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  • Writer's pictureAlana Bartol

Canaries in the Coal Mines

Photograph from the Galt Museum & Archives, 1855-1950. 18 x 12.7 cm. Photographer unknown. Miner's Paraphernalia showing canary cages, airflow and humidity measuring gauges. Copy courtesy of Galt Museum & Archives.

Reading the Warning Signs

Sometimes the very last of a species now sadly referred to as "endlings"are known to us such as George a type of kāhuli or tree snail native to Kailua, Oahu, while many other species are quietly lost.

The phrase the canary in the coal mine is used to talk about the warnings signs of threats to the planet and all life, caused by the current ecological crisis, from the Arctic to small islands to all species of birds, not just canaries. We are living in a time of human caused environmental crisis that threatens the ability of all lifeforms to survive and thrive on Mother Earth. In the face of mounting evidence that our climate is changing, we are living through the devastating impacts of environmental crisis, experiencing loss on a massive scale as we loose forests, glaciers, and species across the globe become threatened with extinction or go extinct. Sometimes the very last of a species now sadly referred to as "endlings"are known to us such as George a type of kāhuli or tree snail native to Kailua, Oahu, while many other species are quietly lost.

Before this project began, I went to Lethbridge in 2019 and spent a few days doing initial research on the coal mining history in the region at the Galt Museum and Archives, and visited the Bellevue Underground Mine in the Crowsnest Pass. I also met the Icelandic artist Gunnhilder Hauksdóttir and experienced Borderline Human, a participatory exhibition emerging from a long-term research partnership between Hauksdóttir, uLethbridge Art Gallery, and Level 2: Lichen Lab, a research team at the University of Lethbridge. I have always been excited by collaborations between artists and non-artists and experimental approaches to exhibitions in gallery spaces. In this case, the artist worked with a team of monkey scientists. I admit, it was the first time I had ever swung on monkey bars in a gallery, but hopefully not the last.

Gunnhilder Hauksdóttir, Borderline Human, 2019. uLethbridge Art Gallery. Photo: Alana Bartol.

At one time, not so long ago, there were actual canaries in the coal mines. The origins of the metaphor lie in the work practices of coal miners that would bring caged canaries into the coal mines with them. Throughout the early and into the late 20th century, canaries were used to warn miners of toxic gases such as carbon monoxide in coal mines in what is now known as Canada as well as in Britain and other European countries. Being more susceptible to the gases, the canaries would collapse and die. After viewing equipment and tools used by miners, I came across a photograph showing canary cages, one of which did not look like anything I had ever seen before. I made a copy of the photograph and a note to look into this strange device further.

When visiting the Bellevue Underground Mine and Museum, I learned that canaries were used in Alberta coal mines. I was struck by the small wooden cages that the miners would keep the canaries in and a drawing (below), of a strange looking contraption with a canary in it.

Drawing of a device that was used to resuscitate canaries, artist unknown. date unknown. Bellevue Underground Mine and Museum. Photo: Alana Bartol.

This device was used to resuscitate canaries - a canary revival machine of sorts. Developed by John Scott Haldane sometime in the late 1890s (it is sometimes referred to as a Haldane machine), a cage that looks to be made of metal and glass, equipped with a cylinder of oxygen on top. The devices were created by Siebe Gorman & Co. Ltd, a British diving company that created diving and breathing equipment. When a canary began to exhibit signs of distress from carbon monoxide poisoning (meaning they pass out and likely fall from their perch), they would be placed inside the device. A valve would be opened and oxygen would fill the chamber of the device, resuscitating the canary back to consciousness.

Imagine the stories the canaries in the coal mines could tell. It was an industry practice that is incredibly exploitative and cruel to the canaries, and the same could be said of the industry and labour practices and working conditions for the miners. I won't get into that in this post today but there is a recent podcast by Alberta Advantage that I am looking forward to listening to on the coal mining history in Nova Scotia and the labour movement, deindustrialization, mining disasters and more.

Part of my interest in researching coal mining history here in Alberta connects back to my family history, which I am continuing to unravel alongside this project. I recently learned that my great grandfather William (Billy) Howard Bartol left school and went to work in the coal mines in Sydney, Nova Scotia at the young age of 14. He was luckier than many workers, moving out of the mines after 3 years and into a job where he worked on the surface managing equipment. He continued to work in the coal mining industry well into his 60s. Perhaps I will learn more and discuss in a later post.

areoccurringnightmare. "19th century coal miners would traditionally take canaries...", Insert Subliminal Message Here., 2012,

After further research, I found that I am not the only one fascinated with the device. Out of the thousands of objects in the Science+Industry Museum, Assistant Curator Lewis Pollard points to the canary resuscitator as his favourite object. Though counter to his discussion, I suspect saving the canaries was more about cost than it was about actually saving the birds. Through my research, I found many images of miners with canaries and even a small canary coffin, possibly made by a miner to lay their companion and protector "Little Joe" to rest. I imagine there were true bonds of companionship formed between miners and canaries as they entered the dark, dangerous mining tunnels underground. Click here to view footage from 1926 of miners with canaries from the US Bureau of Mines.

I was curious to see if I could actually see a canary resuscitator device in person. Noticing the photo credit for an image on the Alberta Culture and Tourism website, I contacted the Royal Alberta Museum and discovered that they actually have one in their collection. Check back in the fall when I will be taking a trip to Edmonton to view it the canary resuscitator device in person.


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