If you have a smartphone, you use cobalt everyday. We may not give much thought to the chemical element represented by "Co" on the periodic table, but it has become one of the most important substances in the world due to its use in lithium-ion batteries, which power everything from laptops and tablets to e-cigarettes, electric vehicles, cordless power tools, and much more.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, who has spent much of his career representing the Northern Ontario riding of Timmins-James Bay, lives in Cobalt, Ontario, a town which is currently being explored as a potential cobalt-mining epicentre and where cobalt, then considered largely unusable, was extensively mined as a byproduct of early 20th century silver mining, giving the town its name.
As cobalt mining companies come knocking on his town's door, Angus is exploring Cobalt's history—which saw the theft of Indigenous lands, environmental degradation, and exploitation of a mining workforce—to remind Canadians that, as much as he loves his adopted hometown, resource extraction has a dark side. Cobalt: Cradle of the Demon Metals, Birth of a Mining Superpower (House of Anansi Press) is a timely examination of a town poised for its own version of a gold rush, for the second time.
We're excited to welcome Charlie, who has spent his career fighting on the frontlines of countless progressive issues, from gay marriage to reconciliation, to Open Book to discuss Cobalt, his writing process, and more.
He tells us about how he first became connected to his adopted hometown of Cobalt, how Canadian history has often been taught with a harmful kind of "social amnesia", and the single, striking photograph that started it all.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?
I became obsessed with [the town of] Cobalt from the very first time I stepped foot on its main street. It was a wild, ragged, and haunted town. Although Cobalt was only 500 kms north of Toronto, I could tell that it came from a place that was historically and culturally different than other place in Central Canada. I fell in love with the lore of the great silver rush that took place here in the first two decades of the 20th century.
I heard the stories of how Cobalt wealth transformed Toronto from a backwater into a global financial capital, how its rickety streets once boasted a multitude of live theatres and a professional hockey league that gave birth to the Montreal Canadiens. But as beguiled as I was, I knew there was a darker and more complicated history in this little town. This began a long search to restore the class and intersectional history that had been airbrushed from the story. As I began to research Cobalt’s complex history I came to see how this town was connected to a much more global movement of resource exploitation. What happened in Cobalt in the early 20th century continues to impact us today.
Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?
The Canadian history that I was taught growing up was polite, slightly dull but always well meaning. This history is now being challenged in a very public way with Indigenous environment protests and the discovery of mass graves. This social amnesia was only possible because our history has been a careful curating of voices and stories. Cobalt challenges the polite and sepia tone veneer by which Canada defangs its troubled past. Cobalt was a battleground for multiple visions of how the wealth of the earth could be used and who should be its beneficiaries. Issues of social justice that dominate the discourse today — resource exploitation versus environmental concerns and Indigenous rights; multicultural accommodation versus xenophobic suspicion; the power of the one percent in the face of class resistance — were battled out in the shabby streets of Cobalt. The economic, social, and political struggles that took place in Cobalt made it a crucible for the Canada that was to come.
What was your research process like for this book? Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?
When I research a book I create a master word document that includes every source and possible quote that I think might be of importance. In the case of the Cobalt book I spent a year of work just typing out articles from the local newspaper of the time. It was a very slow process because but it is where I began to see long forgotten stories forming into patterns that often came together to challenge the established narratives. The master document is my most vital tool in building a narrative.
While doing work at the local level I was seeking out sources on a multitude of related subjects – immigration in the early 20th century, western mining lore, global extraction issues, history of sports, theatre and the politics of the early 20th century. I was struck by how events in Cobalt weren’t merely an echo of what was happening on the world stage but was very much tied to a broader global pattern.
What I learned in the research was how intricately connected Canada’s history and Canada’s present economic activity is tied to intrusions of Indigenous land and rights.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I make sure that I have all the key notes and data with me on my computer so that I can write anywhere. I used to love editing in airports while waiting for a flight because there are sometimes hours to kill and the manuscript is a great way to pass the time. Since COVID I haven’t spent any time in airports so I will need to find a new place to pluck away at my projects.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I tend to drive my family crazy because I like to talk through my thoughts on where I am going with my book project. I am blessed to live in a family of writers, researchers and daughters whose wit and intellect very much keep me in line. They are very patient with me as I go over and over what what often seems to be the same ground. In talking with them about the ideas I am pursuing helps me identify problems in the text and roadblocks in my imagination. They certainly push me to look at issues with fresh eyes.
Do you remember the first moment you began to consider writing this book? Was there an inciting incident that kicked off the process for you?
Thirty years ago I found a striking photograph at the Cobalt Mining Museum of a young couple on the main street of Cobalt. There was something so compelling about them and was evocative of a grander or more romantic world. The photograph had no identifiers or connecting information. This photo has always gnawed at me and was an example of how much of the history of Cobalt only exists in fragments. Those fragments often are tantalizing clues to a much more colourful history. When I was well into the Cobalt research I stumbled on the companion photograph of this couple that was being sold as a postcard on E-Bay. The date and single line on the postcard opened a door for into the rich vaudeville history connecting Cobalt to a Parisian fashion scandal of the time. I continue to find Cobalt stories to be a fascinating detective journey.
Did you write this book in the order it appears for readers? If not, how did it come together during the writing process?
This is my eighth published book and I usually find the process of writing to be very methodical and straightforward. Cobalt was more complicated because I was determined not to write a linear history but to use the book to explore themes that placed Cobalt within larger social and political patterns across the Americas. The result was that I ended up going down countless rabbit holes. Many of these rabbit holes were very interesting but it made the book increasingly unwieldy. The transformative moment was when I began to talk about the manuscript with publisher Bruce Walsh. He challenged me to tell the history of Cobalt within the context of the present global struggle over resource extraction. He encouraged me to break out of the straight jacket of a “local” history and to bring this history into the political, environmental, and Indigenous struggles of today.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a memoir of sorts of the 1980s. The decade has often been characterized as an innocent time of fun music, parachute pants, and big hair. And yet the decade began in a time of intense political conflict and uncertainty about the future of the planet. It ended as being known as the decade of greed with the rise of neo-liberal politics. The eighties was very much a decade that was a fracture point that separated permanently the cultural and political world of the 20th century into some of the more dramatic and troubling realities of what has defined life in the 21st century. I was 18 when the decade started and had quit school to play in a very political punk band. My young wife and I ended up running a house for homeless people, runaways and men coming out of prison. The people who were involved with us were all very young with no background in social work. We saw ourselves as drop outs from the rising culture of greed. I kept a diary of this time and am looking to weave the narrative of working on the streets within a broader social history of a decade of dramatic change. I see this as a letter of hope to Gen Zed who are trying to find their place in a very turbulent and uncertain world.
Charlie Angus has been the Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay since 2004. He is the author of eight books about the North, Indigenous issues, and mining culture, including the award-winning Children of the Broken Treaty. He is also the lead singer of the Juno-nominated alt country band Grievous Angels. Charlie and his wife, author Brit Griffin, raised their three daughters at an abandoned mine site in Cobalt, Ontario, that looks like a Crusader castle.