The Slocan: Portrait of a Valley
November 4, 2013
Review By W.A. Sloan
THIS LONG-AWAITED BOOK argues that the Slocan Valley, through its often dramatic history, is a reflection of the region and its connection with events in British Columbia and Canada. Not so much a local history, it offers a broad economic picture of the West Kootenay region, with snapshots of its social components. Gordon argues that the Oregon Treaty’s 1846 placement of the forty-ninth parallel had a profound effect not only on the Native peoples of the region, the Ktunaxa and the Sinixt, but also on ensuing settlement.
Gordon begins by defining the spectacular geography and geology of the Slocan Valley and the place of Native peoples. She provides a brief picture of the influence of the fur trade in drawing the Sinixt, the Lakes people, south within the cultural influence of Fort Colville, but she says nothing about the first gold rush in British Columbia – the Pend d’Oreille in 1854 – which overnight established dynamic mining forces in conflict with the Lakes. These developments would be factors when many of the Lakes people chose to relocate below the forty-ninth parallel on the Colville reserve in 1872, eleven years before the first reserve was established in the Kootenays.
British jurisdiction arrived with placer mining in the 1860s, but Gordon relates that the real imprint on the West Kootenay occurred when, in 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) passed by the northern tip of the region. She overlooks the Northern Pacific Railway, which arrived in 1883 and which, from Spokane, built its “Inland Empire,” which included the West Kootenay. Mining in the Slocan Valley peaked in the late 1890s as the patchwork Great Northern Railway, with its subsidiaries – the Kaslo and Slocan, and the Nelson and Fort Shepherd – both arrived in 1895. This forced the CPR to improve and consolidate its land and rail connections to Sandon. Aided by a subsidy in land and cash in return for a fixed freight rate on incoming food (the Crow Rate), the CPR built the Crowsnest Pass Railway in 1898. This connection and mining lands were combined with the newly acquired Trail Smelter (1896) to form the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company (CM&S, later Cominco), and another subsidiary, West Kootenay Light and Power, in 1906. Gordon makes much of the role the zinc penalty and tariff played in causing reduced access to the American market prior to the First World War. More important to the solution of the “zinc problem” was the shift in interest away from American smelters to Cominco, which was developing an electrolytic process for refining zinc. This process made smelting the huge bodies of low-grade zinc-bearing ore possible; notable was the ore from the Sullivan Mine, which allowed cheaper more permanent rail access and more stability for working populations than was the case in the Slocan. The bright lights of Sandon, with its opera houses and red light district, would dim by 1910 as the town of Trail, with it’s huge smelter and the service centre of Nelson were becoming the “bright lights.”
The remaining chapters address the social elements of the Slocan Valley. By 1910 several mills and a few productive farms were supporting small communities. A speculative boom in fruit lands before the First World War led to the arrival of some notable families and characters but little long-term permanence. By 1910 the Doukhobors had relocated to the West Kootenay and Boundary District, and the author’s synthesis of the issues around leadership, militarism and pacifism, registration of vital statistics, and compulsory schooling is excellent. Despite the picture created of the 1930s Slocan Valley as a “good place in hard times,” the Depression ensured that there was limited work at low wages in valley mines, mills, and farms. Commercial fruit-growing was nearing an end, and in 1938 the Doukhobor lands were seized. A left-wing union (not a company organization, as intimated), Local 480 of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, was formed in 1939 as economic vitality began to return.
The arrival of Japanese internees after 1942 relieved some of the downturn of the 1930s and provided the Slocan Valley community with many resourceful and talented people. Gordon discusses the economic demands of the Second World War, which further expanded hydroelectric generation in the valley, and government treatment of the Doukhobor “extremists,” particularly the seizure of children to enforce schooling in 1953. Government retention of Doukhobor lands worsened relations until 1963, when lots were transferred back to individual families.
Gordon notes that the arrival of conscientious objectors fleeing the United States during the Vietnam War contributed to the valley’s communities and greatly influenced the general culture. A high proportion of literate, highly educated, free-thinking, and tolerant individuals injected energy into community life: artisan shops, galleries, and libraries were invigorated, and property values reversed as cash flowed into the strapped region. Tourism began a climb that, by the 1980s, resulted in a heightened level of confrontation between environmental interests and resource extraction interests.
In closing, The Slocan sets a very high standard for local history. Photographs are well selected and are of high quality; maps are well crafted; and sources are provided.