Reflections of a Mining Historian

Historic Mining Equipment, New Caledonia. Photo by the author.

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I research mining history — sort of– and environmental history — kind of. In 2017 I became a full member of the graduate faculty in Nipissing University’s Masters in Environmental Studies/Sciences program. I still find these developments somewhat surprising. Let me explain.

For the last decade and a half my research has focused on Canadian mining interests in places like Guinea, Guyana, New Caledonia, Guatemala, and Indonesia. But I started my career as a fairly traditional scholar of Canadian diplomatic history, the study of state-to-state international interactions. Then, one spring, while accompanying my wife on her own research trip in southern France, I spent time in the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence following up on a peripheral story from my doctoral research: Alcan’s desire to mine bauxite in Guinea to feed its aluminum refineries in Arvida, Quebec. What I found was a fascinatingly complex story involving  key 20th century issues, including colonialism and decolonisation (and Canadian responses thereto); different ideas/ideologies of social and economic development in Africa; Cold War competition and alliance systems; relations between the Canadian state and a variety of other international actors; and the role played by the state in the promotion of Canadian corporate interests abroad. I was hooked, especially when I realised that despite the attention that generations of scholars had given to the history of mining and resource development within Canada, few of them had given much consideration to Canadian contributions to resource development elsewhere in the world. And that was before I ever stumbled across a memo written by an INCO executive in early 1968 linking the nickel giant’s problems in getting a New Caledonian project off the ground to Charles de Gaulle’s trip to Quebec in July 1967. The implications of this memo have consumed me since I first discovered it amongst INCO’s records at a storage facility in Scarborough, Ontario a decade-and-a-half ago. It represented a bridge between my previous work on Canada’s relations with France and other French-speaking countries and a new interest in the ways in which Canadian mining companies affect, and are affected by, the international history of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

For the past several years I have taught incarnations of a course on resource development and society in Canada and/or around the world from the mid-19th century to the present for graduate and senior undergraduate students. Though students don’t always appreciate it, I really like this course in part because we ask a fundamental question. Do we learn something inherently distinctive when we study resources and resource development? Or are resources simply a lens through which we study the broader issues – race, class, gender, colonialism, ideologies, power relations – that shape our societies? That is a trick question, of course. The two are not mutually exclusive and it is perfectly possible to accept Steve High’s argument about the distinctiveness of deindustrialisation in resource towns like Sturgeon Falls while also acknowledging the wisdom of David Massell’s contention that the absence of indigenous peoples from the records of hydroelectric development in Quebec in the mid-20th century is reflective of broader issues in settler-First Nations relations.[1] Moreover, in the process of examining the question we cover environmental critiques of dam building and modernist assumptions about economic and societal development; cheap aluminum and the growth of 20th century consumerism; gender roles in mining communities; racialised critiques of dispossession and neo-colonial practices in contemporary Canadian mining practices both at home and abroad; and even the Staples Thesis!  In other words, though they don’t always recognise it, by studying the history of resource development in Canada students are also given an effective lesson on how Canadian historiography as a whole has evolved from the early 20th to the early 21st centuries.

There are many ways to study mining and resources more broadly. I, myself, am mostly interested in mining as a manifestation of political and international history. My INCO in New Caledonia project, for example, focuses on how the internationalisation of the nickel industry in the 1950s led INCO to take an interest in New Caledonian nickel in the 1960s; how this interest intersected with the desire of many New Caledonians to increase the territory’s autonomy from France; how the hostility of Charles de Gaulle and of his government towards INCO stemmed from interrelated concerns about the spread of American influence in world affairs and the growth of an independence movement in France’s Pacific territory; and how (whether?) a dispute about nickel in far off New Caledonia affected Canada-France relations and developments in Quebec in the late 1960s. My interest in the subject doesn’t really extend to the actual mining of nickel in New Caledonia, to the technological innovations required to process its lateritic ores or to the development of the town INCO planned to build next to its facilities in the south of the territory. And yet…

In August of 2013 I had the good fortune to participate in a workshop on the history of the regulation of natural resources organised by a fantastic group of historians at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. One of the other participants at the workshop was the great Viv Nelles, who gave a paper reflecting on the 40th anniversary of the publication of his book, The Politics of Development. Amongst other things, Nelles observed that he could not write that classic book today, that the political economy of natural resources in Canada had become much more complex, with a much greater number of stakeholders and attendant issues than he had addressed four decades previously. In order to write a history of resource development in 2013, he said, an historian would need to address environmental issues as well as land claims and indigenous rights, amongst other things, in ways that he had not for The Politics of Development.[2]

Nelles’ observations resonated with me. As mentioned, my own interests in mining and resources revolve mostly around political and international issues. Yet I too have been inevitably drawn towards the other issues Nelles identified in both my research and my teaching. It is impossible, now, to examine nickel mining in New Caledonia without considering how it affected the indigenous Kanak peoples, or its environmental impact. Similarly, how could I teach a course about mining or resources in Canada without considering their social, cultural, and environmental dimensions alongside their political and economic ones? I may not consider myself an environmental historian but I am finding myself drawn increasingly into its near vicinity. Perhaps that’s only natural. The History Wars of the 1970s and 1980s, with their rigid distinctions between different historical sub-fields, are, after all, thankfully behind us, and few of us would now dispute the benefits of examining our subjects from multiple perspectives. I haven’t yet taught an ‘environment’-themed course but I suspect it won’t be too much longer before I agree to the graduate co-ordinator’s suggestion that I teach one of the core courses in Nipissing’s MES/MESc program, as daunting as that prospect now appears. My professional evolution does seem logically tied to greater and greater engagement with the field of environmental history.


1. See Steven High, One Job Town: Work, Belonging, and Betrayal in Northern Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018); and David Massell, Quebec Hydropolitics: The Peribonka Concessions of the Second World War (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011).
2. See H.V. Nelles, The Politics of Development, 2nd ed. (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005).

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Robin Gendron

Robin Gendron is Professor of History and a member of the graduate Program in Environmental Studies/Sciences at Nipissing University.

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