UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Infrastructures of vulnerability, or, how the Fraser Valley flooded twice Gandolfo-Lucia, Nick


In November and December of 2021, major floods occurred in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia due to exceptional rainfall from an atmospheric river. As Justin Trudeau stoically informed the House of Commons, the unusual weather pattern that precipitated this event was likely an effect of anthropogenic climate change. However, the flooding of the Fraser Valley was not only due to new, more extreme weather patterns: for the last 150 years, flooding has been a persistent danger in this area. Drawing on a range of archival sources, I argue that the expansion and movement of the Fraser River was transformed into a hazard through the processes of colonial and capitalist development in the valley that followed the goldrush of 1858. These processes differentially rendered the inhabitants of the valley vulnerable to flooding. The introduction outlines this argument in the context of the floods of 2021. In Chapter 1, I provide a sympathetic critique of prevailing conceptions of vulnerability in geographic thought, arguing that vulnerability to flood hazards is not an inherent quality of individuals. Rather, individuals are produced as vulnerable through the socioecological relations in which they exist. Chapter 2 returns to the Fraser Valley. I show how the seasonal rhythms of the river, which had long been used by First Peoples for subsistence and cultural purposes, were rendered disastrous through the colonization of the valley and the imposition of European-style agriculture in the late 19th century. The vulnerability of settler-farmers to flooding led to the provincial state taking over the task of diking the valley in 1898. Significantly, however, the construction of this intervention introduced new vulnerabilities: the need to fund and maintain the dikes, dams, floodgates, and pumps on which agriculture in the valley depends. In Chapter 3, I show how these vulnerabilities were dramatically realized in the flood of 1948. After the flood, dikes and other infrastructures were rebuilt, ensuring that this vulnerability endured. Lastly, in the conclusion, I briefly highlight recent proposals from community groups around the Fraser Valley, particularly First Nations, to find alternative ways of managing flooding that do not rely on traditional dikes.

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