Company Towns | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Company Towns

Company towns, important in Canada's capital formation and industrialization, urban development, and trade-union movement.

Company Towns

Company towns, important in Canada's capital formation and industrialization, urban development, and trade-union movement. Few survive in the sense used by sociologist Rex Lucas: "closed communities owned and administered by the industrial employer," with homes, stores and even the church owned by the firm. The decline of the firm as focus of the community, the enhanced status of trade unions since WWII, and more liberal interpretations of property and civil rights have combined to render the institution largely obsolete. The paternalism of the traditional company town is no longer acceptable to Canadians, but single-industry communities, especially those on the resource frontier in the North, still bear similarities to earlier company towns.

Company towns emerged during the colonial period, e.g., the Forges Saint Maurice or Garden Island, Upper Canada, for the purpose of ensuring a reserve of skilled workers for family-based firms. They were islands of stability in the chaotic preindustrial labour market. The thrust of industrial revolution between the 1850s and 1890s occurred in cities, not company towns. One exception was the cotton industry, which often created new communities such as Valleyfield, Québec (now Salaberry-de-Valleyfield), based on British or American paternalistic principles. Significantly, Valleyfield's cotton workers, many of them women, were among the minority in true factory settings who organized collectively before WWI and used strike and "riot" tactics to advance their claims.

The Canadian company town's development peaked in the post-1890s mining industry. Cape Breton Island coal communities, Québec asbestos towns and Ontario gold, silver and nickel towns began as company towns. Often the dominant note of social relations was not paternalism but the hard edge of authoritarianism and naked exploitation. During the 1909-10 strike, members of the United Mine Workers in Cape Breton were thrown out of their homes and locked out of the company stores, where lines of credit formed part of a system of industrial peonage. Clergymen sheltering workers in churches were ordered by the hierarchy to stop. Mine operators in Timmins, Ontario, employed "gun thugs" to patrol the town during the 1912-13 gold-mine strike. Only after blood flowed did the provincial government order their removal. Once companies lost moral authority, as they often did, industrial discipline could be maintained only by force, which politicians occasionally decided not to provide in crises. The Crow's Nest pass Coal Co at Fernie, BC, for example, failed to evict striking tenants in 1906 because the provincial attorney general heeded local police and maintained a "neutral" stance.

There are examples of attempts to reassert traditional moral authority through "model" community building and social engineering. Coal companies at Brule and Nordegg, Alberta, made such attempts during and after WWI. Their position was uniquely favourable, insofar as in northwest Alberta companies operated on inalienable crown lands under long-term government leases. The usual challenges to the company town - acquisition of property by individuals, municipal incorporation and incursions by independent merchants - were closed off. But alongside the managers' claims regarding community progress must be placed the long list of residents' petitions and protests. Neither attempt achieved its primary object of avoiding unions and strikes. Paper towns like Corner Brook, Nfld, or Powell River, BC, were relatively successful in maintaining social and political stability with the assistance of co-operative trade unions in the 1920s, but were not truly "closed communities."

Life in the company town could often be fulfilling, but never certain. The fruit of 40 years in Nordegg was destroyed in one day in 1955: Canadian National Railways, increasingly using diesel power, cancelled its Nordegg coal contract, effectively shutting down the mine and consequently the town.

It is not the "pluck-me" store or the coal-and-iron police which defines the company town but the basic economic power wielded over the single-industry community by public and private interests that remain unaccountable for decreeing the life or death of the community. Few may remember that Dominion, NS, is a perpetual monument to long-departed DOSCO, or Cadomin, Alberta, to Canada & Dominion Mining, but the phrase "company town" still flourishes in the Canadian language.


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