Well, it’s living they’ve found, deep in the ground,
And if there’s doubts, it’s best they ignore them.
Nor think on the bones, the crosses and stones
Of their fathers that came there before them.
In the taverns of Edmonton, fishermen shout
Haul it away! Haul it away!
They left three hundred years buried up the Bay
Where the whales make free in the harbour.
-Stan Rogers, “Free in the Harbour”
You don’t spend too much time in Alberta without running into a Maritimer, a
Newfoundlander or someone one-generation removed from Atlantic Canada. When I lived in New Brunswick a decade ago, it was estimated that a jumbo jet load of people was leaving the province every month headed to Alberta or Saskatchewan. Some were relocating permanently, others were engaged in transcontinental commuting – six months in Fort Mac, six months back home in Saint John.
This pattern of domestic migration has been going on for some time. Excepting the interruptions of periodic busts, the booms have attracted new arrivals to Alberta since it became a rich province about 70 years ago. We all know why Atlantic Canadians come. Here is a resource rich province with a labour shortage, offering wages unimaginable down east. Yet, as we think about Alberta’s future, we might cast a thought to the past of Atlantic Canada, to the century of prosperity that resulted in all those big Victorian houses in places like
Halifax and Saint John. There was work aplenty in the timber stands that helped build the British navy in the age of sail, in a fishery that fed millions, in rich seams of coal. The economic history of the region is complicated, but to imagine that Alberta lucked into the wealth of abundant natural resources while Atlantic Canada did not is to take a very short term view.
Atlantic Canadians have seen the window close on resource economies before. The age of sail ended in the age of steam. Coal fell out of favour as the fuel of choice for railways and home heating. Technological advance made for the ecological devastation that exhausted the once staggeringly abundant stocks of cod. It is only retrospect that makes these endings appear inevitable. And, they were not sudden – people and some companies held on and did not give up easily, even as the smart money in the big houses of the region shrewdly invested their fortunes elsewhere.
By 1958, coal mining in Springhill, Nova Scotia was in trouble. Only one shaft, the #2, was in operation and it was one of the deepest in the world. The miners knew it was dangerous and they said so loudly. But the union wanted to protect the jobs and the company wanted to get the coal out and the warnings were ignored. When the disastrous “bump” came, the normally jocular banter among miners at the coal face had been silenced for weeks. They kept going down the pit, though, however grimly. The day of the bump, 75 of them re-emerged in coffins.(1)
The national press chose to focus on the heroic rescue efforts and miraculous survival of a minority of the miners in this, the third major Springhill disaster. Today, we have a Heritage Minute about it that focuses on a surviving miner, acknowledging in only one sentence “so much death.”(2) It is not the grisly aftermath of the disaster that resonates with me, however. It is the image of the silent miners, showing up for work every day knowing that it was only a matter of time until fate would determine whether they would be lucky or unlucky, whether among the quick or the dead.
Canada was a free country in 1958. Why did they keep working? Why didn’t they move to Alberta? Perhaps some of them did. For those that stayed, however, we can imagine that the choice seemed like no choice at all. There were kids to feed and bills to pay. Yes, the disaster would come, but perhaps not today. Perhaps not to me.
Here in Alberta, we know that our window will not stay open forever. The G7 has
committed to stop combusting fossil fuels by the year 2100.(3) Technological advance – whether it comes in the form of battery powered cities(4) or compact fusion(5) — may shut it considerably sooner than that. And, let us hope so, since our disaster when it comes will not be a sudden bump, leaving a small town devastated, but, potentially, an irreversible change in the planet’s climate with catastrophic global implications.(6)
Yet to tell the people of Fort McMurray (or downtown Calgary) to leave the oil in the soil is like telling the miners of Springhill not to show up for work. There are mortgages, car payments, commitments, expectations, and hopes. And maybe the disaster won’t come, or won’t come for us. How do you end a gold rush while the gold can still be found?
The thing about ghost towns, Northrop Frye once observed, is their lack of ghosts. They don’t last long enough to produce them: to accumulate generations, long history, the crosses and the bones weighing on the minds of Nova Scotia fishermen in an Edmonton tavern that Stan Rogers sang about. If Alberta does not wish to expand its collection of ghost towns, a strategy needs to be developed for sustaining both economic and ecological life here beyond 2100. We need to demonstrate that our abundant wind and sun can allow us to transition into a new energy economy. We need to think about what we might do with our fossil fuels besides shipping them somewhere to be processed and burnt.
Ultimately, we have to make a commitment to stay. Not just that we will stay, but that our grandkids and their kids after them will stay here too. Otherwise, we’ll have in a few generations a folk singer looking back nostalgically to the Alberta version of ‘goin’ down the road.’ We’ll have to hope, as well, that there’ll be a road left for us to travel.
KIRK NIERGARTH is a historian and teacher in Calgary.
- This story is told in greater detail in Ian McKay, “Springhill 1958,” New Maritimes, 2 (December 1983/January