The Historiography on the Canadian Oil Industry

23 07 2012

Some topics are over-studied by historians relative to their overall importance. Others are understudied.

A few days ago, I got into a discussion in Twitter with Seak Kheraj and Tina Loo about the historical literature on the Canadian oil industry. Actually, the discussion was about how little has been written about the history of this increasingly important industry. It is increasingly common to refer to Canada as a “petrostate”. I think that this is an exaggeration, but there is an element of truth in this characterization. If Canada is a semi-petrostate, then historians ought to research the origins of this industry.

 Mining, oil, and natural gas currently account for just under 5% of Canada’s GDP, but I think that this figure masks the sheer importance of the oil industry in terms of its political importance, ecological impact, and impact on Canada’s exchange rate (i.e., the Dutch disease). The high Canadian dollar caused by the post-2008 surge in the price of oil has had a major impact on the manufacturing sectors. For all of these reasons, Canadian historians ought to study this industry. In fact, there should be shelves of books on the history of oil in Canada. There are a few such books, but the historiography on Canada’s oil industry is rather sparse, especially when you consider how much has been written about the history oil industry in the United States. There are vast numbers of books on the history of the oil industry in the United States, including biographies of some of the leading personalities, including John D. Rockefeller, histories of specific firms, and accounts of the environmental disasters caused by the oil industry. There are also great studies by academic historians of some of the ancillary industries, such as oil consulting. See Paul Lucier’s Scientists and Swindlers: Consulting on Coal and Oil in America, 1820-1890 (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2008). Many of the books on the global history of the oil industry, such as the epic tomes by Pullitzer winner Daniel Yergin, also contain extensive information about the U.S. oil industry.

I think that it is safe to say that there is far, far less about the history of the oil industry in Canada. Most of the existing literature on the history of oil production in Canada has been written by antiquarians rather than academic historians.  There is one clear exception to this generalization:  Paul A. Chastko’s Developing Alberta’s Oil Sands: From Karl Clark to Kyoto (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004). Another possible exception to my generalization is Christina Ann Burr’s social history Canada’s Victorian Oil Town The Transformation of Petrolia from a Resource Town into a Victorian Community (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006), which explores themes of class and gender. Burr’s book is a good one, but I get the impression that the actual oil industry is peripheral to the social history story she is trying to tell.

I’m struck by the fact so few academic historians of Canada have bothered to write about the history of this industry.  It seems to me that a history of the Canadian oil industry would be of interest to useful to a wide range of people. If properly executed, it could engage with the scholarly debates in the sub-disciplines of environmental and business history. Chastko’s book is a good starting point, but we need far more works like it.



2 responses

20 12 2013
Joyce Hunt

I suggest that you check out this award winning book about the oil sands that was released in December 2011: Local Push Global Pull, The Untold History of the Athabaska Oil Sands to 1930.

21 12 2013

Thanks for the suggestion Joyce!

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