29 May 2013

A Man, a Plan, a Dam – Labrador!

Fermez la porte, on gèle
René Carrier
Westmount, QC: Desclez, 1981

A snowfall warning was issued for parts of Labrador on Monday. We have only ourselves to blame. Had we paid heed to René Carrier, the good folks of Happy Valley-Goose Bay might right now be downing marguerites and playing beach volleyball.

Appearances to the contrary, this is a Victorian book. Author Carrier may have been born a couple of decades after the old queen died, but he carries the attitude of her time. Fermez la porte, on gèleClose the Door, We're Freezing – concerns the command of nature. This is man as master of his dominion... or a corner of his dominion... or a corner of the Dominion of Canada. It holds the distinction of being the only book-length argument for the damming the Strait of Belle Isle.

Fittingly, M Carrier's idea stretches back to Victoria's reign. He credits Charles Baillargé with first proposing the barrier in 1887, but I've seen earlier. The October 1878 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, puts it that such a scheme would “ameliorate the climate of Canada”. In closing off the strait the cold Arctic current would be “diverted past Newfoundland and directed ocean ward, leaving the portion of the Gulf Stream which finds its way into the St. Lawrence to exert its genial effect unimpaired.” In other words, the Gulf of St Lawrence would become considerably warmer, transforming our smallest province into something resembling a Caribbean island.

Popular Science Monthly, October 1921
It all seems the stuff of a Bruce McCall fantasy, especially when one recognizes that such a structure would have not only have to withstand the force of the current, but the 200,000 tonne icebergs it carries. Never mind, in 1909 a group of British investors known as the Labrador Syndicate began lobbying Newfoundland to build just such a barrier.

Popular Science Monthly, October 1921
The October 1921 issue of Popular Science put it that the proposed structure would forever change the Dominions of Newfoundland and Canada. American journalist Walter Noble Burns, best known as the author of The Saga of Billy the Kid, wrote with seeming authority:
The Strait of Belle Isle, a narrow channel separating Newfoundland from Labrador, is a hole in the wall of the Atlantic seaboard that is mainly responsible for the bleak winter climate in Eastern Canada. Plug up this hole, and Eastern Canada and New England would have a climate as mild and delightful as that of the Carolinas.
This change in temperature would see Montreal become the new New York, while in the Maritime provinces great metropolises would grow. Burns described the proposed causeway as a “solid strip of stone and concrete ten miles in length and fifty feet wide” allowing a railway to run between Quebec City and St. John’s. Newfoundland’s capital would be transformed into a great shipping port. The distance from Liverpool to St. John’s, the reporter noted, was a thousand miles shorter than that between the English city and New York. In the midst of all this enthusiasm, Burns allowed that the diversion of the Arctic stream just might cause England’s climate to resemble that of Labrador.

Oh, well.

Black Tuesday brought an end to the Labrador Syndicate. I don't see that anyone said anything much about damming the strait until M Carrier's book. Neither meteorologist nor climatologist, the author was graduate of Université Laval's school of commerce. A retiree, he had spent much of his working life as an assistant general manager at Vachon Inc in Saint-Marie de Beauce. This connection with Jos. Louis may go some way in explaining the strange conclusion to the book's cover copy:
Le fermeture du détroite de Belle-Isle est d'après lui le seul gâteau de fête digne de la population des cinq provinces canadiennes de l'est.
Fermez la porte, on gèle puts the author's Commerce degree to good use. This is a book written with business in mind. In its 298 pages, M Carrier provides a convincing, remarkably detailed analysis of all aspects of the project.

But don't take my word for it – I have no mind for numbers – look to Roger D’Astous, the architect behind the Château Champlain and Montreal's Olympic Village. So captivated was M D'Astrous that he established la Foundation de la Grand Jetée de Belle-Isle Inc/The Great Bel-Isle [sic] Crossing Foundation Inc. Or how about Pierre Lajoie, president of the Group LMB, who four years after the book's publication presented the Mulroney government with a proposal for a 15-kilometre barrier that was modelled on M Carrier's. Price: $7 billion.

Again, I have no mind for numbers; the one thing I took away from Fermez la porte, on gèle, is this: It can be done. That said, what troubled me was the effect such a change might have on our ecology. M Carrier devotes just 27 pages, less than ten percent of the book, to considérations écologiques, most of which has to do with anticipated benefits to the gulf's herring stocks. But what of the other creatures... creatures like my UK cousins?

A mystery: The Bibliography features Thinkering [sic] the Earth to Make a New Climate by late-19th-century barrier proponent F.S. Hammond. I've not been able to find trace of anything bearing this title (or something similar). Carrier provides no date or publisher information.

Object: A trade-size paperback with cover illustration and design by Gilles Allard.

Fermez la porte on gèle or Fermez la porte, on gèle? M Bederian, my high school French teacher, would have put a big red line through the former. The cover gets it wrong, the spine and cover page get it right.

Access: Look to Library and Archives Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and five of our university libraries (all in Quebec). Other than that of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, you won't find it in a library outside Canada.

There are no copies currently listed for sale online. I found mine three years ago on a chilly March day in a Rivière-du-Loup bookstore – a four-hour drive from Montreal, twenty-one hours from Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

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  1. In the same vein, there was talk of an underground tunnel between Labrador and Newfoundland a decade or so ago. Hasn't gone far. Still hoping for Quebec to exetend the highway along the North Shore to the Newfoundland border.


    1. Anon, you've reminded me that the subsequent government report is available online here. I read it years ago, so remember little other than this: one danger is that the icebergs coming down the strait are so large that they often scrape along the floor. Amazing.

  2. Cartier is a disciple of Lucien Beaugé (1879-1958), a pioneer of french oceanography from the Office scientifiques des pêches maritime. Beaugé was considered as a specialist of the Grand Banks, Groenland and Gulf of St-Lawrence. I work presently on the Beaugé's biography who was at the end of is life a fervent promotor of what he calle "the obturation of Belle Isle strait". I found the manuscript of the never publish book he wrote on this subject.

  3. A wonderful find. There's a short story by Sylva Clapin from about 1911 ("Le Roi de l'or") that mentions the damming of the Belle-Isle strait.

    1. It is an interesting read, reminding me somewhat of Florent Laurin's Erres boréales. Both are fantasies in which grand projects are used to warm the planet to no adverse effects. In retrospect, these same schemes seem suicidal.