Cobalt: Cradle of the Demon Metals by Charlie Angus, published by House of Anansi Press, is a history book unlike any most of us have ever read. Instead of boasting of the exploits of captains of business, or presenting a romanticized view of the boom and bust economy of resource exploitation, Angus shows us the unvarnished truth beneath the shiny veneer governments and industry have tried to sell the public.
The small town of Cobalt in Northern Ontario Canada is his primary focus. It was the home to one of the world’s biggest silver booms in the early part of the 20th century. It was where Canada’s mining industry learned how it could best control resource extraction and maximize its profits – lessons they continue to put into practice today all the over the world.
Angus has done a great job of destroying all the usual myths that surround histories of the “untamed frontier”. The first of these being that it took Europeans to discover there was silver in the Cobalt region. The reality is the Indigenous peoples of the region had been involved in trading silver for thousands of years. They just hadn’t destroyed the land or polluted their homes in the process.
Of course that history has been carefully removed from Canada’s “official” recording as it contradicts the myth of natural resources being left untouched and needing the hand of civilization to bring it to the surface. Angus details how Indigenous people forcibly removed from their traditional territories, but had their claims to silver mines “jumped” by European prospectors.
However the big mining companies were indiscriminate in their mistreatment of the land and people. The town of Cobalt which sprung up around the mines was almost literally a sewer. Human refuse and mine tailings mixed together don’t make for the healthiest of living conditions.
Angus’ descriptions of how the miners, and their families, were forced to live are horrific. It’s probably no surprise that Cobalt became a rallying point for the nascent union movement in Canada. Organizers from all across North America came to this small town in the north to fight for fair wages and decent living conditions. In the process they established the basis for some of today’s labour laws.
Angus has also dispelled many of the other myths that have been perpetuated about the history of mining in Northern Ontario. Canada has always prided itself on being more civilized and peaceful than our American neighbour and to that end created the story that our mining towns matched that pretty picture.
Of course the reality was far different. Angus draws from news reports and court proceedings of the time to paint a picture that doesn’t quite match up with that genteel image. He also quickly dispels the myth that the north was a good place for women. The incidences of violence against women he describes, again drawn from court records and news reports of the time, are horrific.
While history is the primary focus of the Cobalt Angus also provides us a very good overview of contemporary business practices of the mining industry. How they’ve implemented the model they developed in Northern Ontario all over the world to maximize profits and minimize sharing them with the countries they are operating in.
While they may have to pay workers in Canada living wages and provide safer working conditions they still are given preferential treatment by governments when it comes to paying royalties on the resources they extract. Angus cites the fact how recent royalties payments paid to the Ontario government amounted to less than what the city of Toronto collected in parking fees (less than $100,000).
None of the money the companies make go into paying for the infrastructure of the communities they operate in. Even the minimal money they pay in royalties is offset by the tax breaks and “incentives” they are given by government.
While the focus of this book is on the famed silver rush of the early 20th century, it’s also about the ‘demon metal’ cobalt which the town is takes its name from. Nicknamed demon, cobalt is derived from the German name for a goblin like creature the Kobold, the metal is now one of the most sought after minerals in the world due to its importance in the production of smart phones and tablets.
Angus uses the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an example of how greed for the metal can result in unmitigated horrors for the people of the country it is being mined in. While that type of exploitation might not be able to happen in the developed world, it still serves as a warning as to the what mining corporations are capable of in their pursuit of profit.
Cobalt: Cradle of the Demon Metals is a meticulously researched book that offers a new and refreshing take on the history of Canada. Like Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States it tells the story of the people whose faces don’t normally show up in the pages of books and helps to deconstruct the myths we’ve created to tell the story of Canada.
Angus doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but history isn’t neat and tidy. There was nothing romantic or heroic about the silver rush in Cobalt at the beginning of the 20th century. It was just business as usual for those looking to make a quick buck. Hopefully we’ll take the lessons this history offers to heart and not repeat the mistakes of the past.