The growth of corporate giant Alcan in 20th century Canada was closely linked to two things: the evolution of the world’s most versatile metal — aluminum — and Quebec hydroelectricity, which provided cheap power for aluminum smelting. Alcan was born in 1902 as the Northern Aluminum Company Limited, a Canadian subsidiary of the United States-based Aluminum Company of America. In 1925, the subsidiary became Aluminum Company of Canada, renamed a few years later as Alcan Aluminum Limited. The firm became independent and assumed control of its parent company’s global interests, eventually expanding into 30 countries around the world and directly employing nearly 35,000 people — 11,000 of them in Canada — by the 1990s. Its headquarters, named Maison Alcan, was based in Montreal. 

Alcan played a key role in the Second World War, building a sheet rolling plant in 1939 in Kingston, Ont. for the manufacture of allied military aircraft. To meet the demand, Alcan built hydroelectric sites in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, pushing production to 500,000 tonnes annually. Such capabilities were adapted post-war to the automobile and domestic aircraft industries. 

Alcan’s operations included the mining and processing of bauxite, which was refined into alumina and then smelted into aluminum. Aluminum, of course, is produced through the electrolytic reduction of alumina, or aluminum oxide, that has been extracted from bauxite (the ore) by a chemical process. Between four and five tonnes of bauxite are required to produce about two tonnes of alumina, which yield one tonne of aluminum. 

The aluminum in turn was manufactured into semi-fabricated and finished products and aluminum alloys. Alcan was also involved in the recycling of used and scrap aluminum. Finally, as this 1955 advertisement in Chemistry in Canada shows, Alcan was a major producer of industrial chemicals. 

Alcan was known for cutting-edge technology, using things such as combined gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and Fourier transform infra-red spectrometry to ensure its metal products were of the highest quality. The company invested considerably in research and development, devising all-aluminum and electrical-powered vehicles. 

Like so many iconic Canadian companies, Alcan was sold to international interests. Six years ago the Australian/European multinational Rio Tinto purchased Alcan for $38 billion, renaming it Rio Tinto Alcan Inc. It remains headquartered at Maison Alcan, but is scheduled to be moved to the Deloitte Tower in Montreal’s downtown in 2015.