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  • When Coal Was King: Ladysmith and the Coal-Mining Industry on Vancouver Island
  • Patricia Marchak (bio)
John R. Hinde . When Coal Was King: Ladysmith and the Coal-Mining Industry on Vancouver Island University of British Columbia Press 2003. ix, 277. $85.00, $24.95

This history of coal-mining in and around Ladysmith on Vancouver Island from the 1850s to the First World War is scholarly and well researched, sympathetic to the coal miners and their families and aware of the context and the times of their rough lives. It begins with biographies of the owners of the mines, continues with stories, well-documented, of workers' experience in the pits and in the townsites, and of their deaths in dangerous conditions. It concludes with 'the Great Strike' of 1912-14 when the impoverished miners finally caved in to the intransigence of the owners with the aid of strike-breakers on the eve of the First World War.

Coal-mining was the industry for Vancouver Island from the mid-1880s until the 1920s (with fluctuations along the way). John R. Hinde provides the essential statistics in his introduction: in 1911, before the Great Strike, [End Page 337] Vancouver Island's collieries employed over 4600 men and mined a record 1.8 million gross tons of coal. Markets in both Canada and the United States kept the mines operating. The important centres were at Nanaimo, owned by a San Francisco company after 1902, and the Dunsmuir family's operations at Cumberland, Wellington, and latterly at Ladysmith. The focus here is on Ladysmith, first occupied by Europeans in 1889. The mine here was owned by James Dunsmuir, son of the original Dunsmuir, Robert. As sketched by Hinde, James was a lesser man than his convivial and enterprising father; he is depicted as a dour Canadian Scot, arrogant, bigoted, stingy, greedy, and mean.

The book is also about theories of resource frontiers. Hinde discusses the concerns of theorists - their preoccupation with explaining the alleged radicalism and militancy of the province's industrial working class, otherwise called the theory of 'Western Exceptionalism' as propounded by, among others, David Bercuson, and in American versions the 'frontier thesis' by Frederick Jackson Turner, and the 'isolation theory' by Clark Kerr and Abraham Siegal. In different ways these theories treat a perceived radical tendency of western workers in resource industries during the early phases of European settlement of western regions as a product of geography, working at the frontier of a new continental society and the nature of resource industries and their isolated settlements. Hinde takes issue with these theories on the grounds that they ignore class-based economic conflict. Of Bercuson's approach he suggests that it 'reduces workers to the status of passive victims of largely impersonal forces, such as demography and isolation, rather than seeing them as active participants in the daily class struggles that shaped their experience of objective social reality.'

In contrast to the Western Exceptionalism approach, Hinde argues that the focus should be on the experiences of workers in the mines, in the political sphere, in the living conditions of the time and place. What appears as militancy was simply the growth of industrial trade unions and the development of labour political movements in response to the exploitative conditions of capitalist production and the collaboration in that by politicians of the period. Coal-miners in British Columbia and elsewhere, and later, forestry workers, were extremely vulnerable to exploitation. In a resource region, those workers were the industrial workforce, and they responded just as workers elsewhere did, by trying to improve their incomes, working conditions, living conditions, and political influence.

The book, then, becomes a documentation of the conditions these workers experienced and the meanness of the capitalist system that employed (and often dis-employed) them. But it is not a polemic by any means; rather, it is a solid and scholarly study of what happened at Lady-smith at the turn of the century. It notes how difficult it was for leaders of the working-class movements to bring everyone together: there were [End Page 338] always divisions within their ranks, whether by ethnicity or rank in the industrial ladder. Hinde...


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pp. 337-339
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