Canadian petroleum was officially commercialized for use in 1851 but was used for centuries prior. First Nations people used crude oil from oil seeps and oil sands to dress wounds, caulk boats and buildings and grease wheels.
The founding father of Canada’s oil industry is James Miller Williams, who inadvertently unearthed North America’s first producing oil well near Oil Springs, Ont., in 1858 while digging for water. The oil was transported to Hamilton and refined into lamp oil, a product in high demand at the time, as the costs of oil from whale blubber were rising.
Charles Nelson Tripp, however, is the Canadian credited with uncovering the potential of oil for greases, naphtha paint, varnishes and burning fluid. He began his exploration near present-day Sarnia, Ont. (called Canada West at the time), in the “gum beds” of Enniskillen Township. This led to the first incorporated oil company, The International Mining and Manufacturing Company, in North America, in 1854.
From its roots in lighting, petroleum found many avenues to grow. Gasoline became a huge market in the 19th century through the development of the internal combustion engine. The transition to gasoline for transportation was cemented during the First World War, and production methods were dramatically improved over that time. Natural gas began to be adopted as an energy source for cooking and heating in southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and southwestern Ontario and was preferred to the coal gas it replaced.
Exploration remained rudimentary until the 1930s, revolving mainly around discovering oil seeps. As the science of geophysics progressed, instrumentation improved to more accurately predict petroleum deposits, without having to rely completely on surface geology, such as seismic surveys. Still, 90% of Canada’s crude oil was imported from the United States. However, a discovery in 1947 at Imperial Oil’s No. 1 exploration well in Leduc, Alta., marked Canada’s graduation from oil-poor to oil-rich.
Within a year, a certifiable oil boom took place in western Canada, as further discoveries were made. The uncovering of the West’s oil potential created jobs, alleviated national economic stress after the Second World War and reduced anxiety about the dependence on foreign oil imports. By the early 1950s, crude oil had replaced coal as the nation’s largest energy source.