Arn Keeling, John Sandlos, eds. Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, and Memory. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2015. 456 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-55238-804-4.
Reviewed by Jonathan Peyton (University of Manitoba)
Published on H-Environment (December, 2016)
Commissioned by David T. Benac
The history of the Canadian North is littered with abandoned proposals for industrial growth and failed development schemes. Postwar dreams of the future were often grandiose, such as the development of the Beaufort Sea Gas reserves or the many proposals to divert the flow of the Yukon River into the Pacific Ocean for hydroelectricity. Others were closer to the sublime and the ridiculous, such as Major General Richard Rohmer’s proposal for a Mid-Canada Corridor of industrial development or the hubristic reengineering of continental hydrology proposed in North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA). And many others were site-specific, the results of geological luck, state-sponsored and private investment, and the mobilization of engineering expertise in hostile environments. The results of these attempts to make the North productive is a broken landscape, marked by half-built or abandoned ruins of extractive, productive, transportation, and infrastructural megaprojects.
The industrial skeletons that inhabit the North, or “zombies” if we follow Arn Keeling and John Sandlos (p. 11), are the inevitable outcome of an inscrutable concept in Canada. The editors maintain that the “idea of north” has acted as a discourse positioning the region as a space of possibility, full of “stranded” or “undiscovered” resources, a frontier ready for improvement through the development of an industrial modernity. Yet, as the contributors to Mining and Communities in Northern Canada contend, these development dreams also existed alongside the lived reality of an industrial transformation. Through the postwar years the interwoven histories of extractive economies, colonial legacies, and community engagement built an industrial present unlike ones imagined by architects of the future. Hence, contributors to this volume show the persistence of extractive encounters in the Canadian North while highlighting the ambiguities that often characterize community relationships to labor in the mining industry, toxicity left behind in mining aftermaths, and community responses to both the potential of extractive futures and the perils of industrial failure.
Keeling and Sandlos are environmental historians influenced by the annales concept of tracking human and ecological change over time, predisposed to what they call the analytical “long view” of the “northern dream” of industrial development (pp. 2, 4). They frame Mining and Communities as an exercise in “historical political ecology” to emphasize the persistent inequalities produced in colonial-extractive encounters (p. 7). This is a potentially rich vein of inquiry for northern scholars--it provides a normative basis for the often tricky analytical problems that follow the historical and environmental consequences of extraction in out-of-the-way places. For instance, the volume is also notable for its emphasis on individual and community memory, with many contributors using interviews and oral histories to substantiate other empirical detail. In this regard, Mining and Communities is an important step in filling a gap in the literature on the relationship between northern mining and indigenous peoples. Indeed, the most striking claim of this volume is the nonbinary approach it takes to extractive economies, recognizing that many indigenous people welcome industrial development even as they see direct ecological and social dislocations. Most indigenous peoples and other locals encountered in these pages have long dealt with the lingering social, economic, and ecological uncertainties produced in the extractive encounter, at once remembering work in the mines as a moment of common community purpose and as a history and legacy of dislocation and mismanagement. Mining and Communities does well to emphasize the ambiguities inherent in the colonial-extractive encounter in the Canadian North.
The volume is a full of chapters that engage this ambiguity in diverse and creative ways. In a discussion of conflicting stories about the “discovery” of uranium on the eastern edge of Great Bear Lake, Sarah M. Gordon shows how discourses of extraction enabled powerful “narratives surrounding the origin, life, and afterlife of Port Radium [that] do things” (p. 81). Gordon suggests that extractive encounters continue to tell conflicting stories even after production ceases or, in the case of Port Radium, are abandoned to a radioactive afterlife. For Jean-Sebastian Boutet, the mining afterlife of another location, the iron belt on the Quebec-Labrador border, similarly informs current attempts to (re)develop that area’s mining potential. In another chapter, Hereward Longley flips this script to show that contemporary activism in the Athabasca Oil Sands has a long history in local downriver indigenous communities.
Other contributors advance a critique of the corporate and state managerialism that boxes in and often muffles community responses to extraction. As John Sandlos puts it in his analysis of memory at Pine Point Mine in Yukon Territory, northern scholars should be leery of the “attempt to flatten to variety of human responses … into abstract social science concepts such as community resilience and adaptation” (p. 159). He suggests this silencing/accommodation is maintained by state institutions, but he also takes to task scholars and academics tasked with developing protocols for new mineral economies. As Tyler Levitan and Emilie Cameron demonstrate, these managerial devices are technologies of neoliberalism. Their chapter studies the negotiation of impact benefit agreements in the context of northern mineral development, showing how consultation opens up resource space by securing “social license” while at the same time delimiting the terms of industrial participants for locals. Similarly, Scott Midgeley shows how claim to knowledge made in the name of professional science framed the parameters of debate around the closure and remediation of the Nanisivik Mine on Baffin Island.
Together, these chapters reflect a perennial debate in northern scholarship accomplished by scholars working in southern institutions. When northern voices and memories are told, are they manufactured through romantic imaginations of the South? When scholars critique the state and corporate institutions, do they risk reproducing the powerful colonial view these entities operated through? These tensions at the heart of the volume are fully exposed in a final section on mine closure. Here, as Keeling and Sandlos claim in their conclusion, is evidence of the full power and “persistence of colonial legacies and institutions” (p. 379). In this context, Kevin O’Reilly’s piece on the “toxic liabilities” of arsenic waste at the Giant Mine on the outskirts of Yellowknife evinces none of the ambiguities of other chapters (p. 346). O’Reilly analyzes the deeply unsatisfactory solutions to the problem of perpetual care and the inexact science of remediation. He shows how regulatory responsibility for Giant Mine was passed between multiple corporate entities, revealing a governmental structure eager to preserve its mining-friendly status, and a bureaucratic configuration hamstrung by ineffectual legal arrangements. The inability to account for Giant Mine has resulted in a potential ecological and public health crisis. Yet even within this harrowing description of government mismanagement and corporate misbehavior, the central analytical message of the volume rings true: accounts of the North must reflect ability of northerners to simultaneously accommodate and critique northern resource work. Sandlos may rebuff the social science concept of resilience in the stories academics tell, and in my mind rightfully so, but it is clear from the contributions to this volume that northern communities confronted with mining have developed some form of adaptive resilience in the face of both historical and prospective toxic legacies. In this sense, the ambiguities so central to the text of Mining and Communities should be seen as the outcomes of empirical detail, community engagement, and, ultimately, academic analysis. Historians, geographers, and other scholars of the North should be excited for the analytical possibilities opened up by this kind of analysis.
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Jonathan Peyton. Review of Keeling, Arn; Sandlos, John, eds., Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, and Memory.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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