Company Towns in Canada

Identity on the Land. Company Towns in Canada
SSHRC Grant, Insight Program, 2014-2019

Principal investigator : Pr. Lucie K. Morisset
Co-researcher : Pr. Luc Noppen
Collaborator : Marc de Caraffe

This research project focuses on Canadian company towns, which are single-enterprise planned communities, mostly around a resource-based industry, where one company commissioned an urban plan, built housing for its workers, and set up recreational, commercial, institutional or community facilities. Its aim is to study the urban planning, architecture and housing of these company towns in order to provide an overview of the pan-Canadian situation and to identify the particularities of these settlements, which have marked the territory and history of Canada, as well as the Canadian imagination over time.
Though recent literature regarding company towns points to a new infatuation with them, at a time when a second wave of closings seems to be finishing the rest of them off, with the exception of a few case studies, little is known about the urban and architectural fabric of Canadian company towns. It is revelatory that the pioneer work, "The Company Town" (Garner 1992), explores company towns worldwide, including North America, and yet no company towns in Canada are examined; as shown in the classic work "Minetown, Milltown, Railtown: Life in Canadian Communities of Single Industry" (Lucas 1971), most company towns have been looked at specifically from the point of view of social relationships. Our research project aims to fill this knowledge gap, along with the gap in expertise when heritage issues supersede the plant activities that are the driving force behind company towns.
Above and beyond industrial typologies, we consider Canadian company towns to be a unique corpus given the relative homogeneity of the political, territorial and industrial conditions that have surrounded their birth and evolution. We diachronically explore this corpus from the double perspective of particularization (over the course of time and in space) and of the relationships that the towns, due to networks of industries and industrialists, have with other company towns on the world scene. We thus document the genesis of the built landscapes by dealing with forms (planned and built), as well as with discursive historical representations, by way of five lines of inquiry: 1) the utopian aspect of the company-town project; 2) the circulation of ideas regarding models (theories, sharing among company towns, and landscape-management practices); 3 and 4) the architectural, building, legislative and economic tools used to create them; and 5) the "vernacularization" of the towns, i.e. the conception of a voluntarily typical landscape, most notably by way of a so-called "regionalist" architecture and its potential effect on representations of appropriation by residents.
The research project is inductive and historically-interpretative and deals with 243 towns, the contexts of their creation and, by extension, some 100 comparable towns around the world. We mainly draw upon four types of documents: the company towns and their buildings as they have come down to us, plans and historical views, correspondence and other writings illustrating the context of their creation or evolution, and media depictions of them.