Quebec Studies

Power and the Peribonka, a Prehistory: 1900-1930s

Quebec Studies (2004), 38, (1), 87–103.


87 Power and the Peribonka, a Prehistory: 1900-1930s David Massell University of Vermont Of three expansive man-made lakes that regulate the flow of Quebec's great Saguenay River for the purposes of power generation and industrial manufacture, only one has drawn the attention of scholars. Lac St-Jean was fashioned by American business interests during the 1920s, in farm country, in order to augment the Saguenay's generating capacity at power plants downstream. The story of this reservoir's concession by the provincial government, its creation by private industry, as well as the resulting controversy among regional farmers, has been well documented by researchers.1 The stories of the remaining two storage reservoirs, however, have not yet been reconstructed. These are lakes Manouane and Passe Dangereuse, located in the upper reaches of the Saguenay's principal tributary, the Peribonka River (Fig. I). 2 The Peribonka River rises on the granite and muskeg of the Canadian Shield some 300 sinuous miles north of Lac St-Jean, and eventually spills its waters into the lake itself. Comprising about one-third of the drainage area of the Saguenay basin as a whole (the entire basin is roughly the size and shape of the state of Maine and the Peribonka drains 12,000 of its some 30,000 square miles), its regulation is clearly an important factor in the control of the watershed. Readers may be familiar with the name "Peribonka" (an Algonquin/Montagnais appellation meaning "river flowing through sand"), as the lower valley that was the setting for French author Louis Hémon's celebrated 1914 novel, Maria Chapdaleine. Our concern in this article is with the Peribonka's vast boreal uplands, rather than its short band of arable land adjacent to Lac St-Jean (about twenty miles of the 300); and our focus is not on agricultural colonization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as was Hémon's, but on the preparatory stages of the process that was fast supplanting it in Québec, i.e. industrialization. Why chronicle the industrial prehistory of a remote Québec river? To begin with, flooding large tracts of the northern forest, as well as altering the natural flow of the river, held human-environmental consequences, touching the lives of local Montagnais trappers, 3 as well as the interests of forestry, fisheries and tourism. Further downstream, the Peribonka's damming and regulation boosted the power capacities of the Saguenay's generating plants, greatly enlarging not only the Aluminum Company of Canada, Limited's (Alcan's) production of ingot for a continental arsenal in aluminum during World War II, 4 but also the company's assets and territorial domain. With the Peribonka reservoirs secured in leases from the Québec government in the early 1940s, Alcan consolidated its control over the hydraulic resources of the large part of the Saguenay watershed, assuring the company a regional monopoly over the basin's hydraulic resources and a source of cheap, renewable energy which helped to make Québec Studies, Volume 38, Fall 2004/Winter 2005

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Author details

Massell, David