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Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba History: Site Review: A Review of ‘Northern Transitions’ Engineering and the Development of Northern Manitoba

by David Neufeld
Canadian Parks Service

Manitoba History, Number 15, Spring 1988

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Mini-diorama prepared by Museum artist Betsy Thorsteinson. Diorama depicts camp life and activities of one of the Hudson Bay Railway survey parties during the winter 1908-09.
Source: Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature

Much of our national identity relies upon the skill and learning of the engineering profession. For example, Canada’s “national dream” was a railway, the economy of the country depends upon mega-projects to develop our natural resources and the best known Canadian product, after Wayne Gretzky, is the CANADARM of the space shuttle. While a Canadian engineering heritage stretches back to the military engineers of New France, it was only in 1887 that the first professional organization of engineers in Canada was formed.

In 1987 a number of special events and publications were prepared to commemorate the centennial of professional engineering in Canada. In Manitoba the provincial community of professional engineers and the Museum of Man and Nature cooperated to produce a new permanent exhibit, “Northern Transitions — Engineering and the Development of Northern Manitoba’; as part of the national celebrations.

Located in the Arctic-Subarctic gallery, the display offers a thoughtful connection between the museum’s northern gallery and the boreal forest dioramas. The central feature of the display is the story of the Hudson Bay Railway. The exhibit also explores the grain marketing, mining and hydroelectric developments that followed in the wake of the railway and the social, economic and environmental implications of northern development. The sequence of well-illustrated display panels, each mathematically subdivided into visibly balanced components, leads the visitor through the engineering and construction stages of the railway. An interesting selection of artifacts supplements the images and text, highlighting specific aspects of the work. The selection of tins, bottles and a lamp found at the site of one of the construction camps displayed in conjunction with photos and contemporary newspaper accounts is particularly effective in describing the crabbed and brutal life of the construction workers. The models, showing a survey camp, the construction of the Kettle Rapids Bridge and a High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) Transmission Tower, integrate many of the images and artifacts into appreciably larger entities. The juxtaposition of a small component of the full-size HVDC Tower with the model allows visitors to appreciate the huge scale of twentieth century engineering works.

While the professional work of the Museum and enthusiastic interest of the Association of Professional Engineers of the Province of Manitoba are visible throughout the display, a number of minor problems are evident. An annoying typographical error has the Churchill grain elevator completed before the First World War; the ‘heroic’ decision of J. L. Charles to build across muskeg in the face of other professional opinion is mentioned at least twice; and the text for the colourful model of the winter survey camp is almost unreadable under the plexiglass cover. Despite these trifles the exhibit is informative and presents a clear image of the order and organization that engineering brought to the north.

The main theme of the display is the chain reaction of development in the north. It is the entry of the railroad that offers the opportunity to consider the economic exploitation of mineral resources. The resulting demand for hydroelectric power highlights another new resource to be tapped. In the exhibit the engineer is portrayed as the vanguard of the capitalist market economy, a continuing role the provincial association asserts in its centennial motto “100 Years of Service providing jobs and prosperity to Manitobans.”

The “Northern Transitions” exhibit is not simply chronological. The integrated development network extends beyond the region, tying northern Manitoba into a world economic system. The nature of the relations between the prairies, the Canadian north and the world are clearly spelled out. In human terms, the aboriginal population is marginalized. The paucity of Indian and Métis coverage in the exhibit reflects this consequence of underdevelopment. Economically, the region is utilized like colonial peripheries everywhere. The region’s economy is utterly dependent upon the export of its raw materials, the price of which is determined outside, while it requires the importation of finished goods, the cost of which is determined at the source. This latter point is neatly illustrated in the symbolic two pound sacks of prairie grain exchanged for commemorative china plates from Britain. Finally, the exhibit reminds us of the environmental consequences of development. Acid rain from the mine smelters and massive changes made in the northern drainage basin to support hydro development have serious long-term complications that we must deal with. The exhibit offers a balanced approach to the difficult issue of frontier resource development.

An interesting transition in the presentation of human material takes place through the exhibit. From the study of individuals the displays gradually widen their focus to encompass very broad views of man. One of the first displays, illustrated with a folksy photo of J. L. Charles, the railway’s survey engineer, includes his instruments and field books as well as the deerskin jacket made for him by a local Métis. The material on the workers preparing the grade presents an amorphous group struggling to make a living against both natural and man-made barriers. With improved technology modern mine work had less need of the highly skilled miner and the mine labour force underwent significant change. The exhibit, apparently influenced by Wallace Clement’s Hard rock Mining: Industrial Relations and Technological Changes at INCO, subsumes individuals still further into a faceless labouring class. The artifacts shown are work equipment. No lunch bucket or worn gloves sully the functionalism of the modern miner’s image. Finally, with the chronology coming full circle and anonymity reaching its climax, the complete human pre-history of the northern region is compressed into a small panel of arrowheads and pottery shards superimposed upon a nearly incomprehensible graph showing the rise and fall of whole aboriginal civilizations.

The display encourages the viewer to question the scientific, technical, and academic communities that our culture holds in such high esteem. Certainly their achievements have made our life easier, but at what cost? Is there a message that our culture has gone too far in the attempt to systematize and organize the universe into an understandable and controllable form? Like the drawings of Escher, the display presents undeniable achievements, yet something is not quite right. “Northern Transitions” pokes at some of our fundamental beliefs and challenges the viewer to really think about some of the central issues of northern development facing Canadians today.

Page revised: 4 November 2012

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