Imperial Standard: Imperial Oil, Exxon, and the Canadian Oil Industry from 1880

7 06 2019

Imperial Standard: Imperial Oil, Exxon, and the Canadian Oil Industry from 1880

Imperial standard cover Full Fin.indd

 

Publishers sometimes send me books in the hopes that I will review them on my blog. I was recently asked by the publisher to review Graham Taylor’s excellent new history of Canada’s Imperial Oil. I was happy to comply. This book is an important contribution to the field of Canadian business history: for more than a century, Imperial Oil has dominated Canada’s oil industry and this important company has a long last been the subject of the scholarly historical study it deserves. I hope that this book will be read by non-historical scholars and by researchers whose empirical focus in on the history of the Latin American countries in which Standard Oil established subsidiaries.

 

Canada’s Imperial Oil has a distinctly British-sounding name that speaks to Canada’s membership in the British/Empire Commonwealth. Throughout its history, however, most of the equity in the firm has been owned by Americans: Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and now  Exxon Mobil Corporation of Texas. Throughout its history, Imperial Oil of Canada has retained a distinctive identity and a degree of operational autonomy from its parent, which has never treated the Canadian oil market as simply another region of the United States. The central theme running through this book Imperial Oil’s evolving relationship with its parent. The author shows how the firm’s strategy and structure were influenced by such forces as the existence of high tariff barriers between the countries, the somewhat distinctive nature of Canada’s legal system, and Canadian public opinion, which is has been consistently ambivalent about the United States and fearful of absorption into the public.

 

At one point, it was common for people who taught and researched Canadian history to organize their thinking around the tension between the forces of imperialism (pressures to draw Canada closer to the Britain), continentalism (forces integrating Canada into the United States), and nationalism. Traditionally, left-wing Canadians were the most sceptical of continentalism and the most supportive of efforts to promote Canadian autonomy by measures such as public ownership in key sectors such as oil and natural gas. I’m old enough to remember when the tension between continentalism and nationalism as a central issue in Canadian politics. Younger Canadians on the left simply aren’t interested in these issues anymore and it is likely that a historian under the age of forty tasked with writing a history of Imperial Oil would have chosen to focus on very different themes, such gender relations in the firm’s workforce or environmental externalities or the firm’s relationship with Indigenous peoples. Graham Taylor, professor emeritus of history at Trent University is a Baby Boomer who came of age at a time when the issue of Canadian economic nationalism was central to Canadian politics and Canadian intellectual life.  For this reason, the book centres on Imperial Oil and the national question, although he certainly also discusses some of the issues I have just mentioned.

From my point of view, which is that of someone who teaches and does research in the field of international business, it is probably a good thing that Graham focuses on the issues he did, since the relationship between subsidiaries and multinational headquarters is a major theme in the field of international business. It seems to me that IB scholars who write on this topic could profit from reading this book.  In fact, those IB scholars who use qualitative and mixed-methods may even be inspired to make use of the archival sources that were the basis of this book, namely, the Imperial Oil archives, which are now kept in the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. With more than 230 linear metres of documents and few access restrictions, the Imperial Oil fonds would appear to be an excellent resource for scholars.

I’m currently working on a project right now that examines the operation of works councils and other employee representation systems in the United States in the early 20th century. Around 1908, American managers and workers became very interested in the idea of giving workers a voice in how factories and even whole companies were run. After 1916, the Rockefeller family became particularly enthusiastic about employee representation systems, which were introduced throughout their business empire, including in Imperial Oil.  Now in the United States, these initiatives were largely killed off by legislation passed during the New Deal. North of the border, however, they persisted in Imperial Oil. Graham Taylor devotes several pages to telling us about how employee representation worked in two Imperial Oil facilities in different regions of the country, skilfully using archival materials he found in Calgary to identify differences between the facility where this system appears to have worked reasonably well and the one where it didn’t.

The field of Canadian business history would appear to be facing some headwinds right now. It is encouraging to see the appearance of this great book.

 


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