“The water power of Niagara should be as free as the air:” The Past, Present, and Future, of Democratic Energy Control in Ontario

Christo Aivalis

Ontario power station below the falls, 1908. Public domain image.

Ontario power station below the falls, 1908. Public domain image.

The politics of energy are omnipresent in historical and contemporary Canadian society. Who owns energy, how it is produced, and who benefits from its production and distribution has been central to the rise and fall of governments. In some cases, as with Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program (NEP), the regional tensions it inflamed are still evident to this day.

Perhaps the most interesting and current debate around energy hails from Ontario, where the provincial Liberal government—without seeking a mandate in the 2014 election—has begun the process of privatizing Hydro One, which has been in public control for more than a century. And while the majority of opposition has come from the left and organized labour, the advent of a public energy system in Ontario predates nearly all of Canada’s major unions and leftist parties.

Surprisingly given our modern ideological landscape, a public hydro system in Ontario was created in 1906 by James P. Whitney’s Conservatives (the title quote is attributed to him), who fought successfully against Liberal George W. Ross’ rejection of public energy control, which was driven by a distrust of public ownership as well as Ross’ pecuniary conflicts—which included being an executive of a company involved with energy production, as well as bestowing energy contracts as political favours.

The rationale for a publically-controlled energy system from Whitney’s perspective was quite forward-thinking. Ontario in the early 1900s was on the verge of mass industrialization, and electrical power was the lifeblood of such a system. To have electricity owned privately—either by foreign interests, domineering monopolies, or a patchwork of petty capitalists—served neither the public interest nor the needs of an increasingly capitalized and urban province. Whether for the worker, farmer, consumer, municipality, or industrialist, affordable, accessible, and consistent power networks were imperative. Continue reading

Gun Rights: Hoping History Won’t Matter


R. Blake Brown

In September 2016 the Aspen Institute, a non-partisan American think-tank, held a symposium entitled “Firearms and the Common Law Tradition” at the Institute’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.  The conveners of the symposium, historian Jennifer Tucker of Wesleyan University, curators Margaret Vining and Bart Hacker of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and Ruth Katz of the Aspen Institute, hoped to create space to discuss constructively the changing meaning of firearms in American culture and to identify new areas of research that will allow historians and legal professionals to think creatively about the challenge of guns in American law and culture.

The conveners invited a broad spectrum of participants, including historians who take opposing views of what the Framers of the American constitution meant to enshrine in drafting the Second Amendment, which famously proclaims that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Others in attendance included lawyers who have argued for and against the constitutionality of various American gun laws, British constitutional historians who have addressed the constitutional inheritance that informed American ideas concerning the right to bear arms, and scholars of American gun culture and violence.  In addition, curators of a number of firearm museums attended, including the curators from the Autry Museum of the American West, the National Firearms Centre of the British Royal Armouries, and the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.  The expertise of the participants was thus broad and deep, and, on paper, the symposium offered an excellent opportunity to move forward the debate over gun culture and gun rights. Continue reading

Modern Treaties in Canada: A Call for Engaged, Collaborative Historical Research

By Andrew Stuhl, Bruce Uviluq, Anna Logie, and Derek Rasmussen

Modern treaties are reshaping Canada. Since 1975, the federal government and Indigenous communities have entered into 26 of these comprehensive land claim agreements, covering parts of all three territories and four provinces. Modern treaties have provided Indigenous ownership over 600,000 km2 of land and capital transfers of over $3.2 billion, but they are not just real estate or cash transactions. They also establish new relationships between signatories around resource development, wildlife and fisheries management, education, health services, and more. As some of the treaties currently in negotiation become finalized—as of August 2016, there are nearly 100 tables open across the country—the existing map of modern treaties will become a vestige in Canada’s evolution.

Map showing the modern treaty territories.

Modern Treaty Territories in Canada in 2009. Nearly half of Canada’s lands and waters are in some way impacted by these comprehensive land claim agreements. Reproduced with permission of the Land Claims Agreement Coalition.

We are not interested here in continuing the argument for why modern treaties deserve our attention. Scholars in and outside academia have already made the case. Rather, we use this post to invite historians to consider two other questions, both of which shape how we translate that attention into action. Who is the audience for research on modern treaties? What are the routes and roadblocks in the modern treaties archive? We hope our answers inspire more collaborative and engaged research on one of Canada’s most transformative, yet unfinished episodes. Continue reading

The Morality of Mergers

By Jonathan McQuarrie

henry_herbert_stevensRecently, Monsanto received a $66 billion purchase offer from the even mightier German pharmaceutical company Bayer. It would be hard to find a more disliked firm than Monsanto, and the fact that a major pharmaceutical company is the potential buyer has created even more alarm. But should we disentangle our moral concerns from our economic understanding?

The Bayer offer is a massive one, even during a spike in of mergers and acquisitions (M&A), measured by value, in North America. Globally, the total value of M&A in 2015 set a new record as measured by total value. In Canada, the proposed merger of two major potash companies, Potash Corp. and Agrium Inc. and Enbridge’s proposal to acquire Spectra Energy Corp. have prompted concern over a “mega-merger mania.”

Financial news discussions tend to focus on two key points. Firstly, we see the typical business and financial questions that animate much of the business papers. How much will the merger or acquisition contribute to creating value, both for shareholders and the new entity? What sort of shared competencies, expertise, and efficiencies do the two firms have, and how will the larger entry generate profit from them? Might the M&A lead to some sort of bust—an unwieldy conglomeration whose brand identities fail to work together? (The Quaker Oats’ acquisition of Snapple in 1994—remember Snapple? —is used as a case study in this regard).

The second key point are any legal questions. In the United States, M&As are subject to the Federal Trade Commission’s Antitrust laws, whose origins stretch back to the Sherman Act of 1890. In Canada, M&As are subject to oversite from the Competition Bureau. The Bureau is governed by the Competition Act, which was passed in 1985, but whose origins stretch back to a Combinations in Trade Prevention Bill discussed in the House of Commons in 1888. In both the United States and Canada, M&As are subject to legal reviews that are designed to prioritize consumer rights. For instance, the FTC quashed a potential Staples-Office Depot merger because the firms failed to convince a court that their merger would lead to anything but a reduction in the number of stores, and thereby, competition and customer service.

Continue reading

The Collaboratorium – University of Saskatchewan Launches Initiative in Community-Engaged History

By Colin Osmond

The University of Saskatchewan recently launched a unique and exciting initiative called the “Community-Engaged History Collaboratorium.” This is an extension of Prof. Keith Thor Carlson’s Research Chair in Indigenous and Community-engaged History, and is designed to be on the cutting edge of community-engaged scholarship (CES). In the Collaboratorium, faculty and students work in collaboration with First Nations, non-profit organizations, and community organizations to co-create knowledge that gives agency to historical voices, narratives, and interpretations that would otherwise remain submerged and eclipsed.

Building relationships with the community strengthens the position of the University in the broader communities in which they exist. But working collaboratively does much more – it helps give people whose history is contested by the interpretations emerging from powerful corporate and government institutions a voice to challenge these narratives. Collaboration helps reinforce for communities that Universities are important institutions that need to be protected and valued, for the simple reason that they can help serve community interests and provide meaningful scholarly services. It teaches students to think beyond the classroom, and of the real world implications of their work. It reminds universities that they are not institutions of their own and that they are part of the communities in which they exist.

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Working Collaboratively: From L to R: Zachary Carreiro, Katelyn Finlay, Kristin Enns-Kavanagh, Anthony Meyer, Courtney Bowman, Hannah Cooley, Jenna Casey.

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‘It Might Have Been Us’: 70 Years since the Windsor to Tecumseh Tornado

By Katrina Ackerman  

Windsor Star Photograph, 1946

Windsor Star Photo, c.1946

At the age of ten, my father, two sisters, and I were driving through Alberta when a tornado struck. We were traveling from Trail, British Columbia to Saskatchewan for a relative’s wedding when a storm materialized in High River, a few hours from our hotel. We saw the aftermath of the storm on the news from the safety of our hotel, and the memory of that moment remains imprinted on my mind.[1] This experience led to a much longer fascination of mine with tornadoes — an interest that is not unique. As Kevin Rozario argues in The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the Making of Modern America,Spectacles of calamity command our attention because they present an occasion for processing, intellectually and emotionally, the experience of living in a world of systematic ruin and renewal, destruction and reconstruction, where technological and environmental disasters always loom.” I’ve witnessed several severe storms across Canada since that first childhood encounter, but nothing to the effect of the devastating storm that touched down in the borderland region of Detroit-Windsor seventy years ago. Continue reading

Enforcing Wildlife Conservation in Maine: The Lasting Legacy of the Nineteenth Century

By Ian J. Jesse


Image from In Pine Tree Jungles (Bangor and Aroostook Railroad Company, 1902)

Many are familiar with the show North Woods Law. The show first aired in 2012 and has been popular ever since. If you have not seen the show the premise is simple: camera crews follow Maine game wardens as they do their work. In an episode wardens could be chasing down poachers one minute and searching for missing hikers along the Appalachian Trail the next. Recently, however, the actions of game wardens in an episode have come under fire.

In February of 2014 the Maine Warden Service followed by television cameras concluded a two-year undercover operation in Allagash, Maine, near the Canadian border, and brought some three hundred charges against twenty-three individuals ranging from night hunting and improperly tagging deer to possession of marijuana and taking more trout than the limit allows. While many can generally agree that protecting wildlife is a good goal, Mainers are upset about the tactics used by wardens during this operation. On May 8, 2016 Colin Woodard with the Portland Press Herald ran a lengthy article that criticized the actions of the Maine Warden Service during this operation (click here to read the full article).

Throughout this undercover operation many claim that undercover agents broke the game protection laws they were supposed to be enforcing such as killing deer at night to entice would-be poachers. Perhaps, even worse, the wardens were accused of seizing canned vegetables and fruit from an elderly woman they accused of illegally processing deer meat.[1] This news of the Maine Warden Service behaving badly seems to be the latest accusation on a growing list; Colin Woodard also published a list of controversies surrounding the Maine Warden Service over the past thirteen years (click here to see this list).

What is most surprising about these recent events is that no one has turned to history to help understand or contextualize them. I would like to turn the focus on this matter from the questionable actions of the wardens to consider reasons why rural Mainers may break laws that protect wildlife. Continue reading

Episodes in Canada’s arms trade: 1946 and 2016

dionBy David Webster

Foreign minister Stephane Dion is taking flak for approving the sale of military light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia despite that country’s human rights record. Dion’s response implies that Canadian restrictions on arms exports are tough, with an emphasis on ensuring that weapons made in Canada are not be used against civilian populations, and links it to what he calls the guiding principle of his foreign policy: “responsible conviction.”

The debates are evocative of the year that Canada entered the arms export business, 70 years ago. Restrictions on arms exports are not tougher today than they were at the creation of an arms export business. Reflecting on debates over military sales in 1946 and 2016 suggests that human rights are not necessarily becoming more central in policy making over time. If anything, policy makers in 1946 seem to have been more scrupulous on avoiding sales on human rights grounds, and more restrictive about selling arms that might be used, than the policy makers of today.

So how did Canada get into the arms export business, anyway? The tale goes back to the aftermath of the Second World War. Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s government was prepared to allow surplus military equipment to remain with allied governments in Europe, and to provide military goods to the United States and Great Britain. But when it came to selling to less reliable governments, and those who might actually use the weapons, King’s cabinet was more scrupulous. Cabinet approval was needed for any military sale, no matter how small, to any country other than the United States and Great Britain. The minutes of cabinet meetings are full of discussion about possible sales, and always included a question as to whether the arms were likely to be used. Cabinet held to a policy spelled out by Prime Minister Mackenzie King that “great care should be taken with respect to all sales of weapons and supplies of war to foreign governments.” If a country was at war, if it intended to use the weapons for anything other than re-equipping its defensive forces, or if there were questions about human rights, sales tended to be refused or not even submitted for cabinet consideration. Continue reading

Merchants of Death: Canada’s History of Questionable Exports

By Stephanie Bangarth and Jon Weier



I must say that I feel the whole Canadian policy to be very hypocritical. We talk a good game but then proceed to act inconsistently by promoting trade with the countries whose policies we denounce.[1]

The year was 1974 and the issue of Canadian trade with South Africa was making the headlines, along with concerns over the sale of CANDU reactors to Argentina and India. It reflected the increasing awareness of and support for human rights in Canadian foreign policy during the late 1960s and the early 1970s. As David Forsyth notes, as a general historical trend, more attention is now paid toward humanitarianism in world affairs.[2] In part, this development was due to parliamentarians such as New Democrat Andrew Brewin, who were central in making the issue of human rights more than merely a domestic issue.

Brewin’s statement is as relevant today as it was in 1974. Since its election in October 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government has been dogged by the continuing saga of the sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. This deal, initially pursued and approved by the previous Conservative government, would see General Dynamics Land Systems sell $15 billion worth of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to re-equip the Saudi National Guard. These LAVs are to be produced at the General Dynamics production facility in London, Ontario, and were a centrepiece of the previous Conservative government’s plan for bolstering the Canadian arms industry through increased exports. Continue reading

Cannabis Americana: The Past, Present, and Future of Marijuana in North America

By Adam Rathge

Marijuana-Cannabis-Weed-Bud-GramJudging from recent developments in Canada, Mexico, and the United States it seems we’re on the cusp of a monumental shift in North American drug policy. Indeed, the war on drugs paradigm and its requisite enforcement agencies appear under greater attack than perhaps ever before. This is especially true for marijuana prohibition. In Canada medical marijuana has been widely available for more than a decade, while new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly promised to move toward a system of recreational legalization. In Mexico the Supreme Court recently declared that individuals should have the right to grow and distribute marijuana for personal use, potentially paving the way for legal challenges to the nation’s current drug laws. In the United States nearly half the country now allows medical marijuana, with four states also providing a legal market for recreational marijuana and as many as six more primed to follow this year.

The road forward, however, is anything but clear. Indeed, if history is our guide, there’s a great deal of uncertainty ahead for both the medicalization and legalization of marijuana. Continue reading