Delusions of Power: Vanity, Folly, and the Uncertain Future of Canada's Hydro Giants


230 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-55054-589-2
DDC 333.793'2'0971






Reviewed by Duncan McDowall

Duncan McDowall is a professor of history at Carleton University and the
author of Quick to the Frontier: Canada’s Royal Bank.


We used to feel so comfortable about electricity. “Live Better
Electrically,” Ontario Hydro assured us. And so we arranged our
lifestyle around the expectation of plentiful and cheap electric power
and rested in the quiet assurance that the huge state-owned monopolies
that furnished our electrical needs were the embodiment of Canadian
pragmatism and sensibility. The last decade of the century has abruptly
destroyed this complacency. Doubt and change now besiege the Canadian
power industry. Public concern about debt, safety, and environmental
damage have pitted the industry’s credibility. And, as Wayne Skene
reminds us, the loud “prophets of deregulation, privatization and
invisible hands” attack the “last pillars of the traditional
institutional infrastructure” of the Canadian electricity industry.
Once a potent symbol of provincial nationalism, power generation in
Canada has become “utterly unpredictable and disordered.”

Delusions of Power is a timely contribution. Skene provides
chapter-length treatments of Canada’s three big provincial utility
giants: Ontario Hydro, Hydro-Québec, and BC Hydro. While Skene clearly
endorses the idea of publicly controlled natural monopolies, he is at
times scathing in his attack on their past arrogance, profligacy, and
obliviousness to the consequences of their actions on the environment
and Native people. The book packs a lot of information, carefully sifted
from a reading of a library of historical, economic, and political
analysis of Canada’s century-long love affair with the kilowatt. The
narrative is at times rather dense and the tone a bit preachy, but in
the end Skene plumps for a continued public presence in electricity. But
there can be no return to the old monopolistic norms; new-style
regulation and generation must reflect environmental conservation and
smart, renewable generation technologies that will allow an active
“stewardship” of the power industry in the general public interest.
This is the “essential job for governments.” While ardent
privatizers like Ontario premier Mike Harris can justifiably criticize
the provincial utility’s old monopolistic ways, Skene warns them that
privatization would only open the way to “demand-side” management,
denying the public good any leverage on electricity’s powerful
influence in shaping society’s future.


Skene, Wayne., “Delusions of Power: Vanity, Folly, and the Uncertain Future of Canada's Hydro Giants,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 14, 2024,