Great War Proved Need for Ontario Refinery – Gary Peck

With the First World War, in Canada there was considerable agitation over what was coined the “Nickel Question.” One of the problems that arose pertained to the refining of nickel in Canada. For some, it may have been regretted that our nickel industry was controlled by foreigners. However, for a variety of reasons, it was argued that the refining at least should occur in Canada.

By the outbreak of The War, the necessity of nickel for modern warfare was established. Nickel was necessary for automobile parts, cartridge cases, bullet coverings, heavy ordnance, rifle barrels and armour-plate. Of course, its value was recognized by all of the then major powers. Canada had the new materials that in 1890, were mined by two foreign-owned companies. Yet, if the refining continued outside Canada, this country and the province of Ontario had no control over the ultimate destination of “the product”.  For some, this was not satisfactory.

Evidence suggests that on numerous occasions federal and provincial governments had examined and indeed promoted the refining of nickel in Canada. In 1886, a committee of the House of Commons refused to report a bill authorizing the Canadian Copper Company (C.C. Co.) of Ohio to operate in Canada until its promoters indicated that they would build a refinery.

S.J. Ritchie, first president of the Canadian Copper Company, agreed to the condition. However, the company did not have the refining process, instead relying on the Orford process. Through the years, attempts were made by the C.C. Co. to obtain a different process that could economically be operated in Canada. Yet, the urgency seemed to dissipate with the consolidation of the Canadian Copper Company and the Orford Copper Company to become in 1902 the International Nickel Company.
Another effort at establishing a refinery in Canada arose from efforts to expand the nickel markets. S.J. Ritchie promoted the purchasing of Sudbury nickel by the United States for their battleships. In 1889, Ritchie and Sir Charles Tupper, Canada’s High Commissioner for Canada at London, travelled to Europe with the support of Canada’s Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald.

A number of European countries expressed interest in Sudbury’s nickel. Tupper, in his report to the government, asked “Why cannot Canada herself make this steel?”. After all, Tupper contended, Canada was in a position to “control the character and efficiency of the guns and navies of the world.” No action was taken.

Within two years, Ontario entered the scene trying to interest Great Britain in a scheme that ultimately would result in the creation of nickel refineries in Ontario. Sir Oliver Mowat, Ontario Premier, believed that Great Britain should “acquire a substantial, possibly a controlling, interest in the nickel deposits” of Ontario. This would ensure that Great Britain would have a secure supply of nickel for her military use.

At the time of Mowat’s offer, Ontario withdrew from sale in December 1890 all nickel-bearing lands in Ontario. The offer of the Premier was referred to the Lords of the Admiralty. They declined Mowat’s offer reporting that they didn’t anticipate problems in meeting their nickel needs through normal channels. With this rejection of Ontario’s proposal, the government in June, 1891 rescinded the order-in-council withdrawing the nickel lands from disposal.

Scene is Ottawa

The case for nickel refining in Canada was next heard in Ottawa. Canada, in the late 1890s enacted legislation to counteract what was deemed an unfair American tariff policy vis-à-vis the Canadian lumbering industry. Canada reacted with legislation that in effect promoted the manufacture of raw materials in Canada. At the time it was argued that the same could have been done for nickel. One recommendation, to tax unrefined ore, never did become government policy.

Ontario still pressed. The Spanish-American War of 1898 had demonstrated the effectiveness of nickel steel armour plate. Archibald Blue, director of the Bureau of Mines, went so far as to recommend that negotiations be re-opened with Great Britain in hopes that they decide to enter the field of nickel refining in Ontario.

Blue also urged the Canadians government to tax matte exported and he suggested that future grants of land be on the condition that the nickel and copper ores be refined in Canada. It appears the recommendations were not forwarded to either Great Britain or Ottawa. Unsuccessful attempts were made to introduce the latter.

Other attempts at the establishment of a refinery in Canada would be made prior to the First World War, including in 1910 the establishment of a House of Commons committee. However, at the outbreak of war, approximately 80 per cent of the world’s supply was being shipped from this area to the United States for refining. This was unacceptable for two groups – the promoters of a Canadian refinery and those who were concerned that they had no control over the destination of refined nickel.

Need for a Refinery in Canada

The outbreak of the First World War brought to the attention of the populace the need for a refinery. Editorials and newspaper articles recounted the arrival of the German submarine “Deutschland” in Baltimore twice in 1914. Of concern was the intention of the submarine returning to Germany with a cargo of nickel. With the British Empire at war, the “Deutschland” was in Baltimore twice in 1914.

After years of agitation by individuals and governments, a refinery seemed near. The war with its accompanying wave of patriotism added to and indeed amplified the debate. At last the urgency of the situation was evident and the Federal government was forced to request the building of a refinery in Ontario. In 1916 the International Nickel Company of Canada began construction of a nickel refinery at Port Colborne, Ontario.

Gary Peck is a retired Sudbury high-school teacher with a passion for history.