Gateways, inland seas, or boundary waters?

A view of the St. Lawrence River and the  Pierre Laporte Bridge between Quebec City and Lévis.

A view of the St. Lawrence River and the Pierre Laporte Bridge between Quebec City and Lévis.

Credit: Thinkstock

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Using a new bibliographic database, researchers examine the changing historical conceptions of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River through the eyes of scholars from the mid-19th century to today.

The St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes: Are they gateways to North America, inland seas that define Canada and Quebec as nations, or boundary waters dividing Canada from the U.S.?

Variously, all of the above, a new academic study suggests. The answer depends on which period of history you're looking at and whether your point of view is central Canadian, Québécois, or American.

"There's never been a single point of view on the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes," said Université de Montréal historian Michèle Dagenais, whose study in Canadian Geographer is co-authored by McMaster University historian Ken Cruickshank. "There's been an overlapping of points of view," said Dagenais. "The economy has always been front and centre, of course, but it's the question of scale that has changed: from continental, to territorial, to environmental."

The study is the first to make use of a new bibliographic database the two historians assembled. It holds most, if not all, of the published studies in humanities and social sciences on the St. Lawrence over the past 200 years. Available free online, the database includes several thousand references in a wide variety of areas: history; hydrography; commerce; transportation and navigation; industrial activities; travel and tourism; geology; flora, fauna and fish; water quality; and drinking water.

Four periods identified

The historians' own study leads off a special section of Canadian Geographer's winter 2016-17 issue, which also includes three other papers on the history, laws and environment of the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes. In theirs, Dagenais and Cruickshank identify four periods shaping historical thinking about the river and lakes, ranging from the mid-1800s to the present day. The periods overlap, and rarely involve discussion of the river and lakes as a single entity, but they can be classified as follows.

•  The second half of the 19th century. Both Canada and the U.S. were defining and consolidating their nation states and the transcontinental spaces that they would dominate. For early 20th-century scholars such as Samuel Edward Dawson, the river and lakes represented the east-west gateway that opened the continent to European civilization and provided the basis for a transcontinental Canadian nation.

•  The 1920s to 1960s. Debates over one major development project, the St. Lawrence Seaway, influenced much of the thinking about the river and lakes. To its many proponents, they were boundary waters that transcended borders between the U.S. and Canada, connecting two economies and societies. Opponents, such as historian Donald Creighton, saw the Seaway instead as the death knell of Canada.

•  Post-WWII to the 1980s. Canadian writers such as Hugh MacLennan used the example of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes to asset a national identity that was independent of the U.S., while Quebec geographers like Raoul Blanchard highlighted how important the St. Lawrence was in the development of French Canada, as a kind of inland sea that shaped the development of a distinctive nation on its shores.

•  The 1950s to the 21st century. The rise of environmental concerns complicated accounts of the river and lakes, and gradually reshaped the ways that writers and scholars conceived of them as systems. Scholars like William Ashworth (an American) and John. L. Riley (a Canadian) focused on the Great Lakes as a bi-national ecological entity, with the U.S. and Canada sharing a common history there.

One-fifth of Earth's fresh water

As a cross-border hydrographic basin, the Great Lakes (Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, Superior) and the St. Lawrence River are vast, encompassing eight American states, two Canadian provinces and a multitude of administrative regions. The Great Lakes constitute the world's largest group of freshwater lakes, stretching almost a quarter of a million square kilometres and holding 21 per cent of the planet's surface fresh water. The lakes drain into the St. Lawrence, which flows 1,200 kilometres to the Atlantic Ocean.

These days, with the environment on everyone's minds, the health of the Lakes and by extension the St. Lawrence are making headlines again. Bestsellers like Dan Egan's The Death and Life of the Great Lakes and news that the Republican administration of newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump intends to all but eliminate the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative have revived debate over their importance not only to the U.S. and Canadian economies, but to the health of species, human included.

What do historians – who typically take the long view – make of that?

"Regardless of politics, the environment doesn't respect borders, doesn't respect political diktat," Dagenais replied. "That said, there is a risk of disinterest, of deregulation. In future, will there still be the will to monitor water quality and aquatic life? It's worrisome. Let's hope we don't get to that point. We'll have to be vigilant. Canada and the U.S. are interdependent; this water basin isn't just a border, it's a space we share. That's our conclusion."

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