By Kayla Jonas Galvin
Company Towns: Corporate Order and Community
University of Toronto Press, 2012
Cloth $55.00, ebook $54.95
I chose to review Neil White’s Company Towns: Corporate Order and Community because of my recent involvement in an interesting project within a company town, Kapuskasing, Ontario. For those unfamiliar with the term, a company town is one that is in some way settled, built, and run by a single company, usually one involved in resource extraction in frontier conditions. White’s introduction provides a solid overview of company towns, plus the current number of company towns in Canada—636 (4).
Company Towns is an examination of two different such communities: Corner Brook in Newfoundland, a pulp and paper town; and Mount Isa, Queensland, Australia, a mining town. The book examines industrial development at both sites and highlights the planned and unplanned elements of town life. By contrasting two different industries on two different continents, White is able to argue that company towns are not universally identical and dependent on corporate entities.
Company Towns also provides excellent insight into Canadian history. It traces the history of Corner Brook’s pulp and paper company as it changed hands numerous times and ties it into a much broader history of Newfoundland, including the province’s entry into Confederation. The book discusses the Canadian resource economy, including the day-to-day life of company town residents, and the politics behind a resource town’s location and its continued growth.
White attempts to demonstrate that a company town’s individualism is predicated on more than the company itself; residents have a hand in actively shaping the town’s history. For instance, in Corner Brook, the flood of workers created a fringe town. Residents in Corner Brook started many of the area’s businesses and ultimately organized to create their own infrastructure. These fringes amalgamated with Corner Brook to create a centralized authority. Not only did residents play a role in formal governance, they also formed co-ops to provide services (e.g., a credit union, health and life insurance plans) not available from the company. Residents started clubs, participated in unions, and later purchased property. In other words, residents participated actively in their own culture and the shaping of their community.
One of the exceptional aspects about the book is its use of historic photos. The photos allow the reader to better connect with the detailed narrative through a complementary picture of life in these towns. For instance, an aerial photograph of Corner Brook (29) not only shows the industry, but also the town’s layout and surrounding water and wilderness. Another picture of a worker and large machine inside the Corner Brook plant illustrates typical working conditions (99).
Clearly, research for the book was reliant on archival sources, and the author does a great job of telling each town’s story using historic materials such as news articles, company archives, and local histories. Although these sources come together to tell a detailed story, overall it lacks character. Oral histories by people who worked at the industries and lived in the towns would have added a more compelling element to the narrative. The factual nature of the book made for slow reading in parts that could have been layered with citizens’ accounts. Without these personal stories, the book fails to capture the sense of adventure that is synonymous with these boomtowns.
This book is an important contribution to understanding Canada’s resource towns. The stark contrast of company and civic life in each town demonstrates that company towns cannot be painted with one brush. White puts it best himself, stating, “Those histories do not follow the paths laid out in structuralism accounts of wilderness transformed instantly by courageous capitalists into productive land, or of company control and resident resignation”(181). By untangling Canadian company town histories from each other, White makes the argument for further study of such communities.