Laurentian Thesis as Environmental History: Donald Creighton and the Seaway

In a recent review of Don Wright’s new biography on Donald Creighton, the reviewer notes that the Laurentian thesis could be read through the lens of environmental history. Since I have done that as part of my book on the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project, I thought I would provide some excerpts from the book that address Creighton and the Laurentian thesis.


The following are excerpts from Daniel Macfarlane, Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway (2014):

Prominent academics of the time, such as Donald Creighton and Harold Innis, were equally enraptured by the St. Lawrence. They found inspiration in the idea that the river determined Canada’s historical development – enough so that this notion became one of the great metatheories or nar­ratives in the annals of Canadian history: the Laurentian thesis. Although this thesis is now dated, it cannot be denied that the St. Lawrence River has exerted a major influence on Canada, serving as the cradle and lifeblood of the country’s economy and development. From the First Nations groups sustained by its waters to the early European explorers and settlers – the habitants and Loyalists who populated its environs – to the location of many major communities and the majority of the country’s population, much of Canadian history has played out along the banks of the St. Lawrence.

The river – and, by extension, the seaway – offered the potential, as William Kilbourn phrased it, to “fulfill that age-old dream at the heart of Canadian history, the Empire of the St. Lawrence.”20 The Laurentian thesis, most prominently forwarded by Creighton in his 1937 The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence, 1760-1850 (and rereleased in 1956 as The Empire of the St. Lawrence), holds that “Canadian economic and national de­velopment derived fundamentally from the gradual exploitation of key staple products – fur, timber, and wheat – by colonial merchants in the major metropolitan centres along the St. Lawrence River system,” which “provided the means by which both a transatlantic and a transcontinental market economy could be created.”21 This east-west axis was further en­hanced by the St. Lawrence’s connection to the Great Lakes, and the “em­pire” extended west by railway after Confederation to the western interior and Pacific Ocean.22 Although the grander aims of this empire may have failed, the extended attempts to bring it to fruition did serve to geograph­ically and psychologically carve out the country of Canada, resist the pull of the United States, and forge the various colonies and English- and French-speaking peoples together. According to Creighton, “The impulse towards unity in the interests of strength and expansion is one of the oldest and most powerful tendencies in the history of the Empire of the St. Lawrence.”23

The St. Lawrence River holds an iconic place in the Canadian national imaginary. I am interested in how the manipulation of the St. Lawrence basin was shaped by culture, identity, region, and environment. This is in keeping with a global, even ancient, tradition of viewing rivers, and water control projects, as the bloodstream of nations on which nationalist obses­sions were projected as reflections or repositories of cultural or national character.24 The role of the St. Lawrence River (and of rivers in general) in the development of Canada is central, perhaps even unsurpassed, in the paradigm of national development. From the early explorers who travelled up the St. Lawrence and dreamed of bypassing its rapids to the settlers who populated the riverine basin in subsequent centuries, it served as the cru­cible of Canadian settlement and development. Canals were central to this evolution, and though they may have seemed in some ways an anachron­istic technology by the mid-twentieth century, the seaway as a deep canal system (joined with hydroelectric development) could simultaneously link romantic nationalist associations and modern transportation and indus­trialization goals.

I argue that the link between identity and riverine environments has unique manifestations in the Canadian context. Given the importance of rivers and water to Canadian identity, it is no surprise that the St. Lawrence, the greatest of all of Canada’s rivers, is the leading protagonist in historical writings that personify geographic factors in the nation’s historical de­velopment, often acting as a synecdoche for Canada in general, and central Canada (Ontario and Quebec) in particular. Indeed, geographically de­terminist explanations of Canadian history animated many prominent historical texts of the day. These metahistorical and nationalist interpreta­tions include the staples and metropolitan theses, which are part of – or contribute to, depending on one’s perspective – the Laurentian thesis.25 Creighton built on the work of Harold Innis, elevating Innis’s exalted view of the St. Lawrence into “new poetic realms”26 in which “the dream of the commercial empire of the St. Lawrence runs like an obsession through the whole of Canadian history … The river was not only a great actuality; it was the central truth of a religion.”27 A range of prominent historians, although taking issue with unabashed Laurentianism and its geographically determinist and inherently anti-American stance, nonethe­less accepted that the St. Lawrence had played a pivotal role in Canada’s historical development.28 Popular histories from the era forwarded similar narratives.29

Stéphane Castonguay and Darin Kinsey point out the tautological nature of the Laurentian thesis, for, in tandem with the linked staples and metropolitan-hinterland theses, “one is led to believe that cod, beaver, grain, and other staples are a part of the elements of the triumphant en­vironmentalism responsible for the ‘neo-Wagnerian myth-symbolism complex Canadian nationalists have woven around the St. Lawrence Valley.’”30 Yet, according to historian Janice Cavell, “No other interpreta­tion of history has ever been so widely and whole-heartedly accepted [in Canada] as Laurentianism” was at the height of its popularity from the 1940s to the 1960s.31 The linked but not identical metropolitan thesis, for its part, had achieved “near-doctrinal status” by the 1960s and, along with the staples thesis, found some resonance in the following decades, particu­larly among political economists.32 Though some of the concepts underlying these grand theories are implicit to varying extents in recent studies that foreground the importance of natural factors in order to explain Canada’s past, the growth of environmental history approaches in Canada since the 1990s has not resulted in direct attempts to rehabilitate these metatheories; nonetheless, contemporary Canadian historiography would benefit from a reappraisal of the metropolitan, staples, and Laurentian theses.33

It was no coincidence that the peak of the Laurentian thesis’s influence coincided with the conclusive stretch of negotiations for the St. Lawrence project, and then its construction. It is apparent that the Laurentian thesis helped sustain the conception of the St. Lawrence watershed as the defin­ing and fundamental aspect of Canadian history and identity and, in turn, infused the notion of an all-Canadian seaway with nationalist importance and symbolism. The hydroelectric development of the St. Lawrence was equally a repository of hydraulic and technological nationalist associations, for generating stations represented modern Canada’s ability to control the exploitation of its natural resources and reap the benefits.

For many, the St. Lawrence served as both a bridge and a barrier between English and French Canada, and between Canada and the United States. The river could unite, but it could also divide. Joseph Bouchette, writing in 1831, preferred the former interpretation: “The St. Lawrence, originally called the Great River of Canada, or the Great River, to mark its preeminence, is the indelible link formed by nature between the Canadas, and the source at once of the wealth, beauty, and prosperity of both coun­tries.”34 A good deal of French-language literature on the St. Lawrence sees the river and valley as fundamentally intertwined with Quebec’s identity, history, and nationalism.35 This study does not explicitly aim to differenti­ate between French- and English-Canadian nationalism concerning the St. Lawrence, but it is safe to say that in both central Canadian provinces, and maybe even more so in Quebec, the St. Lawrence was viewed as a Canadian – or canadien – river, rather than an American one.36 Although the St. Lawrence River is profitably viewed as a bioregion that eschews man-made boundaries, the history of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project also underlines some of the ways that borders do matter in en­vironmental history.

The extent to which Canadians embraced the all-Canadian concept was repeatedly substantiated by the available means of gauging public opinion as well as by every available report, memorandum, poll, and diplomatic dispatch produced by the Canadian and American governments. The economic, trade, and national security benefits that would accrue to Canada from a solely Canadian St. Lawrence enterprise can partially account for its popular embrace. But these benefits were not the main reason; in fact, many suspected that the advantages might be even greater if the seaway was undertaken in con­junction with the United States. Underlying the drive for the all-Canadian seaway was instead a blend of Canadian nationalism shaped by the early Cold War context, informed by the historic role and conceptions of the St. Lawrence River, contoured by the cultural interplay of technology and nature, and infused by ambivalent ideas about Canada’s relationship with the United States. Although the drive for an all-Canadian seaway was in many ways a product of events that had transpired since the 1930s (the Depression, Second World War, and start of the Cold War), it also joined various strands of Canadian nationalism that stretched far back into the history of the country. The Laurentian thesis in particular sus­tained the conception of the St. Lawrence River as a fundamental and defining aspect of Canadian history and identity and, in turn, infused the notion of an all-Canadian seaway with the same nationalist importance and symbolism. As an American Department of State official recorded in the early 1950s, “Canada’s decision to build the St. Lawrence Seaway as an all-Canadian project has seized the imagination of Canadians. It is a symbol of their new-found strength.”4 When added to the post-1945 context and mood – economic and technological ability, national self-assurance, and a growing resistance to perceived American domination – Canadian nationalists could not help but be captured by the notion of their country’s own waterway.

As a transportation megaproject, the all-Canadian seaway offered a nation-building parallel to the transcontinental railways, promoting Canadian identity, national unity, progress, and prosperity while linking the country in an east-west orientation, in contrast to the north-south pull of the United States. The sense of identity with, and ownership of, the St. Lawrence led nationalists concerned about Canada’s subservient role as a raw material exporter to the United States to fear American en­croachment on the river. Conversely, the seaway represented Canada’s ability to independently exploit, use, and control its natural resources via technological progress. Put a different way, Canada, which had been shaped – and in many ways constrained – by its environment, could now thrive because of it.


From the footnotes:

– Donald F. Davis charts the history of metropolitanism and identifies five variants, of which Donald Creighton represents the “entrepreneurial” approach. See Donald F. Davis, “The ‘Metropolitan Thesis’ and the Writing of Canadian Urban History,” Urban History Review 14, 2 (October 1985): 95-114. W.H. New also analyzes the links in Canadian writing between identity and landscape in Land Sliding, and took up these themes concerning the St. Lawrence, and Laurentian thesis, in more detail in “The Great River Theory: Reading MacLennan and Mulgan.” W.H. New, “The Great River Theory: Reading MacLennan and Mulgan,” in Essays on Canadian Writing 56 (Fall 1995): 162-82; W.H. New, Land Sliding: Imagining Space, Presence, and Power in Canadian Writing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

– Carl Berger provides an excellent historiograph­ical examination of the works of Innis and Creighton, and also notes that Scottish geog­rapher Marion Newbigin’s stress on the St. Lawrence predated and influenced both of them, and suggests that Innis’s concern with the centrality of the St. Lawrence to Canada’s historical development may have stemmed from contemporary debates about creating the deep waterway. George Brown’s doctoral dissertation also adumbrated some of the Laurentian themes. Historian Donald Wright is working on a biography of Creighton that promises to examine the evolution of the ideas that led to Creighton’s conception of the St. Lawrence. See Carl Berger, The Writing of Canadian History: Aspects of English-Canadian Historical Writing since 1900. 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), 22-23; 91-93; 213-23; George Brown, “The St. Lawrence as a Factor in International Trade and Politics, 1783-1854” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1924); Marion Newbigin, Canada, the Great River, the Lands and the Men (Toronto: Harcourt, Brace, 1926); Harold A. Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1956).

– Janice Cavell, “The Second Frontier: The North in English-Canadian Historical Writing,” Canadian Historical Review 83, 3 (September 2002): 4. A.B. McKillop also affirms the dominance of the Laurentian thesis in “Historiography in English,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (Historica Foundation),

-A well-attended roundtable at a recent Canadian Historical Association annual meeting organized by the author suggests there is a hunger for a re-engagement with these metatheor­ies: “A Roundtable on the Macro-theories of Canadian History (staples, metropolitan-hinterland, Laurentian theses)” (participants: Doug Owram, Shirley Tillotson, Christopher Dummit, Sean Kheraj, Daniel Macfarlane), annual conference of the Canadian Historical Association, Waterloo, Ontario, May 28, 2012.


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