Academic journal article Urban History Review

Lights Out: Conserving Electricity for War in the Canadian City, 1939-1945

Academic journal article Urban History Review

Lights Out: Conserving Electricity for War in the Canadian City, 1939-1945

Article excerpt


Economic mobilization in Canada during the Second World War drove a major expansion in power demand in cities of the industrial heartland. To meet the needs of wartime industry, the federal government imposed power conservation measures, and utilities sought to inspire voluntary conservation among urban and primarily female consumers. These measures produced conflicts over their proper application and broader meanings. Conservation came to be understood not as an environmental measure, but as a planning policy to restrict uses in some sectors of society to allow for unfettered use in others. Wartime conservation did not ultimately reduce power demand in Canada, but it did lay down conditions that would support massive postwar growth.


La mobilisation economique au Canada pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale a fait croitre de facon importante la demande en electricite du secteur industriel. Afin de suffire aux besoins de l'industrie en temps de guerre, le gouvernement federal a impose des mesures de conservation de l'electricite. De plus, on cherchait a inspirer, par la conception des appareils electriques, une attitude de conservation volontaire parmi les consommateurs urbains, en particulier parmi les consommatrices. Ces mesures ont entraine des conflits a propos de leur application adequate et de leur signification etendue. On en est venu a comprendre la conservation non pas comme une mesure environnementale, mais comme une politique de planification visant a reduire l'utilisation dans certains secteurs de la societe et, en contrepartie, a permettre une utilisation sans entraves dans d'autres. La conservation en temps de guerre n'a finalement pas reduit la demande d'electricite au Canada, mais a mis en place les conditions favorables a la croissance massive d'apres-guerre.


Visiting Winnipeg in 1943, Globe and Mail reporter Ken Ford described the city as a magical bright spot in an otherwise dark Canadian urban landscape. Unlike cities in Ontario and Quebec that observed dim-out restrictions due to wartime power shortages, and unlike cities on the east and west coasts that maintained blackout restrictions because of the danger of enemy bombing, Winnipeg lights blazed late into the night. Street lights were numerous; gaudy signs hung along major thoroughfares; neon signs adorned taxi stands, lunch counters, and seemingly every small shop in the downtown. On Saturday nights or on special occasions, gala lights along Portage and Main lit up the city centre. Looking west by night, Ford wrote that he had "the impression of a vast tunnel or canopy of light as far as the eye can see." Winnipeg, for Ford, was Canada's Great White Way. (1)

Winnipeg impressed Ford because of its brilliant difference, its profligate illumination despite the war. Light became a metaphor for hope and a return to more peaceful and prosperous times. Although the city laboured under more restrictions than Ford knew, it did provide a point of contrast to the more familiar street scenes of Toronto, where householders reduced light use, storefronts went dark after five, and large businesses paraded their patriotism by turning off the lights. In Toronto, as in other cities and centres in Canada's industrial heartland, strict power restrictions had been imposed to conserve electricity use in domestic, commercial, and manufacturing sectors. Across Canada, increased power use in wartime industry placed burdens on urban utilities and forced discussions of conservation measures. What sacrifices would have to be made, where, and by whom?

This paper considers the effects of wartime power conservation on Canada's urban centres, with a particular focus on policies executed in Ontario. First, it identifies the Canadian regions that experienced the sharpest increases in electricity demand with the outbreak of war and assesses the steps taken by the federal government to respond to those new needs by prioritizing some uses and cities over others. …

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