The Niagara River is a 58 kilometre fresh water channel which acts as a natural outlet carrying water from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario towards the world famous Niagara Falls. The Niagara River does not possess typical characteristics shared by many river systems in Ontario. It doesn’t start small, have tributaries and end big nor does it have a typical V-shaped valley but rather a post-glacial incised valley; this has to do with its Ice Age history. The Niagara River and the entire Great Lakes Basin of which it is a part, is a legacy of the last Ice Age. 18,000 years ago, Southern Ontario was covered by large ice sheets which were two to three kilometers thick. As the ice sheets advanced southward, they gouged out the basin of the Great Lakes. Then as they melted northward for the last time, they released vast quantities of meltwater into these basins. Therefore, the water contained in the Great Lakes is called “fossil water” which means that less than one percent of it is renewable on an annual basis, the rest is leftover from the ancient ice sheets.
The Niagara Peninsula became free of the ice about 12,500 years ago. As the ice retreated northward, its melt waters began to flow down through what became Lake Erie, the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, down to the St. Lawrence River and onto the Atlantic Ocean. There were originally five spillways from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Eventually, these were reduced to one, the original Niagara Falls, at the escarpment at Queenston-Lewiston. From here, the falls began its steady erosion through the bedrock. Although the history of the formation of the river is interesting, its role in the establishment of a Canadian identity is what makes it something to appreciate during our 150th celebration as a nation.
“After the American Revolution [the Niagara River] marked the boundary between the US and British North America,” said Carmela Patria, a professor of history at Brock University who specializes in Canadian immigration, labour and women’s history. At this time (1783) the Niagara peninsula was largely an agricultural centre producing mainly fruits like grapes, peaches and apples. The river was a perfect physical boundary which effectively divided New York State and the newly formed United States from the British colony. However, as the States continued to amass more land through their policy of aggressive expansionism, fears of manifest destiny and an American push northwards began to be felt by the British colonists in the Niagara Region. This ultimately erupted into open war at the battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812 effectively beginning the War of 1812. Despite their numerical advantage and the wide dispersal of British forces defending against their invasion attempt, the Americans, who were stationed in Lewiston, New York, were unable to get the bulk of their invasion force across the Niagara River due to the work of British artillery and reluctance on the part of the undertrained and inexperienced American militia. As a result, British reinforcements arrived and defeated the unsupported American forces, forcing them to surrender. Ultimately, this British victory galvanized the peoples in this region of Upper Canada and we can see the socio-historical significance of this event by looking at the Isaac Brock monument at Queenston Heights as well as Brock University itself. The Niagara River’s position would remain the defining border between the America and Upper Canada shaping the country that would come to be on July 1, 1867.
Therefore, the Niagara River served to empower the people in the Niagara region politically. If we look a bit later on in history we can also see how the river served to empower these same people economically.
“Karen Dubinsky wrote a very interesting study of Niagara Falls as the honeymoon capital of North America. Until the 1960s or even the 1970s, manufacturers and workers believed that Niagara’s power and the industries it helped to create, along with the St Lawrence Seaway, offered the Niagara region great economic prospects,” said Patrias. “Capital flight and the region’s deindustrialization shattered such hopes. I wonder how many younger people (born since about 1990) are aware of the region’s economic promise and prosperity, its strong labour traditions and its great cultural diversity.”
The development of hydroelectric power, with generating stations and transmission lines began in the late 19th century, on both sides of the border to exploit the power of the Falls.
“The commercial development of hydroelectricity coincided with mass migration to Canada from Britain and from eastern and southern Europe. English Canadians and British immigrants filled most of the skilled jobs generated by the power companies, eastern and southern Europeans performed the unskilled work. They were the “muckers” who dug hydro-canals for example. The Niagara region became one of the most ethnically diverse areas in Ontario. At times the arrival of immigrant workers created tension, especially since employers imported “foreigners from the US and from Toronto as replacement workers during strikes. At other times, however, such as the final year of World War I and 1919, which witnessed radical protests, workers collaborated across ethnic lines. By the 1950s a large proportion of Niagara’s workers were unionized and they had obtained some of the highest wages in Ontario,” said Patrias.
Asked what significant changes occurred after the completion of the hydroelectric plant Patrias responded, “Cheap electric power combined with proximity to the American border and excellent transportation routes via the Welland Canal and railroads to make the Niagara Peninsula an important centre of manufacturing. St. Catharines became a centre of automobile parts manufacturing, Niagara Falls of chemical and allied industries, Welland of metal and metal fabricating industries, Thorold and Merriton of paper, and Port Colborne of flour milling and metal smelting. Small service centres developed into towns and cities.”
If this article sounds like a proliferation of a “singular story” which reinforces and glorifies colonialism at the expense of Aboriginal perspectives that is because that is a significant aspect of Canada’s story as a nation. Retelling these stories and celebrating Canada as a country is fine and there’s nothing inherently wrong about it but when we do this without recognizing the ramifications of colonialism, we normalize the unfair treatment of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. It’s very important that we as Canadians finally see our country not with two founding nations but three.
A story about the Niagara River would be incomplete without the recognition of the Aboriginal peoples who inhabited the area for thousands of years before the first British and French colonizers appeared. The Native Americans have been recorded as one of the earliest native tribes residing in the Niagara region. It is estimated that in the early 1600s there were approximately 12,000 Neutrals living in the area, which made them the largest Native group in the Northeast in the 17th century. Their territory was situated around the western end of Lake Ontario and to the north of Lake Erie, and they claimed the land on both sides of the Niagara River. This entire district was called Onguiaahra, which means, “the strait” or “thundering water”. The name Niagara was derived from this Native word, and was also used to name the thundering waters.