Personal Assets - Trades and Occupations
Fishing, trapping, farming, logging and mining are the activities traditionally regarded as Canada's primary industries. They were labour intensive, requiring huge workforces of skilled immigrants who often learned their trades on the job. The main sources of the raw materials required for these extractive and processing endeavours were coastal waters, forests, ore bodies, drained swamps or alluvial plains.
Furs, fish and gold had intrinsic value, but long lines of supply were needed to take them to market. Removing mineral deposits required large investments, as did harvesting forests. Agriculture, the industry that accounted for most workers before 1867, was highly complex. By 1920, it required huge amounts of labour, money and machines.
Efficiency was always an issue. Productivity was low without the use of machines or tools, and unless steam power or diesel engines were used businesses remained small and profits meagre. Labour-saving devices were forever sought.
Coal mining provides an excellent case study of how workers had to adapt. The first instances of coal extraction in Canada occurred in Nova Scotia in the eighteenth century. Similar shallow-pit operations began in British Columbia in the 1850s.
Two classes of workers were needed: trained miners to locate, cut and pile the coal; and unskilled labourers to install shoring, haul the coal to the surface and load it onto waiting ships. As mines became deeper and upper workings grew, work became more specialized. By the 1890s, at least twenty separate trades were needed to operate a coal mine.
In British Columbia, the colliery workforces were a mix of English, Scottish, Chinese, Italian and Slavic immigrants whose tasks followed ethnic lines, the highest pay and prestige being given to miners, usually Britons.
By 1950, there were few opportunities left to increase either production or productivity, and thereby profits or investment. Coal was still mined primarily using a pick and a shovel by men who blasted and dug at the coalface. Increases in output resulted mainly from the discovery of more coal seams and the opening of more shafts.
By 1960, in the east Kootenays of British Columbia, a workforce of 6,000 produced a million tons each year. Apart from electric winches to raise coal from thousands of feet below and steam locomotives to haul cars laden with coal to market, pit ponies and men with hand tools performed all the work.
Then the new colliery owners, armed in 1970 with Japanese steel-industry contracts for coking coal, adopted open-pit mining methods, an approach that used huge mobile shovels, front-end loaders, and thirty-ton trucks to extract ten million tons annually, while employing just 800 men, mostly machine operators and maintainers. Production rose tenfold, and productivity, by a factor of 75!
This is perhaps the most dramatic instance of labour displacement by machine technology. But it happened in all primary industries. Gasoline-powered threshers, and later combines, vastly increased productivity in grain farming after 1940. The sickle, scythe, flail and pitchfork could not stand in the way of such progress. Nor could the countless farm hands the big new machines replaced. In fish canning, a semi-automatic butchering machine, the iron chink, introduced on Canada's west coast in the 1900s, eliminated the need for six to eight workers, usually Chinese.
And with them went their cleavers, knives and sharpeners. Changes in logging practices across Canada between 1890 and 1930, when first steam- then gas-driven equipment was introduced, had tremendous effects on production, productivity, output, markets, profits, and definitely the natural environment. Before 1920, loggers (lumberjacks) using axes and saws, oxen and horses, peaveys and hammers, cut and cleared large acreages of forests in most provinces. When stationary steam engines and steam locomotives entered the picture, operations were spread over square miles. Later, truck logging, chain saws and bulldozers took over that type of work.