​Oil Springs and Anticosti Island both vying for UNESCO World Heritage Site status as Ottawa considers whether to honour oil and gas history

Drilling near Oil Springs, Ontario in 1886. Image: Government of Alberta

A rolled-up, nine-metre-long anaconda skin that an Ontario driller found on the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela figures in the Oil Museum of Canada. Relics of globetrotting black gold hunts stud the historic site where an 1858 well 300 kilometres southwest of Toronto started the North American petroleum industry.

Keepsakes in the bygone Oil Springs, Ont., boomtown site include a Dyak sword from Borneo, a Sumatran dagger, Japanese sandals, canes from India, Egyptian finger bowls, Persian hookahs, Zulu spears, an Amazon blowgun and poison darts, pinned specimens of tropical insects built on the scale of birds and rodents, and an embalmed tarantula with a 30-centimetre leg span.

The trophies put international merit into an application to Parks Canada. The shrine to industry seeks a prized and contested honour: nomination for a World Heritage Site designation by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The application tests official willingness to promote realism about Canada’s evolution. Guardians of national culture in Ottawa face a question raised by the wave of erasing iconic names from buildings and bridges. Have totalitarian state nightmares that George Orwell called memory holes and Newspeak in his novel 1984 scored a comeback?

Applications for Canadian nominations for UNESCO status come up for review this fall. Verdicts follow in December. The jury, an expert panel selected by the federal parks and environment ministers, has a Quebec option that fits like a glove around fashionable disdain for fossil fuels and visions of energy decarbonization, transition and electrification.

The political premium placed on the UN honour is highlighted by moves to make Anticosti Island, Que., an environmental sanctuary of global significance in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

The Quebec action started as local opposition to planned oil and gas drilling. The protest grew into a petition for World Heritage Site status from about 200 residents in the sole Anticosti town of Port-Menier, who call their island the Galapagos of the North.

The community is outnumbered by 200,000 Virginia white-tailed deer that a French chocolate baron, Henri Menier, introduced for hunting while owner of Anticosti as a private hunting park. The island has also been nicknamed Graveyard of the Gulf: 400 ships have struck nearby reefs.

The petition caught the ears of avowedly environmentalist provincial officials, who were embarrassed by questions raised about the Anticosti oil hunt at climate change conferences deploring fossil fuels. A consortium that included a provincial economic development agency, Ressources Québec, was poised to drill this summer.

The Quebec government swung support over to the Anticosti quest for UNESCO stature and banned the industry in April. By mid-summer the province agreed to pay $61 million in compensation for evicting four companies from drilling leases on the 7,923-square-kilometre island. Negotiations continued with a fifth firm.

The Quebec City oil venture that led the Anticosti group as drilling operator, Pétrolia, accepted its $20.5 million as a case of having no alternative—but refused to fold.

A Pétrolia statement says, “Although we are deeply disappointed with this turn of events, as we are still convinced of the potential of the Anticosti, it’s now the time to turn the page.” The firm switched to projects in Nova Scotia and the eastern Gaspé Peninsula.

The Quebec firm’s zest echoed its Ontario forerunners. The proposed UNESCO Oil Springs Industrial Landscape preserves the ancestral drillers’ legacy of endurance with indoor exhibits and a working outdoor display of 19th-century hardware.

The spirit of the petroleum dawn age is also documented in a book that for its title borrows a nickname earned by the first clan of Canadian fossil fuel hunters: Hard Oiler! by Gary May.

The first commercial oil production relied on muscle using primitive tools. The wells were in a swamp region infested with insects. Workers jumped on springboard-like contraptions that drove down bits fastened on poles. The output was dragged out of the woods through ankle- to knee-deep mud.

Canada’s petroleum industry had an international flavour from birth. Discoverer Charles Nelson Tripp and prototype business baron James Miller Williams were Americans transplanted from New York and New Jersey.

From the pioneer generation of Ontario oilfield hands, British finance recruited Duncan McNaughton and John Buchanan to command the rig crew that drilled the founding Persian wells of the Middle East industry in present-day Iraq and Iran.

The early Canadian oil peerage, set apart by an informal uniform of white muslin tropical suits worn between rig shifts, figured prominently on drilling fronts from Egypt to Venezuela, Mexico, Borneo, Myanmar (Burma) and Sumatra.

The Ontario pioneers included a counterpart to the founder of American Big Oil, John D. Rockefeller. Shopkeeper’s son William Henry McGarvey won renown as the Petroleum King of Austria for an asset network in Galicia and Eastern Europe. A daughter married into European aristocracy before the First World War destroyed family wealth that straddled the battlefields.

In the Oil Springs era, Ontario was a hotbed of frontier freedom-seeking and ambition.

The question awaiting an answer in Ottawa is whether Canada’s formative impulses still deserve recognition, regardless of current standings in fashionable opinion.