by David Frank
The writing is on the coal face wall, and it has been there for more than half a century. King Coal is on the way out, and beyond the coal country there is not much lamenting.
It was once a way of life for tens of thousands of Canadians, and for more than a century it was the country’s main source of industrial energy. At the end of the Second World War, coal still supplied more than half of Canada’s energy needs. But in the next decade coal was widely replaced by hydro, oil and gas.
With the environment minister’s recent confirmation that the federal government is phasing out the burning of coal by 2030, we seem to looking at the final chapter.
Some provinces may find ways to continue using coal while also satisfying emission standards. Some may continue to import coal from overseas. There is even news of a small mine development on Cape Breton Island. And it is unlikely British Columbia will stop mining coal for export across the Pacific.
But now that coal has been formally classified as a legacy industry, it is worth reflecting on what we can learn from the men and women who put their bone, body and blood into the industry over so many generations.
In a history of meagre rewards, occasional triumphs and recurring tragedies, they raised families and invested in their communities. Through their political activism and their unions, they helped to push this country to adopt a greater measure of social justice.
All across Canada, you will find children of the coal country who have moved on to other things, but they have not forgotten these things.
The price their people paid in building modern Canada is hard to measure, but we often fail to understand that one of the biggest losses they suffered was embedded in the nature of the coal industry from the beginning.
Every economy based on the extraction of natural resources faces an inevitable question. What happens when the resource is no longer needed? Coal is what geographers call a “wasting” resource. It runs out, or becomes too difficult and expensive to be worth retrieving. Then what?
This classic question in the story of resource extraction has been asked time and again in the staple sectors of fish, fur and forest. Those are, theoretically at least, renewable resources, though the record of bad management and bad public policy looms large. But in the case of mineral resources, the answers are unforgiving. There is only one chance.
The importance of the staple trades in Canadian development was famously explored by the great economic historian Harold Innis. His followers have focused in on what they call the “staples trap,” which means falling into an excessive dependence on a single resource and a failure to reinvest earnings in ways that generate stabilizing spread effects and lead to alternative economies.
One of Innis’s contemporaries, Arthur Lower, added one of the smartest things that a Canadian historian has ever said about the exploitation of natural resources: “The only dependable defence against the ravages of a great staple trade is the growth of a community in the hinterland being depleted.”
For a brief moment in the 1960s and 1970s on Cape Breton Island, it looked like the hinterland community was mounting a good defence. They were insisting on economic development as if people mattered.
They had long believed that coal should be a public utility, but they also knew that the age of coal was going to end sooner or later and that changes were going to be needed. As a result, when the federal government created the Cape Breton Development Corporation (Devco) in 1968, the Crown corporation’s mandate was not just to close down the mines in an orderly fashion but also to promote the essential transition to a new economic base.
Sadly, the mandate was never fulfilled. The energy crisis of the 1970s tempted Devco to open new coal mines, and when coal markets once again collapsed, the local economy was still in no position to recover. After the closing of the last coal mine in 2001, Devco was dismantled, and with it much of the commitment to addressing the ravages of resource exploitation and regional disparity.
Disinvestment is, of course, considered part of the normal cost of doing business in capitalist society, a process optimistically described by economists as “creative destruction.” But for the people and communities being dislocated, it is a less easy matter, and there was reason to believe that public enterprise held open a window of alternative opportunities and a stable future.
That story too is part of the legacy of coal. Environmentalists will welcome the withdrawal of coal from the country’s energy mix as a step towards a greener economy, but the coal communities can be forgiven if they resent being reduced to the journalistic cliché of deserted towns and traumatized residents.
They have other messages to deliver. An economy based on the extraction of natural resources can succeed in producing profits, royalties and, with some amount of struggle, even good wages. But these things cannot last. This is a message worth hearing well beyond the coal country.
Canadians should know by now that every resource boom has its limits.
David Frank is the author of several studies on the history of the coal miners, including a prize-winning book on the champion of the Cape Breton coal miners, J.B. McLachlan: A Biography (Lorimer 1999).
 A.R.M. Lower, Great Britain’s Woodyard : British America and the Timber Trade, 1763-1867 (Montréal and Kingston : McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1973), p. 248.