The Sunday Magazine

What Canada's last energy transition can teach us about the next one

Posted: July 26, 2019

University of Toronto professor Ruth Sandwell spoke to The Sunday Edition about why Canadians were so slow to adopt new forms of energy in the 20th century — and what their experiences might tell us about the next energy transition. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

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In the last major energy revolution - when people switched from burning wood to relying on fossil fuels and hydroelectricity - Canada lagged behind the rest of the world. University of Toronto history professor Ruth Sandwell talks to guest host Kevin Sylvester about why people were so reluctant to make the switch, and what we can learn from that history as we prepare for the transition to a greener economy.  23:50

The last major energy transition — when Canadians switched from using fuel sources like wood to relying on fossil fuels and hydroelectricity — transformed the country. 

It drove economic growth, reshaped cities and altered the rhythms of daily life. It also had devastating consequences for the environment.

But although that transition created modern life as we know it, historian Ruth Sandwell says Canada lagged behind other industrialized countries in making the switch. In fact, many Canadians were suspicious of new energy sources and wanted to stick with what they knew.


They already had ways of doing a lot of the things that electricity allowed you to do. - Ruth Sandwell

"Britain was relying mainly on coal for its energy by about 1800 … whereas in Canada, even on the brink of World War Two, Canadians were still getting more of their energy from wood than from oil. We were about a century later than Britain, and about 50 years later than the United States," she told The Sunday Edition's guest host Kevin Sylvester. 

Sandwell teaches a course on the social history of energy in everyday life at the University of Toronto. She is the editor of Powering Up Canada: The History of Power, Fuel, and Energy from 1600, and the author of the forthcoming book Heat, Light and Work in the Canadian Home: A Social History of Energy, 1850-1950.

She's fascinated by why Canadians were so slow to adopt new forms of energy — and what studying how individual households responded to the last energy transition might tell us about the next one. 

Expensive, unfamiliar, unreliable and inconvenient

Sandwell interviewed people who grew up in rural Canada in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, many of whom remembered getting electricity as something "modern and convenient and helpful," she said. 

"But when I went back and looked at the statistics about who did not accept electricity, and especially when I went to the complaints files ... then I began to get some real insight about the slow uptake."

Many people complained about the high cost of electricity. Others didn't want to give up what they were used to.


"They already had ways of doing a lot of the things that electricity allowed you to do," she said. 

"People had a hand egg beater. They didn't need to get an electric beater, and they were suspicious about these new appliances. And frankly, the new appliances just like the early electrical systems, did not work very well."

The Manitoba Power Commission's Cook by Wire float as it appeared in a parade in Carman on May 24, 1926. The electric stove on the float was the only one available for sale in the town. (Manitoba Hydro)

A massive public education campaign

To win over reluctant Canadians, electrical companies, public agencies, and appliance manufacturers banded together and launched a huge public education campaign.

"If you were an Ontario Hydro or Manitoba Hydro customer, with every bill you'd get a little flyer about how you can use more electricity. Local radio stations in Toronto, every day, had a little two-minute segment with an electrical company, saying to people, 'Here's how you could improve your life through electricity,'" said Sandwell. 

Companies like Eaton's hired women to hold cooking demonstrations that showed off modern appliances. In the 1910s and 20s, Ontario Hydro employees toured around the province with "Beck's Circus." "It was a huge wagon that had every electrical appliance that you could think of. They just went around to every community in Ontario and had a little demonstration," she said.

In the 1910s and 20s, Ontario Hydro employees toured around the province with "Beck's Circus," a huge wagon demonstrating how electrical appliances worked. (Ruth Sandwell, reproduction of the Canada Science and Technology Museum)

The transition to hydroelectricity and fossil fuels was also intertwined with social changes. Many of the public education campaigns were specifically targeted at women, and some early feminist groups encouraged women to switch to electricity because new appliances would liberate them from domestic drudgery. 


But Sandwell said electricity and modernity weren't always an easy sell. 

"It really took two full generations of this constant barrage of advertising and edutainment to get women to change what they did in the home," she said. 

The next energy transition 

Today, some commonly-expressed concerns about green alternatives echo the concerns of the past. Customers worry about cost and convenience, or they prefer to stick with gas cars they know than try electric vehicles they're not familiar with.

But Sandwell said the next energy transition may need to be driven by different forces and motivations. 

"One of the conclusions of the economic historians is [that] people only made the switch when it was cheaper and more convenient to make that switch. We're looking at an energy transition coming up that may not be either cheaper or more convenient," said Sandwell. 


"For me, it's one of the big question marks. How are we going to encourage people to make a transition on totally different principles than the way that the changes were made before?"

However, she said that people's decisions are influenced by the society around them, even if they have individual concerns about cost or convenience. 

"If everybody is cutting down on their electricity and getting rid of their cars, then that is going to be a factor. But the biggest factor is if, as a society, we have some systemic support for those changes. Ontario had one of the highest rates of rural electrification in the country, because the government paid for it and the people owned it," she said. 

"One of the lessons from the past is that we are together in a society. We make decisions together."

Most people made the switch in the last energy transition because it was cheaper and more convenient. But historian Ruth Sandwell says the next energy transition may need to be driven by different forces and motivations. (Matt Young/Associated Press)

'The first and the last age of abundant energy'

Sandwell believes it's important for historians to be involved in the discussion about energy transitions — in part, because they can offer examples from the past of less energy-intensive ways of doing things. 

"What's great about Canada's energy history is that … there are people still alive who can who can tell you about what it's like to heat a house with wood," she said. 


"Historians also have a really nice sense of the larger social factors that you need to consider when making decisions that are going to influence everybody."

Although people listening to radio broadcasts about the wonders of electricity in the 1940s might have believed they were entering an era of progress and growth that would last forever, Sandwell said our current energy age may eventually be a blip on the historical record. 

"The 20th century is going to be known as the first and the last age of abundant energy," she said. 

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.