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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Environmental Impacts

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Boisjoli: mine entry - Pat McCloskeyBoth Ottawa and the provinces were sympathetic to the granting of mineral rights through lease, and sometimes through outright sale during the period. Their policies were linked to an overweening concern with material progress that was unrestrained by later considerations of ecological impact, among others. The federal government's position, however, was more equivocal, and, at least before 1900, more intimately linked to considerations of political patronage.

Ottawa's support for mineral development was conditional. It was to be encouraged, provided it did not conflict with the government's larger strategy for the West. Large tracts of land were not eligible for mining because they had been set aside for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1870, to facilitate federal takeover of the West, and for the CPR in 1881, to help draw the prairies and British Columbia into a national economy. In both cases, John A. Macdonald's Conservative government had given little thought to the particular interests of Westerners in concluding agreements thought to be in the wider Canadian interest.1

In enunciating a policy intended to promote mineral grants, the federal government also showed a marked preference for aiding political allies. Federal grants made possible the earliest significant operations in the region, at Banff and Lethbridge in the early 1880s. The Galt firm at Lethbridge, however, was favoured with massive land grants because of the involvement of Macdonald's former colleague, Sir Alexander Galt. In the Crowsnest Pass, both British Columbia and the federal government acted in the interests of political friends. The province made substantial tracts of land available to the William Fernie group, which professed an interest in both mining and transportation development. Laurier's Liberal government subsidized the building of a railway and arranged that the Fernie group, by this time controlled by influential Ontario friends of the government, should get a favourable settlement.2

Coal Mine at NordeggIn the Rocky Mountains, the federal government, and later Alberta, both supported industrial development, in spite of the rise of environmental concerns at the time. Mining was allowed within the national parks. In the first park, Rocky Mountains (later Banff), established in 1887, coal mining was allowed at Anthracite and at Bankhead. The borders of the park were enlarged in 1902 to include Canmore, another centre of coal mining, in the belief that industry and nature could co-exist. Further north, coal mining was permitted to begin at Pocahontas in Jasper National Park, in 1911. The Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve was created in that year to preserve the natural areas east of the mountains, between Jasper and Banff. While private land ownership was not allowed, long-term leases were granted to coal companies at Brule, Nordegg, and in the Coal Branch, as we have already seen.3

After 1930, more attention was paid to environmental concerns, but development still continued whenever possible. In that year, Ottawa handed over control of natural resources to the province of Alberta, while retaining control of the national parks. Coal mining was no longer allowed within park boundaries, but activity at Canmore, the only location where mining was still pursued, was protected. The limits of the park were changed, this time to exclude Canmore, in order to permit mining to continue. Meanwhile, the province of Alberta, was pursuing a promising policy. Mining leases were granted in the forestry reserves, which had been turned over to the province by Ottawa. Only in the urban area of Edmonton was the province forced to act against the coal industry, after pressure from the city to minimize damage due to subsidence and other factors.4

Mineral policy reveals much about the priorities of government during the 20th century. Environmental concerns were of distinctly secondary importance during most of the period. In the 1960s, when strip mining had become the major means of coal extraction, ecology began to count for more. Then, the province of Alberta was pressured to introduce legislation requiring practices of land conservation and reclamation. While these regulations provided protection against a technology with great destructive potential, they were also phrased to facilitate development rather than impede it.5

William N.T. Wylie, "Coal-Mining Landscapes: Commemorating Coal Mining in Alberta and Southeastern British Columbia," a report prepared for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Parks Canada Agency, 2001.

See Also: The Coal Industry—Overview, Rapid Expansion, Domestic and Steam Coalfields, 1914-1947: The Struggling Industry, Collapse and Rebirth, Settlement of the West, Issues and Challenges—Overview, Entrepreneurship, Technology, Underground Techniques, Surface Technology, Surface Mining, Social Impacts, Unions, 1882-1913: Unionization and Early Gains, 1914-1920: Revolutionary Movement, 1921-1950s: Labour Unrest and Setbacks, Mining Companies, People of the Coal Mines, The Middle Class, Miners and Local Government, Politics and Economics , Environmental Impacts, Health and Safety-Historic—Overview, The State and Labour Relations, The State and Development after 1918

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