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Book review: Remembering the project that almost turned three northern rivers into a major shipping canal

Historian Dieter Buse reviews author Ray Love’s ‘The Georgian Bay Ship Canal: Canada’s Abandoned National Dream,’ which details the plan that almost birthed a canal using the Ottawa, Mattawa and French rivers

Two aspects of this book overlap with my own experiences: I have canoed the French River from Lake Nipissing to Highway 69, as well as directed the building of an historical hiking trail from Eighteen Mile Island to some kilometres along the shoreline west of Highway 69. 

Hence, I have personal and historical knowledge of one of Canada’s most beautiful and significant rivers, namely the route of the voyageurs, explorers, traders and military expeditions. Second, when reading and transcribing the minutes of the Sudbury Board of Trade (predecessor of the Chamber of Commerce) from the beginning of the 20th century, I encountered the local debates as to whether Sudbury should support that river being made into part of a larger canal system running from Montreal to Georgian Bay. 

Sudbury business leaders reluctantly agreed to support those lobbying for the canal system even though many feared it would help the rival city of North Bay.

The canal, using the Ottawa, Mattawa and French rivers, was never built, though it had the potential to be an all-Canadian transport route, shorter than the Welland-St. Lawrence route that eventually won state support. 

In this well-illustrated book, “The Georgian Bay Ship Canal: Canada’s Abandoned National Dream,” Ray Love tells the story of why the plans did not materialize, despite repeated surveys, chartering of companies and some political support. 

He presents in detail the work of the canal advocates from the 1850s to the 1930s. They argued that Canada could capture the western grain and eastern product movement from the Americans with their longer, southern route. He also shows the competition, especially for government funds, from other canal proposals, from railway projects and from successful hydro dam companies.

Though I will leave aside the political intrigues that determined the outcome and that Love describes in depth, in the book the author offers much more than the facts of why a potential economic development did not materialize. 

He sets out the geology of the terrain supplemented by informative photos. He outlines the long history of use of the route by Indigenous people, including their canoes and trade systems. He presents diagrams and maps of the possible route and the necessary terrain changes, especially overcoming rapids, which needed to be taken into account. He cites at length from the various surveys and thereby shows the potential of the French River/Mattawa River/Ottawa River route.

In the end, he poses important questions for us all. What might have happened if this transport system, and its transformation of the landscape, had been built? Would invasive species such as lampreys and snails have ended up in Georgian Bay, and would the fishing and pristine landscape have been ruined? Hence, his book is not only a story of what might have been and was readily possible in an era of huge and expensive public works that helped bind a country, but also one of what is: leaving birds, animals and especially beautiful landscape and waterways in their nearly natural state. 

He illustrates that situation with many appropriate photos, some taken by my neighbour (who operates Jess McShane Photos and gifted me a copy of the book). 

So, a beautiful landscape remains, hardly impacted, except for small hydro dams. Canoeing the river, one can still pretend to be a voyageur exploring a hinterland, fishing for supper and swimming without pollution. The story told here makes explicit that the price usually paid for so-called progress is mostly degradation of nature.

The book was published by Friesen Press in 2021.

Dr. Dieter K. Buse, Emeritus, Professor of History, Laurentian University; co-author of Untold: Northeastern Ontario’s Military Past, 2 vols (Latitude 46; 2018, 2019) which won the Ontario Historical Society prize for best regional study published in the last three years, and of Come on Over: Northeastern Ontario which won the prize for best non-fiction book on Northern Ontario (2011).