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  • Canada's Victorian Oil Town: The Transformation of Petrolia from Resource Town into a Victorian Community
  • Colin Read
Christina Burr. Canada's Victorian Oil Town: The Transformation of Petrolia from Resource Town into a Victorian Community. McGill-Queen's University Press. xii, 300. $85.00

Professor Burr takes a long view of the development of the oil industry in the southwestern Ontario town of Petrolia. She details the early history of settlement in surrounding Enniskillen Township, examines the first discovery of oil in nearby Oil Springs in 1858 and in Petrolia a few years later, explains the technology used to exploit the fields, analyzes the nature of the society that evolved, highlights the exodus of drillers to other oil fields around the world, discusses the prevailing imperial and racist sentiments that influenced those leaving, and describes and analyzes the casting of modern Petrolia into 'Canada's Victorian Oil Town' in the past half century.

Throughout, the author casts her narrative and analyses in wide academic contexts, for example, taking into account the theoretical constructs of those concerned with class formation, feminist analysis, and post-colonial studies. Among her contentions are that lines of class and gender, and to a lesser extent religion and ethnicity, became powerful, if not entirely impermeable, boundaries, helping ensure that middle-class males became the key driving force behind Petrolia's economy and society. She also argues that the drillers who travelled abroad and who furthered 'the project of European imperialism' were conditioned to cast an Orientalist gaze upon 'others,' and she maintains that the reconstruction of Petrolia's past in terms of Victorian middle-class gentility to the exclusion of rough and rowdy dimensions rests squarely on the desire to promote tourism and economic growth.

The author is to be congratulated on framing her study within large chronological and academic frameworks. Her text often conveys valuable insights. For example, her discussion of land speculation is notable for emphasizing that such speculation need not involve large parcels of land. Those speculating in Enniskillen in the age of oil often acquired very small parcels, since it did not take much land to mine Black gold. While she makes the point that speculation was common elsewhere, she fails to make the same point about land squatting, which, as John Weaver has been at pains to point out, was indeed common to settler societies around the world. In some cases Burr's evidence in favour of her contentions is not impressive. Most notably, in an attempt to give agency to the 'others' whom the foreign drillers encountered she argues [End Page 268] that those 'others' had an impact on the drillers, and, while this is quite likely so, the assertion made seems to rest on the evidence that some drillers developed a working knowledge of some languages. What other evidence is available? If it exists in the book, I missed it. Perhaps the sources used – published travel letters – are generally silent on the score of cross-cultural interaction, just as the author's sources might not yield much evidence on another matter only lightly addressed in the book – the environmental degradation attendant on the development of the Enniskillen oil fields. That development, as various allusions attest, had harmful physical effects on the place Professor Burr discusses. And, as the author is at pains to point out, 'place matters,' but ironically not enough to warrant her producing a decent map situating Petrolia, Oil Springs, and Enniskillen within southwestern Ontario. The blurry map she reproduces of Enniskillen is disappointing. This deficiency is all the more surprising for the author's willingness to muster a wide range of other compelling visual materials, such as photographs.

The best local histories, like W.H. Graham's Greenbank, speak to at least two audiences – academics and those who have a non-scholarly interest in the communities discussed. It is difficult, but not impossible, for an author to successfully appeal equally to both. I predict that Burr will have more success with the former than the latter. Ugly social science jargon, such as 'colony-centred knowledge-production capacities,' finds its way into her text. Blessedly, however, she inflicts, by my count, just one 'trope...


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pp. 268-269
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