To many, the Canadian North exists as an idea – a construct based on a loose, romanticized mythology curated by those who colonized it. It is cottage country to some, the untouched wilds to others, but there is far more below the surface. In Cobalt, Charlie Angus passionately and comprehensively pulls apart the existing narrative about Northern Ontario by exploring the extraordinary history of an overlooked town.
Angus lives in Cobalt and is the Member of Parliament for Timmins–James Bay. His empathy for the place adds a level of authenticity essential for an author attempting to challenge prevailing notions about the Canadian frontier. He lays out the origin of this settlement, where a tall tale about a lucky blacksmith hammering ore out of a rock led to one of the most voracious silver rushes in history. What followed was the further displacement and slaughter of the Indigenous peoples who had kept the land for thousands of years, and who – contrary to the established colonial narrative – knew what treasured minerals were in the ground and what would happen if they were torn from it.
Cobalt drew not only miners hunting their own El Dorado but also a new breed of businessmen and entrepreneur that quickly established a system to maximize profit, feed a predatory and unregulated market, and treat workers like fodder in one of the most hostile and unsafe mining settlements ever founded. In deftly handled prose, Angus details the media manipulation, violence, and government collusion (or ineptitude) that would gradually turn mining corporations into superpowers that spin fictional stories of a “nicer” frontier in Ontario’s north. In actuality, Cobalt suffered municipal dysfunction, disease, xenophobia, murder, and catastrophe, and ushered in an era where the land was transformed into a series of company towns in order to bolster economies in the south and grow a nation.
One of Cobalt’s enduring legacies is the use of false narratives about Indigenous inferiority and self-extinction to justify the exploitation of lands, which resulted in a veritable “Empire Ontario” for the richest Upper Canada families. A staggering lack of taxation and public responsibility is still rampant in the industry; Canadian mining companies are notoriously abusive global players that use well-practised systems of exploitation and land-theft in some of the world’s poorest developing nations.
The titular “demon metal” has yet to be thoroughly mined in this region, though that may now change with the demand for cobalt by big tech companies. Cobalt is at a pivotal point in history, just as it was over a hundred years ago. But, Angus warns, Canada has yet to fully reconcile with its dark past – and present – and needs to do exactly that. Time will tell if those involved will learn the lessons of Cobalt and find a better way forward or start a new and devastating hunt for the spoils of another dangerous frontier.