Company towns emerged during the colonial period, e.g., the Forges Saint Maurice or Garden Island, Upper Canada, for the purpose of ensuring a reserve of skilled workers for family-based firms. They were islands of stability in the chaotic preindustrial labour market. The thrust of industrial revolution between the 1850s and 1890s occurred in cities, not company towns. One exception was the cotton industry, which often created new communities such as Valleyfield, Québec (now Salaberry-de-Valleyfield), based on British or American paternalistic principles. Significantly, Valleyfield's cotton workers, many of them women, were among the minority in true factory settings who organized collectively before WWI and used strike and "riot" tactics to advance their claims.
The Canadian company town's development peaked in the post-1890s mining industry. Cape Breton Island coal communities, Québec asbestos towns and Ontario gold, silver and nickel towns began as company towns. Often the dominant note of social relations was not paternalism but the hard edge of authoritarianism and naked exploitation. During the 1909-10 strike, members of the United Mine Workers in Cape Breton were thrown out of their homes and locked out of the company stores, where lines of credit formed part of a system of industrial peonage. Clergymen sheltering workers in churches were ordered by the hierarchy to stop. Mine operators in Timmins, Ontario, employed "gun thugs" to patrol the town during the 1912-13 gold-mine strike. Only after blood flowed did the provincial government order their removal. Once companies lost moral authority, as they often did, industrial discipline could be maintained only by force, which politicians occasionally decided not to provide in crises. The Crow's Nest pass Coal Co at Fernie, BC, for example, failed to evict striking tenants in 1906 because the provincial attorney general heeded local police and maintained a "neutral" stance.
There are examples of attempts to reassert traditional moral authority through "model" community building and social engineering. Coal companies at Brule and Nordegg, Alberta, made such attempts during and after WWI. Their position was uniquely favourable, insofar as in northwest Alberta companies operated on inalienable crown lands under long-term government leases. The usual challenges to the company town - acquisition of property by individuals, municipal incorporation and incursions by independent merchants - were closed off. But alongside the managers' claims regarding community progress must be placed the long list of residents' petitions and protests. Neither attempt achieved its primary object of avoiding unions and strikes. Paper towns like Corner Brook, Nfld, or Powell River, BC, were relatively successful in maintaining social and political stability with the assistance of co-operative trade unions in the 1920s, but were not truly "closed communities."
Life in the company town could often be fulfilling, but never certain. The fruit of 40 years in Nordegg was destroyed in one day in 1955: Canadian National Railways, increasingly using diesel power, cancelled its Nordegg coal contract, effectively shutting down the mine and consequently the town.
It is not the "pluck-me" store or the coal-and-iron police which defines the company town but the basic economic power wielded over the single-industry community by public and private interests that remain unaccountable for decreeing the life or death of the community. Few may remember that Dominion, NS, is a perpetual monument to long-departed DOSCO, or Cadomin, Alberta, to Canada & Dominion Mining, but the phrase "company town" still flourishes in the Canadian language.
See also RESOURCE TOWNS.
Author ALLEN SEAGER
Links to Other Sites
Forges du Saint-Maurice National Historic Site of Canada
This Parks Canada site presents the intriguing history of French and English iron making operations at Canada's first industrial village.
When Coal Was King
The multimedia website “When Coal was King: Coal Mining in Western Canada” explores the history of Alberta’s coal mining industry. Check out the glossary and educational activities. From the Alberta Online Encyclopedia.
Atlas of Alberta Railways
Climb aboard the "Atlas of Alberta Railways" website for a fascinating multimedia tour of Alberta history. This site will take you to a great collection of fascinating maps, old newspaper articles, scenic photographs, charts, graphs, and much more. From the University of Alberta Press.
Musée des Deux-Rives
Comprising close to 24,000 artefacts and archival photographs, the permanent collection of the Musée des Deux-Rives focuses on the social and industrial history of the Beauharnois-Salaberry region.
Power and Planning: Industrial Towns in Québec, 1890-1950
Presenting over 400 objects selected primarily from public and private collections in Québec, Power and Planning: Industrial Towns in Québec, 1890-1950 traces the creation and evolution of three communities built in Québec. From the Canadian Centre for Architecture.
Manitoba’s Resource Towns: The Twentieth Century Frontier
A history of the development of Manitoba resource towns and related industries. Also examines related policies and regulations implemented by various government agencies.