A carbonaceous fossil fuel, coal has a long history as the key energy source in the transition to industrialization, beginning in 17th-century Europe. In Canada, the history of commercial coal mining dates back nearly three centuries. Coal provided a critical energy source for early industrialization, generating steam power and coke (i.e., a manufactured, high-carbon derivative of coal that burns very hot and is essential for steel production). While coal remains an export commodity and an important source for domestic energy, Canadian production has always been small compared to the US, and relatively minor as a share of total global output.

History: Pre-contact to the 1940s

Prior to the 18th century, Aboriginal people and early colonists used coal for casual burning and trade. They relied on exposed surface deposits, such as the Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia. Coal was first exploited by underground mining methods in Cape Breton in 1720, with the French Port Morien mine supplying the fortress of Louisbourg. Annual production of Nova Scotia coal increased with expanding industrial output, from just over one million tonnes in 1880, to more than seven million tonnes in 1913. Most of this material was destined for the growing domestic steel industry, and markets in Québec and the northeastern United States. New Brunswick also produced small amounts of coal commercially, beginning in the 1830s.

The coal mining industry expanded rapidly in Canada in the post-Confederation period until just after the Second World War. It spread westward, with major commercial centres emerging on Vancouver Island in the early 1850s, throughout southern Alberta from the 1890s until the mid-20th century, in the British Columbia and Alberta Rocky Mountain interior by the early 1900s, and in southeastern Saskatchewan in the early 1890s.

The coal industry provided the most important energy source to fuel expanding rail and steamship networks, stoke industrial machinery (especially the coke ovens that allowed for the production of steel), fire lights (in gas form prior to widespread electrification), and heat homes in Canada’s rapidly growing cities. Coal’s share of Canada’s total energy consumption reached an historic high of 64 per cent for the year 1920. In general, transportation challenges hampered the Canadian coal industry’s access to the emerging industrial centres in southern Ontario, which imported much of their coal energy from Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, during the heyday period in the first half of the 20th century, total annual coal production in Canada rose from about three million tonnes in 1890, to 17 million tonnes in 1942.

Mining Methods, Conditions and Disasters

The advent of commercial exploitation meant that miners had to work deposits located deep under the ground. In the early years of the industry, miners cut long tunnels, or drifts, horizontally from a shaft, and then used the room-and-pillar method, whereby a section of coal was removed and columns left to support the mine roof. Such mines entailed difficult and dangerous work. Air circulation had to be maintained at all times, while, in many cases, water was pumped constantly from the mineworks — a practice common in Nova Scotia, where mining tunnels often extended far out under the ocean floor. Volatile and combustible coal dust and methane gas inevitably floated throughout these mines; even the smallest spark or ignition flame could cause a massive explosion. Despite efforts to improve conditions through dust mitigation, major coal mining accidents took the lives of dozens of miners at places such as, the Drummond mine in Westville, Nova Scotia in 1873 (more than 60 dead); Nanaimo, British Columbia in 1887 (150 dead); and Hillcrest, Alberta in 1914 (189 dead). Springhill, Nova Scotia was the site of three major disasters: in 1891 (125 dead), 1956 (39 dead), and 1958, when a seismic “bump” (an earthquake caused by pillar collapse or shifting due to geological stress in the mine) collapsed part of the mine, killing 74 people. The event attracted international media to witness the drama of the 100 miners who were eventually rescued. The most recent coal mine explosion in Canada occurred at the Westray mine in Plymouth, Nova Scotia in 1992, where 26 miners were killed, prompting a major public inquiry. Coal dust also presented a major health hazard for underground miners, causing respiratory ailments such as silicosis and black lung disease (pneumoconiosis). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many killed by, or exposed to, hazardous dust would have been young boys aged eight to 15, as child labour was common in the coal mining industry until compulsory schooling laws began to stamp out the practice in the 1920s. (See also Coal Mining Disasters.)

Strikes and Unions

In response to low pay, poor working conditions, safety issues, and the economic control associated with company towns (where the only place to buy food and essentials was often the company-owned store), coal workers organized into labour unions. The Provincial Workmen’s Association formed in Cape Breton in 1879 (becoming the Amalgamated Mine Workers of Nova Scotia union in 1917), and the US-based United Mine Workers of America established itself throughout the Canadian coal mining industry in the early 20th century. Strikes were numerous and often violent, with major job actions occurring in Lethbridge, Alberta in 1906; the Vancouver Island collieries in 1912–14; Cape Breton from 1922–26; Estevan, Saskatchewan in 1931; and Minto, New Brunswick from 1937–38.

History: 1950s to Present

After the Second World War, Canadian coal production declined from just over 17 million tonnes in 1949, to under 10 million tonnes annually, as diesel engines, oil furnaces, and the rise of the automobile situated oil as the dominant fuel of the postwar energy regime. The last Cape Breton underground coal mine closed in 2001, but continental demands for coal fired electricity generation, and rising energy prices in the early 1970s allowed Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan to develop new deposits. Overall, Canadian annual coal production increased from over 15 million tonnes in 1970 to more than 25 million tonnes in 1975, and reached its highest level ever in 1997 with 78.8 million tonnes. Currently, Canadian coal output remains high by historical standards, with production of just over 68 million tonnes in 2013. This amount positioned Canada as the 13th-largest coal producing country in the world but accounted for only one per cent of total annual global coal production.

Surface Mining

Safety and working conditions have improved dramatically in the coal industry, as most operations in Canada have abandoned the more dangerous underground mining in favour of open pit or strip mining methods. Instead of digging shafts and tunnels, miners use massive dragline and track shovels to remove the “overburden” (rock, soil and gravel that lies above coal deposits) and then load the exposed coal into gargantuan trucks and unit trains for shipment. Surface mining revived the moribund Crowsnest Pass coal district in British Columbia beginning in the late 1960s, supplying growing Japanese demand by exporting coal by rail to a new “superport” constructed near Vancouver. Export markets also stimulated the massive Tumbler Ridge development in northeastern British Columbia in the 1980s, which included the creation of an “instant town” whose fortunes have risen and fallen with market volatility.

Surface mining in Nova Scotia has proceeded slowly, however, due to public concern and fluctuating energy markets, with only one project in operation, at Stellarton. More generally, surface mining has generated environmental concerns over water pollution and impacts on flora, fauna, and landscapes, while burning coal for electricity generation is continually criticized as a major contributor to climate change through carbon dioxide emissions.