Devil Copper: War and the Canadian Nickel Industry, 1883–1970 – by Scott Miller (National Defence Canada – Winter 2019)

Located in the heart of northeastern Ontario, the city of Sudbury is often referred to as the ‘Nickel Capital’ for its historic relationship with this particular metal. Indeed, by the eve of the First World War, it had become the world’s leading producer of nickel, and by 1950, its share of the global supply peaked at 95 percent.1

Also known as ‘devil copper,’ worldwide demand for nickel remained strong throughout much of the 20th Century, largely as a result of its far-reaching military applications. While the citizens of Sudbury are generally well aware of this mining legacy, others may not be as familiar with the significance of nickel in Canadian political and military history. This is hardly surprising. As renowned historian J.L. Granatstein once asserted, there is a lack of “…serious scholarship on Canada’s industrial [war effort],” including its mineral and mining sectors.2

The following article attempts to address, albeit briefly, this gap in the historical literature. More specifically, it traces the evolution of the Canadian nickel industry from relative obscurity to an essential wartime enterprise, and highlights how it, in turn, influenced domestic and international affairs from the late-19th-to-mid-20th Centuries.

Birth of an Industry: Canadian Nickel and the United States Navy, 1883–1898

The discovery of Sudbury’s wealth of nickel initially aroused feelings of uncertainty, rather than excitement. The town itself began in 1883 as merely a camp for workers who were building the Canadian Pacific Railway, but within a few short years, it was realized that the area possessed valuable copper ore bodies.

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