A Proposal for the Thousand Islands

Broder Island, a small, inconspicuous site in the St Lawrence River, perhaps more than any other island in the region, testifies to how transnational economic partnerships in the postwar era have radically reshaped local topographies. Originally part of the islands that compose the Thousand Islands National Park, Broder Island has become excluded from it, largely because of how radically it was reshaped to make way for the increase in commercial traffic along the St Lawrence River. When the nearby town of Morrisburg, ON was flooded in 1959, in preparation for the St Lawrence Seaway, Broder was cut through by a new shipping channel. Following the island’s removal from the park system, it was cleared of most natural vegetation. After some landscaping and landfilling, the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario proposed to return what was left of Broder to Canada’s park services, who were once again considering including it in the Thousand Islands National Park. Broder had changed so radically, however, that Parks Canada refused. Before the controlled floods of the Seaway, Morrisburg was only one of many villages in the region evacuated by government order. These became known as the “Lost Villages” along the St Lawrence River, which have been widely represented through photo documentation. In a kind of spectral reappearance, after half a decade hidden under dark waters, fragments of these villages have recently reemerged, becoming visible enough to be photographed from the air.

Part of a group of islands that snakes along the St Lawrence River and the international Canada-US border, the Thousand Island National Park thereby fits clearly into the path of the transnational commercial flows defined by the St Lawrence Seaway. Inaugurated in 1959, this colossal infrastructure project relied on the partnership of both US and Canadian federal governments, and connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes through a network of locks and dams along the river. Despite massive opposition at municipal and provincial levels of government, protracted negotiations that included five decades of proposals, drafting and redrafting, the Canadian federal government, and later the US government (under Louis St Laurent and Dwight D. Eisenhower respectively) finally pushed through the Seaway, with ground-breaking ceremonies held in Massena, NY in 1954. Designed for the creation of dams and power stations, and to transport goods across continents through ocean-going vessels, the Seaway is still in operation today for large vessels and cargo ships. The US-Canada partnership notably also presaged the loosening of the North American borders for economic infrastructure projects, notably through US-led deregulation from the 1970s.

The Seaway has also tread on the path of colonial uses of the St Lawrence, notably turning it into a commercial artery, in ways echoing the early transportation of furs and timber to European markets. It has notably also compounded the effects of settler-colonial dispossession on land along the river, exacerbating tensions between the Canadian government and Mohawk communities, which have been left unresolved for centuries. Audra Simpson, an anthropologist with personal ties to the community of Kahnawà:ke, details such changes in her book Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler Sates. Simpson claims that the St Lawrence Seaway Authority in effect “confiscated Mohawk experience” through a seizure that “created a reservoir of territorial outrage that Kahnawa’kehró:non still draw from today.” Highlighting the Canadian government’s complicity in the community’s loss of access to the river, she describes the Seaway’s impact in these terms:

What happened, then, when the Seaway Authority appropriated the riverfront from Kahnawà:ke? On the level of Kahnawà:ke lived experience, summer swimming spots and boat launchings were lost. New, huge, loud ships passed along the new shoreline of the community. The historic “village” on the riverfront was lost, as well as homes that housed families. More significantly in terms of a nationalist or sovereigntist consciousness, Kahnawa’kehró:non lost all trust or faith in Canada, its judiciary, and the international community

Simpson’s account further echoes the effects that Mohawk scholar Gerald Taiaiake Alfred writes about in Heeding the Voices of our Ancestors:

The most significant of government surrenders of Mohawk land in terms of both the sheer area involved and the long-term destructive impact on the Canada-Kahnawake relationship were the St Lawrence Seaway expropriations. The Seaway project should be viewed in the larger context of Canada’s development of a national transportation infrastructure and within the framework of the Canada-US relationship.

At the same moment, therefore, that the Canadian government gained a new economic presence on the world stage through its economic partnership with the US, it lost the trust of a First Nation community that has seen Canada evolve, and experienced the effects of Canadian settler-colonial dispossession, from their early beginnings.

Searching the Queen’s University Archives for documents relating to the early flooding caused by the Seaway, I was struck in particular by images of the Iroquois lock in Ontario, the closest Seaway lock to Kingston. These photo negatives, all by George Lilley, a journalist who worked in Kingston for the Whig-Standard newspaper, specifically depicted the lock’s physical infrastructure, from the land and the air, following its opening in 1961. In preparation for an artwork to be sited in the Thousand Islands National Park, I reworked and cropped these images into varying degrees of abstraction. Through this process, I’m interested in highlighting how such fragmented representations of transportation infrastructure along the river might play against views of its physical shape, when perceived from the vantage point of federal-government-sanctioned park space. Choosing the grey corrugated metal surface of a dock at Mallorytown Landing as the screen for a video projection, the proposed work aims to trouble depoliticized views of flows along the St Lawrence River. This proposal for a video projection (as illustrated above) thereby addresses relations between the mobility of goods through the St Lawrence River, the power of commercial flows to reshape land, and mobile touristic gazes in park space. This experiment is therefore less an effort to document obscured histories of the region, than an aesthetic attempt to locate and evoke the cultural manifestations of power, and how these structures shape how we navigate through space.

 

This text was prepared in the context of the graduate course CUST892: “Park Life”
Interventions in Public Space, taught by Dylan Robinson, Queen’s University at Kingston.