Review of Sandlos and Keeling, Mining Country

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John Sandlos and Arn Keeling, Mining Country: A History of Canada’s Mines and Miners. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2021. 192 pp. ISBN 9781459413535.

Reviewed by Brian James Leech.

A beautifully-illustrated, over-sized volume, Mining Country functions partly as a coffee table book – and indeed, it is clearly aiming for a broad readership; yet, its text does not conform to the rather simplistic, often upbeat narrative that typically appears in these kinds of books. That’s not to say that the book fails to tell good stories, nor that it eschews topics like technological change and economic development, all of which readers might expect from a coffee table book about the mining past. Mining Country, however, is not a particularly cheery take on the mining industry. Labour struggles, colonial exploitation, and environmental damage all play major roles in the narrative. Indeed, the book’s “warts and all” approach may be its best feature, as it gives readers a rather sophisticated analysis of the industry’s failures and successes. Mining Country provides a compelling synthesis of Canada’s mining history, accessible for the general reader and useful for scholars. Indeed, its chronological/topical framework suggests an insightful model for future natural resource histories, especially in places that, like Canada, have also faced settler colonialism.

Sandlos and Keeling begin with an outline of major themes, including “the industry’s fraught relationship with Indigenous peoples,” the often brutal nature of miners’ work, the formation and decline of mining communities, mining’s environmental effects, and the complicated legacies of “post-mining sites” (8). They then jump into an excellent chapter about mining’s deep past in North America. Most of this first chapter concerns Indigenous mining innovations before Europeans’ arrival. The chapter’s content comes mostly from secondary sources by archaeologists, although it ends by considering the initial, halting colonial efforts in mining. The second chapter moves forward by covering much of the 19th century, explaining how the pursuit of minerals drove transcontinental expansion. The authors cover developments in coal, silver, and gold mining, ending the chapter with the infamous Klondike stampede.

Pit pony and miner in a mine in New Aberdeen, Nova Scotia, 1946. John F. Mailer photo. Library and Archives Canada, National Film Board of Canada, PA-116676.

The third chapter is the book’s longest. It synthesizes a vast literature about mining’s vital role in a rapidly industrializing Canada, starting in the late nineteenth century and continuing through the first half of the twentieth. While both precious metals and coal contributed, base metals like iron, nickel, and copper were the main players in making Canada a “mineral nation,” pushing extraction into new regions (129). The authors cover nickel mining in Sudbury, precious metals in northeastern Ontario and Quebec, industrial developments on the west coast, coal on the coasts and prairie, and mining in the north. As in chapter two, chapter three tells the reader about detrimental impacts on Indigenous communities, growing problems with pollution, and both the health issues and strikes that dominated workers’ lives.

Rycon Mines at Yellowknife NWT, as viewed from Con Road, with Negus mine in background, 1940. Mackay Meikle photo. Library and Archives Canada, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds, A101747-v8.

Chapters four and five move into the more recent past, starting with a mining boom driven by the Second World War and then continuing with an even bigger, longer-lasting boom that accompanied the Cold War. Many minerals became important to war, including uranium, which Canada often provided to the USA. Readers learn about tragic mining disasters like the 1958 seismic event at Springhill, Nova Scotia, a bitter strike at the Jeffrey Mine in 1949, and the development of lung cancer and silicosis amongst miners in St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, all of which showcase mining’s continued dangers in the post-war period. Mining rushes continued to drive Canadian interest in the North. While new mining enterprises often offered jobs to First Nations’ peoples, their pollution and short-lived nature left a troubled legacy for the Yellowknives Dene, Chipewyan Dene, Anishinaabe Serpent River, and Inuit First Nations. Chapter five argues that, starting in the 1970s, Canada made imperfect improvements to a long-standing trend: mines with little environmental control and few local benefits. Instead, Indigenous communities and, to a lesser extent, environmentalists “began to demand from mining companies consultation, environmental responsibility, and local economic benefits” (172). This chapter moves closer to the present than this reader expected, featuring sad tales about 1990s mining disasters, and recent efforts in nickel and diamond mining.

Chapter six also stands out as an unusual contribution for a popular history of mining: a discussion of mining communities after mining has ended. Readers hear about heritage tourism and they gain a deeper understanding of the toxic legacies facing abandoned mines and their communities. The book concludes with concerns about the sustainability of Canada’s “material-intensive” economy (213).

Copper concentrator at Britannia Beach, BC, 1921. William O. Banfield photo, City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 289-006.02.

The national framework of the book is what makes it viable for a popular market, but, of course, that approach has its drawbacks too, as Mining Country’s authors well know. Although the authors mention it, the global nature of the mining industry can’t get much attention in a book dedicated to mining in Canada. Change the dates and place names, however, and many of the authors’ insights could be applied to America or Australia, and people invested in places with divergent histories likely will find the book valuable for the sake of comparison. Although the book doesn’t provide footnotes, the authors are careful to note the historians on whom they’re most reliant, and readers can find those cited works listed in a surprisingly extensive bibliography in the back (written in teeny, tiny print). I have already mined the book’s bibliography on a few topics.

The publisher deserves praise for allowing the authors to write a fairly complex, often troubling narrative, and for crafting such a gorgeous book, chock full of photos, big and small. The book could have used a map or two so that readers could better see the location of mining sites in different periods. Sandlos and Keeling make a strong case that Canada’s history is inextricably linked to mining. With a narrative driven by environmental justice concerns, Mining Country deserves a wide readership amongst history buffs, historians, and people enthusiastic about decorating their coffee table with attractive books.

Cover image: Placer Gold from French Creek Mine, Big Bend District [British Columbia]. City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Misc P78.2.
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Brian Leech

Brian Leech is Associate Professor of History at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. His interests include mining, food, energy, and region in North America. He is currently working on a trio of research projects--one about the portrayal of mining in popular culture, one on the history of speed limits, and another on high fructose corn syrup. Check out his 2018 book titled The City That Ate Itself: Butte, Montana and Its Expanding Berkeley Pit and get in touch with him on Twitter @brianleechphd.

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