The Politics of Power: Ontario Hydro and Its Government, 1906-1995


252 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-0798-8
DDC 333.79'32'060713




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.


Students of Ontario’s political history may in future remark that the
20th century has bookended the province with two seismic shifts in
public ideology.

The century began with agitation, fanned by small-town entrepreneurs,
for “people’s power”—accessible, low-cost electricity purveyed
by the state, not private capitalists—as the fuel of provincial
growth. In 1906, the Hydro Electric Power Commission of Ontario
(today’s Ontario Hydro) was created. As the century fades, the Harris
government’s “common sense revolution” seems to be responding to a
neoconservative mood favoring privatization and market-driven
competition in the provincial energy sector.

Between these two poles, Ontario Hydro has served as the province’s
energy workhorse. Political scientist Neil Freeman’s The Politics of
Power provides a methodical dissection of its history. Freeman argues
that Ontario Hydro’s crucial relationship with the provincial
government has always been “shrouded in ambiguity”; it has always
been “a hybrid of a government department, crown corporation, and
municipal cooperative.” At times it has asserted its autonomy as a
municipally sponsored power producer, most notably under its founding
(1906–25) chairman, the autocratic Sir Adam Beck. Such autonomy,
Freeman argues, was generally “mythic,” and the Commission was more
often than not an instrument of provincial “nation-building.”
Freeman usefully fits Ontario Hydro into a schema of Crown corporations
that over time can serve “facilitative, redistributive, and
nationalistic objectives.” Until the 1960s, for instance, the
Commission’s chairman was drawn from the provincial cabinet, thereby
allowing Queen’s Park the ability to direct Hydro’s policies.

Freeman’s tale of the “institutional ambivalence” of public
ownership in Ontario Hydro concludes by arguing that the combined
pressures of energy conservation and economic recession in the last
decade have exposed Hydro’s over-capacity and have left it vulnerable
to critics who champion competition and strict business principles of
operation. The days of Hydro pursuing a “social purpose,” Freeman
concludes, are over.

The Politics of Power tells its story authoritatively, drawing on rich
archives and on broad-ranging interviews. It is not, however, easy
reading. The prose is dense and often overly detailed, seldom admitting
the historical provocativeness of H.V. Nelles’s pioneering work on the
place of natural resources in provincial development in his 1973 The
Politics of Development.


Freeman, Neil B., “The Politics of Power: Ontario Hydro and Its Government, 1906-1995,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 25, 2024,