Özden-Schilling on Angus, 'Cobalt: Cradle of the Demon Metals, Birth of a Mining Superpower'

Charlie Angus
Tom Özden-Schilling

Charlie Angus. Cobalt: Cradle of the Demon Metals, Birth of a Mining Superpower. Toronto: Anansi, 2022. Illustrations. xv + 319 pp. $19.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4870-0949-6

Reviewed by Tom Özden-Schilling (Johns Hopkins University) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (October, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57933

In the century and a half since Canada’s first large-scale mineral rushes began pushing new extractive frontiers far into the nation’s vast rural North, numerous small towns and villages have played host to brief frenzies of exploration and mining, only inevitably to recede from the collective memory of Canada’s urban South. Rather than treating these many boomtowns merely as nostalgic relics or as illustrations of bygone economic regimes, however, Charlie Angus, a member of the House of Commons of Canada for his native Timmins, a historic gold-mining node in northeast Ontario, has other goals. In Cobalt: Cradle of the Demon Metals, Birth of a Mining Superpower, Angus makes a persuasive case for excavating the idiosyncratic histories of these places and for emplacing these histories firmly within emergent debates over the present and possible futures of Canadian extractivism.

The town of Cobalt, Ontario, we learn in the opening pages of Angus’s volume, has become host to a new rush of geological exploration activity in recent years, after sudden increases in the price of the material cobalt caused by skyrocketing global demand for electric vehicles and proliferating policy initiatives focused on securing domestic supply chains for cobalt and other so-called critical minerals. Beyond a brief opening discussion and a more systematic discussion near the end of the volume, however, Cobalt (the book) is not actually about cobalt (the mineral): it is primarily concerned with the spectacular silver-mining rush that took place in and around the town mainly from 1903 to 1909. Drawing on a wide range of demographic, labor, and production statistics; dialogues carried out through newspaper editorials, policy speeches, and local police reports; and disparately collected vignettes about sensational events and everyday life, Angus portrays the rapid, chaotic, and frequently violent development of the town of Cobalt during the rush as a means of showing how local events both illustrated and in many cases directly affected other extractivist processes then unfolding around the nation.

Cobalt silver, both as cash and as an evocative ideal, directly drove the expansion of northern railways, the creation of a new Toronto-based bourgeoisie, and the development of new northern lakeside recreation spaces, all of which quickly became crucial to the ways Canada imagined itself as a new nation. Yet Cobalt silver also profoundly affected the development of spaces far outside northern Ontario, by instantiating links between New York-based investment banks, roving American mine workers, and performatively “Canadian” mining projects and by providing a financial, technological, and sociopolitical blueprint for American and Canadian mining companies to deploy as they began to exploit the vast gold fields even further north in Canada in later decades. All of these vectors of influence, Angus insists throughout the book, were affected by the environmental, racial, and sexual dynamics among Cobalt’s mine workers and their families and by the uneven laws and practices of enforcement that local police and mine bosses and Ontario politicians used to keep these workers in subservient positions. During the first two-thirds of the book, individual chapters move rapidly through big, thematic discussions of racism, gender exploitation and sexual violence, policing, indentured labor, workplace hazards, management-class recreation exploits, environmental pollution, strikes, and disease. Within and between these chapters, Angus also repeatedly draws in well-known events that unfolded elsewhere in Canada during the early twentieth century and that subsequently affected laws and social conventions concerning issues as diverse as workplace safety standards, interracial marriage, and resource tax royalty rates.

Some of Angus’s disparate inclusions are more successful than others. By repeatedly trying to frame a history of a few years in Cobalt as a history of Canada and Canadianness without initially specifying a more delimited frame of intervention, Angus often moves rapidly between sensational anecdotes without contextualizing his sources, and often without providing much conflicting evidence or nuance. Particularly during the first two-thirds of the book, Angus draws on scholarly literature on Canadian mining and extractivism sparingly and somewhat superficially. He does not challenge any of the arguments from the relatively few sources he cites, nor does he engage with their underlying case studies other than to use them as straightforward comparative illustrations and conceptual support. Readers of popular histories written by journalists will of course find this style familiar. Unless this style convinces academic readers to abandon the book without completing it, though, I would not consider these serious drawbacks, since the boisterous, gripping prose actually manages to present quite deftly a wealth of information about the evolution of mining regulations and finance crucial to understanding contemporary Canadian mining writ large. By the end of the book, an impressively coherent argument emerges, too, and what at first might have appeared as so many scattered, sensational anecdotes finally comes into focus as a comprehensive account of the myriad, highly specific social tensions out of which Canadian mining’s globally influential legal apparatus was first born.

Part of what Angus sets out to explain over the course of his book is whether and how specific social dynamics within Cobalt might illuminate the ways an apparent resource curse develops within a particular nation and whether these dynamics influence the ways one nation’s “curse” might spread somewhere else. The town of Cobalt, we are repeatedly reminded, generated more wealth during its brief boom years than nearly any other locale in the world, yet it, for many years, had practically no civic infrastructure to speak of, whether in terms of a hospital (for anyone other than mining workers), school, sewage system, water supply, or even a functioning fire department. The disparity, Angus offers, mirrors the seventeenth-century pillage of Potosí in present-day Bolivia, where for nearly a century the Spanish crown extracted a huge percentage of the wealth that powered its colonial empire but now sits as one of the most impoverished regions of the world. While this particular example feels fanciful, considering the many differences between British and Spanish colonialism, Angus’s take on the oft-debated resource curse concept is novel and shrewd. In crucial ways, it also feels like an argument that could only be developed by someone who grew up in an apparently “cursed” historic mining region, given the way it prioritizes the textures of the social lives of exploited workers and their descendants. Canadian mining companies have experienced unprecedented global success over the past half century, Angus argues, because of the many different social institutions that these companies enroll in, justifying their low tax burdens and minimal infrastructure investments. The persistence and power of these institutions, he also makes plain, relies on the subtle ways that they exploit racial and gender tensions and other markers of difference to promote some kinds of affiliation rather than others. By the time we return to contemporary Cobalt (the town) with cobalt (the mineral) in mind in the concluding chapter, we are far more likely to be persuaded that the emerging financial and regulatory landscape surrounding “critical minerals” development will retain significant imprints from these more obviously violent pasts.

I strongly urge anyone interested in histories of mining or of Canada to read this book, but I do so with several qualifications. While Angus’s swift-moving narrative and compelling literary voice help to keep the reader engrossed in the action and will likely help many people new to the study of Canadian mining to absorb a broad range of important themes and data points, the underlying writing style and research methodology also have clear limitations. Many readers will likely note the relative lack of attention to First Nations experiences throughout Angus’s otherwise encompassing narrative and may find themselves less than satisfied with Angus’s brief complaints about the deficiencies of his sources that engendered this focus. Considering his lack of apparent effort to find other means of gathering these stories, whether through oral histories or through more creative readings of archival sources, one might read Angus’s complaints as resigned laments that First Nations memories and experiences of Cobalt’s silver boom remain merely tragic and unrecoverable. This is especially frustrating considering the fact that the central argument of the book, once it finally emerges in the concluding chapters, is centrally concerned with the structural marginalization of First Nations people and other residents of the North, despite the fact that the actual elaboration of the tax regimes, land ownership laws, and everyday acts of discrimination, displacement, and oppression that produced this marginalization is carefully examined only from the perspectives of native-born Euro-Canadians and European immigrants.

The simplistic portrayal of First Nations experiences in Cobalt is a serious gap that other scholars seeking to build on Angus’s work will need to remedy. On the other hand, it is worth remembering that Angus, through his position as a member of the House of Commons, remains engaged with First Nations experiences on many contemporary issues concerning extraction, including by serving as the Canadian government’s chief critic (i.e., the primary opposition party’s main representative) for the Indigenous and Northern Affairs federal cabinet position and by running campaigns for increasing federal funding for First Nations youth education initiatives. Considering Angus’s lack of a professional academic background, Cobalt is an impressive and substantial book and a deeply encouraging sign for those hoping to persuade Canada’s elected officials of the grievous problems underlying Canadian extractive operations and their still-growing influence around the world.

Citation: Tom Özden-Schilling. Review of Angus, Charlie, Cobalt: Cradle of the Demon Metals, Birth of a Mining Superpower. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57933

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