Western Canadian Studies

Dale Barbour

My research project is an environmental, social, and cultural history project entitled Muddied Waters: The Social and Environmental Transformation of Winnipeg’s Red and Assiniboine Rivers, 1900-1972. Winnipeg’s rivers are central to western Canadian history and historiography and yet in the early twentieth century they disappear behind a declensionist arc. Urban sewage and pollution are blamed for driving people out of the rivers. Winnipeg would only begin to publicly embrace its rivers again in the 1970s.

I will consider how a polluted environment is multi-layered and contested. Working-class and middle-class people used the rivers as a courtship space in the early twentieth century and metaphorically cleansed the water with their presence. However, the departure of sanctioned users and environmental decline worked in tandem with the use of the river by marginalized groups—bathers, homeless people seeking shelter, Indigenous people, and gay and heterosexual people seeking sexual encounters—to contribute to the portrayal of Winnipeg’s rivers as places of social pollution. Winnipeg’s relationship with its rivers wasn’t simply one of decline but rather social transformation.