and sharpens our understanding of debt. There are, of course, many others—these just happen to be two of my favourite lessons.
Continue reading

The Abortion Caravan and RCMP Surveillance

 York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC04612.

By Christabelle Sethna

Very few Canadians know that the RCMP conducted surveillance of the Vancouver Women’s Caucus (VWC) and its Abortion Caravan.[1] This discovery is just one outcome of research undertaken with Dr. Steve Hewitt. We worked with hundreds of pages of declassified RCMP files, using surveillance reports (many of which are redacted) as well as appended open source material. The 1969 Criminal Code reforms coincided with the emergence of women’s liberation groups like the VWC. These groups, made up mainly of young, white women, were part of the 1960s New Left ferment that included opposition to the Vietnam War and support for women’s rights, the student movement, Black Power and Red Power and anti-imperialism.[2] Continue reading

The Second Battle of Ypres and the Creation of a YMCA Hero

By Jonathan Weier

Weier, Second Ypres and YMCA Hero - image 1Among the approximately 2000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force killed at the Second Battle of Ypres in late April and early May 1915 was the only Canadian YMCA worker killed in combat during the First World War. YMCA Honourary Captain Oscar Irwin, attached to the 10th Battalion of the CEF, was killed when he joined the battalion as it set out to retake St. Julien from the Germans in the early morning of April 23rd.[1] Irwin appears frequently in the YMCA’s commemoration of its First World War service, as the heroic embodiment of the YMCA’s masculine ideals, its message of service, and as a symbol of Christian sacrifice. Irwin’s example, both in life and in death, provided a venue by which the YMCA and its workers could address the tensions and challenges faced by many men involved in non-combatant service during the First World War. Continue reading

“On ‘The Road to 2017’: Reflecting on Canada’s First World War Commemoration Plans”

By Jonathan Weier

Last year on I wrote about the lack of federal government funding for First World War commemoration. Despite the fact that the First World War centennial period has started, the federal government continues to offer little support for First World War commemorative activities. The coming federal election, the recent decline in oil prices, as well as the demands of market orthodoxy make it unlikely that this situation will change.

This is in contrast to the commitments Ottawa is making to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Confederation in 2017. Called The Road to 2017, this program has included events around the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sir John A. MacDonald among other milestones. According to the official narrative and the opinions of prominent Conservative cabinet ministers, John A. has been portrayed as the sole force behind Confederation and as a statesmanlike, if slightly flawed, father of our country. Most recently, in its 2015 Budget the government announced a $210 million fund spread out over four years to “support local community events such as festivals and concerts, enhanced Canada Day celebrations in the National Capital Region and other major Canadian cities and other national initiatives, such as Rendezvous Naval 2017, that will unite Canadians from coast to coast to coast.”[1]

What The Road to 2017 lacks, however, is an inclusive building and commemoration process designed to leave Canadians with a useful and forward-looking legacy, as was the case for the programs that were initiated for the 1967 centennial.[2] There has been little attempt to bring in a diversity of voices or discuss the years-long process and other milestones that were part of the evolution towards confederation.

The uninspiring and simplistic nature of government involvement in sesquicentennial commemoration would seem to suggest that I was right, that First World War commemoration will be better with minimal active government involvement. Continue reading

Literature and History: Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission and the Politics of Cultural Despair

By Alban BargainVilléger

864563Even today, literary fiction can still provide an ideal entry point into historical studies. Although this might seem like stating the obvious, one has to recognise that the increasing overspecialization of history as a discipline has hindered the ability and/or willingness of many historians to explore universes outside of their respective fields. Nonetheless, it is clear that some historians still consider themselves engaged intellectuals – Active History provides almost daily examples of such attempts to transcend the limits of historical study.

But in addition to reading and rereading classics (and non-classics), paying attention to present-day fiction can also help historicize the present. Now, for methodological and conceptual reasons, historians tend to let several decades pass before exploring a subject. These precautions stem from the unavailability of some archival materials and from the need for hindsight. That said, such precautions should not prevent historians thinking about our day and age, or engaging in intellectual exercises. In that regard, French author and contrarian intellectual Michel Houellebecq’s latest book, Soumission, constitutes an ideal guinea pig for an experiment of that type. Continue reading

The Home Archivist – Making Arrangements

Home Archivist LogoBy Jess Dunkin

In February, I shared two posts on the subject of conservation. The first post introduced readers of the Home Archivist to institutions and individuals working to preserve Canada’s documentary heritage, and described the safety equipment and tools that paper conservators use to process historical records. The second post saw those tools being put to use in the preservation of paper documents like those in the MacKendrick collection that are affected by dust, mold, soot, adhesives, and other accretions.

Now that (most of) the MacKendrick letters have been opened and the contents cleaned and flattened, we can turn our attention to thinking about how archival documents are readied for public consultation. In particular, we’ll explore why documents are catalogued the way that they are.  Continue reading

Burrard Inlet, Beaches, and Oil Spills: A Historical Perspective

by Sean Kheraj

Last week, British Columbians once again witnessed the effects of oil on Burrard Inlet. Local authorities cautioned residents to avoid the water along the shores in Vancouver and West Vancouver after a large slick of bunker fuel oil appeared on the surface of Burrard Inlet. Around 5pm Wednesday, April 8, 2015, a boater notified Port Metro Vancouver that an oil slick was visible and likely leaking from from one of the numerous freighters moored in the inlet. By Friday morning, the Coast Guard estimated that the leak was at least 2,700 litres.

Twitter users posted dozens of photos of globs of oil washed up along the shoreline. They took selfies of their hands dipped in the shiny black residue.

It was a beautiful sunny day, but one that many residents of the Lower Mainland agreed was a sad reminder of the ever-present risks involved with the transportation and use of oil on the harbour.

Of course, this was not the first time that Vancouver’s beaches were coated with oil. Off-shore oil spills on Canada’s Pacific coast and Burrard Inlet have happened before. While they have not been frequent occurrences, these spills have been one of the historical consequences of increased shipping in the harbour, expanded refining activity, and the transportation and use of petroleum products in post-war Canadian energy history. Oily messes are signatures of Canada’s oil-based economy of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Continue reading

Rock Hudson, the Reagans, and HIV/AIDS Scholarship


Hudson (left) with President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan at a White House state dinner, May 1984, less than three weeks before he was diagnosed with HIV. [Wikipedia]

By Lucas Richert

In recent months, a gay rights group, the Mattachine Society, have helped provide a more expansive view of Rock Hudson’s final struggle with AIDS. In documents obtained from the Reagan Presidential Library and available on BuzzFeed, it is clear that Nancy Reagan refused to help the dying Hudson receive treatment.

This matters. When he died in October 1985, Hudson became the first high-profile celebrity linked to homosexuality and AIDS. He was a major Hollywood star in the 1950s and 1960s and his situation helped create awareness of HIV/AIDS. These recent documents thus provide a fresh perspective on the Reagan administration, sexuality, and at the same time point toward the need for new AIDS scholarship. In the years ahead, scholars will have the opportunity to connect this development in an already well-researched story with novel HIV/AIDS scholarship on African Americans and First Nations in the United States and Canada. Continue reading