Examining the history and legacy of arsenic contamination at Giant Mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories. A partnership among researchers at Memorial University, Lakehead University, the Goyatiko Language Society (a Yellowknives Dene First Nation non-profit), and Alternatives North (a Yellowknife environmental and social justice coalition).
Examining the history and legacy of arsenic contamination at Giant Mine, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
Today, Yellowknives Dene First Nation launched its formal call to the Canadian government for an apology and compensation for the damage and long-lasting impact to their lands and people caused by Giant Mine. This demand is backed by extensive historical documentation, local knowledge, and community voices, some of which are documented on the website “Giant Mine Monster.”
“Today, Canada has the opportunity to address these wrongs and to reconcile with our people.
We call upon Canada to apologize to the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and to ensure our people, who have suffered Giant Mine’s toxic legacy, benefit from repairing it.
Although Giant Mine makes it impossible for us to exercise our harvesting rights in our own backyard, it does not extinguish our rights to manage the environment.”
The Toxic Legacies project was conceived in part to assist the community in documenting this history and supporting these claims, including through the film “Guardians of Eternity.” We’re proud to see aspects of this research featured, alongside stories and reports from the community.
Big congratulations to the final Toxic Legacies graduate student, Amanda Degray, on the successful examination of her MA thesis in April! Her thesis, completed with Yellowknives Dene Elders and knowledge-holders, explores “Indigenous Risk Perceptions and Land Use in Yellowknife.” Through a series of powerful maps and interviews, Amanda’s study provides comprehensive documentation of how historic arsenic pollution from Giant Mine affected and continues to shape Yellowknives Dene land use in the vicinity of Yellowknife. You can read more about this portion of the Toxic Legacies project here.
Originally from Montreal, Amanda is now exploring life on Canada’s West Coast. She hopes to parlay her geography education, skills, and research experience into work in the growing land-use mapping field. We wish her the best of luck.
The Toxic Legacies Project has released its third and final report on the issue of communicating with future generations at Giant Mine. The report details the results of a workshop, where Yellowknives Dene Elders and members of the Yellowknife community put pen (and marker, and sketch pencil) to paper to record their ideas for monuments, stories, and symbols that might warn future generations of the arsenic hazard at Giant Mine. You can fine the results of the reports and a two page summary here:
There is still much work to be done in the community, but the TL team hopes that this report will serve as a valuable resource for discussions as they move forward. You can find more information on communicating with future generations, along with links to all our reports and summaries, at the Communicating with Future Generations project page.
Many thanks to everyone who helped organize the workshop and to those who contributed their ideas during our deliberations. Mahsi Cho!
Guardians of Eternity will be featured this week at the International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences (ICASS) meeting at Umeå University in Sweden. ICASS is the main gathering of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association, held every three years. We presented a poster about the Toxic Legacies project at the last ICASS, held in Prince George, B.C., so showing the film feels like coming full circle! Extractive industries and Arctic communities is a major theme at this year’s conference, so we’re hoping for lots of interest in the film. If you’re in Umeå, please join us Saturday, June 10 at 5 p.m. in Aula Nordica in the Universium building on Umeå University campus.
If you have thumbed through Mining and Communities in Northern Canada, you know that the effects of mine abandonment continue to ripple through communities long after closure. This prolonged ripple effect is also true of abandoned mines’ environmental impacts, especially in northern ecosystems. My second co-authored paper about Pine Point has just been released, and its focus is the mine’s environmental legacy (read the full text online here). In this paper, Dr. Yolanda Wiersma and I investigated whether industrial resource development and abandonment have long-term effects on subarctic, boreal environments using the Pine Point mine as a case study.
The Pine Point mine, Northwest Territories, Canada (Map by Emma LeClerc)
The Pine Point mine (1964-1988) was an open pit lead-zinc mine that shut down when ore prices dropped below a profitable level. At Pine Point, the reclamation strategy involved covering the massive tailings pond with waste rock and building barricades to block access to the site. The pilot study for revegetating the tailings pond was unsuccessful, and no further attempts at revegetation were made. The Pine Point mine was thus abandoned, leaving behind a post-industrial landscape approximately 1900 square kilometers in area, comprised of 46 open pits, the 570 hectare tailings pond, piles of waste rock, and extensive networks of haul roads and cutlines. While this plan for closure and abandonment was deemed adequate by governing bodies at the time, it would be considered unsatisfactory by today’s reclamation standards. Local land users from Fort Resolution have repeatedly voiced concerns about the environmental state of the abandoned mine.
Oblique aerial photo of open pits, haul roads, and cutlines, circa 2003 (Photo courtesy of Deninu Kue First Nation)
Given the passive approach to reclamation undertaken at Pine Point and the ongoing environmental concerns, we set out to discover whether land cover at the site has changed since its closure more than two decades ago. Landscapes are dynamic; patterns are continuously being shaped and reshaped by different ecological processes, and vice versa. By analyzing changes in land cover at Pine Point through time, we hoped to evaluate the long-term effects of industrial resource development and abandonment on landscape patterns in a boreal context.
In our paper, we used four satellite images spanning the twenty years after closure to see how landscape patterns at Pine Point have changed since closure. We classified the images into six different land cover types and calculated a series of landscape metrics to quantify landscape patterns. We performed the same analysis at a nearby site in Wood Buffalo National Park, which served as an analogy for how the Pine Point landscape might have developed in the absence of industrial development. We expected the Pine Point site to become more like the Wood Buffalo National Park site over time as a result of natural revegetation.
Classifying satellite imagery into land cover, pixel by pixel
So what did we find? The landscape metrics showed that the Pine Point site remained quite different from the Wood Buffalo National Park site, even twenty years after closure. In terms of land cover composition, the site in the park is dominated by dense coniferous forest, whereas the Pine Point site is dominated to varying degrees by open coniferous forest and regenerating vegetation. While the metrics indicated that unvegetated land at the Pine Point site is becoming more fragmented – which could correspond to natural revegetation around the edges of mine features – the resolution of the satellite imagery wasn’t fine enough to draw definite conclusions. In addition, the overall amount of unvegetated land at the mine site remained pretty stable compared to the park site; this stability means the natural revegetation occurring at Pine Point is happening very slowly. The long-term monitoring of abandoned mines in northern Canada requires better access to affordable, high-resolution imagery that can capture the fine-scale land cover changes that reflect ecological processes of vegetation conversion.
Map of land cover change (1989-2009) featuring part of the Pine Point mine
Our findings have implications for how we think about mine closure and the problem of monitoring abandoned mines in general. This paper shows that the passive reclamation strategy at Pine Point has done little to effect vegetation conversion at the site. Certainly, this is not news to land users in nearby Fort Resolution, who have repeatedly attested to the environmental degradation of Pine Point. While the comparative stability of the Pine Point site in what should be a dynamic boreal environment may not be a shocking revelation, it should make us reconsider passive reclamation as a viable closure strategy in northern Canada. The abandoned mines that dot Canada’s North pose myriad challenges, ranging from legal to socioeconomic to environmental. Our paper shows that the environmental challenges are not going to fix themselves.
The reviews of Mining and Communities in Northern Canada are coming in—and they’re great! Some excerpts are below; see links for full reviews, where available.
“Keeling and Sandlos pull important insights out of the diverse case studies presented in this volume, and pose important questions for future northern/mining scholarship. … The refreshing variety of disciplines and career stages represented in this collection suggests a revival of mining scholarship is well underway in Canada. This book provokes big questions to stimulate future study.” — Mica Jorgensen inJournal of Historical Geography
“This volume brings together an excellent collection of essays, providing a comprehensive introduction to the topic(s) suggested by its title. It is a notable contribution to the burgeoning field of Canadian environmental history, although it addresses other fields as well including Aboriginal studies, the history of the Canadian north, mining history, political history, and policy studies. Few books attempt to cover such a broad field and fewer still do so successfully. … The editors succeed admirably in their plan “to place the contemporary mineral boom (and accompanying hyperbolic rhetoric) into a critical historical context, as well as documenting the tremendous environmental, economic, and socio-cultural changes wrought by this transformative industry.” — Jeremy Mouat in Environmental History
“For many, Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, and Memory will be a welcome contribution to the scholarship of mining, northern Canada, and Indigenous relations. It is a thoughtful collection of authors who reflect on how mining in the North is not easily navigated, including the historic and current relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Not lost on the contributing authors is the diversity and complexity of the history and legacy of mining in Canada’s North. This diversity and complexity is mirrored in the twelve different mine sites used as case studies. Yet, while each chapter is bound by its own thesis, there is a convergence among authors. It occurs in the telling of northern Indigenous experiences, an often-neglected aspect in the annals of old mine sites.”— Jen Jones in Northern Review
UPDATE: Mining and Communities in Northern Canada was awarded the inaugural Canadian Studies Network-Réseau d’études canadiennes Best Edited Collection prize. The award citation noted “the contributors to the volume comprise an excellent mix of scholars at various stages of their career. We commend the book for its innovation, accessibility, and methodological deft, particularly in relation to oral history and oral testimony.” Thanks to the CSN-REC!
The Toxic Legacies project is pleased to announce that Guardians of Eternity, the documentary about the history and future of Giant Mine, is now freely available to stream online. Directed by Yellowknife filmmaker France Benoit and produced by ShebaFilms, Guardians of Eternity tells the disturbing story the Yellowknives Dene First Nation’s experience of contamination and remediation of arsenic pollution at the mine. The film was a key early product of the Toxic Legacies partnership.
Released in October 2015, the film has been seen by audiences across Canada and beyond, reaching over 1100 viewers at hosted screenings. It was also featured at the Marda Loop Social Justice Film Festival and the John Wiley Lecture at the Canadian Association of Geographers’ annual conference in 2016. The film was also positively reviewed in The Otter, the online magazine of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. It was also listed as one of the 10 best documentaries of 2016 by Canadian Dimension magazine in their “Alternative Year in Review.”
Guardians of Eternity was funded through a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Partnership Development Grant, which funded the many research and outreach activities under the Toxic Legacies partnership. For us as researchers, it has been gratifying to see how film can convey the powerful and complex story of Giant Mine to diverse audiences. Hosted screenings have generated lively conversations with audiences about the long-term impacts of mineral development, industry regulation, environmental justice, and communicating with future generations. Now that it is freely and widely available, we hope the film will become part of creating a more positive future for Yellowknife and Giant Mine.
Based on archival sources and public hearing transcripts, the paper documents how Yellowknives Dene, in particular, engaged in political lobbying and what we nowadays call “citizen science” activities to challenge government and company assertions about the threats of arsenic exposure from roaster emissions at Giant. In the 1970s, a collaboration between the National Indian Brotherhood and the United Steelworkers (the Giant workers’ union at the time) mobilized knowledge around environmental pollution. They conducted their own studies when government research minimized or ignored their concerns about the health impacts of pollution, participated in public hearings, and continued to push for research into the long-term health effects even after the mine closed. The paper shows how this resistance to environmental racism is connected to other Indigenous struggles over industrial development and to issues such as land claims, sovereignty, and colonial dispossession.
Guardians of Eternity will be screened at Queen’s University in Kingston on Thursday, Nov. 10, at 7:30 p.m. The film will be co-presented by project partner Mary Rose Sundberg and researcher Arn Keeling. The follow day, they will also be presenting a public talk about the project. Here are the details:
Thursday, November 10th – 7:30 p.m. Evening Screening of the film Guardians of Eternity in Ellis Auditorium. FDASC Opening by Elder-in-Residence Mary Ann Spencer; Q&A to follow with Yellowknives Dene community member Mary Rose
Sundberg (Goyatiko Language Society, NWT) and Dr. Arn Keeling (Memorial)
Friday, November 11th – 2:30 p.m. Mac-Corry D214: “Toxic Legacies: The Slow Violence of Arsenic Contamination at Canada’s Giant Mine”
The visit is sponsored by the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s, along with the Health, Environment and Communities (HEC) Research Lab.
The work of the Toxic Legacies project was featured in a recent CBC Interactive feature on Giant Mine. The story traces the history and legacies of arsenic contamination around Yellowknife, and explores local reactions to this history. It also profiles recent scientific studies from the NWT Cumulative Effects Monitoring Program that, along with research by university-based scientists, is documenting the extensive effects of historic arsenic deposition on the local environment. The story also offers important insights into the impacts on workers at the time.
The Toxic Legacies project was profiled by Maureen Haver on the Cultures of Energy blog of the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences at Rice University.
“Regarding Giant Mine, the Canadian government’s plan for containment involves freezing the arsenic underground in perpetuity. Beyond the technical challenges, the question of how to communicate risk and containment to future generations by imagining a time in the distant future unlike anything we know now is no easy task,” she writes.
Our documentary, Guardians of Eternity, will screen for free in Toronto and Yellowknife next week. Here are the details.
Toronto Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies York University
Monday September 19th, 2:30 PM
History Common Room
2183 Vari Hall
Yellowknife Wednesday September 21, 7:30PM
Northern United Place
There will be live question and answer sessions in Toronto with John Sandlos, a lead investigator on the Toxic Legacies Project, and in Yellowknife France Benoit, director of the film.
About the Film
Guardians of Eternity is a full-length documentary film about the toxic legacy of the Giant Mine in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. The Giant Mine was part of the founding infrastructure of the city of Yellowknife and can still be seen on the outskirts of town. It is located near the Yellowknives Dene First Nation communities of N’Dilo and Dettah and was built in 1949 without consent on Dene hunting and harvesting grounds. For a number of years highly toxic arsenic trioxide, a byproduct of the roasting process used to separate gold from the ore, spread widely from the roaster contaminating the land around the mine. Today, the majority of the arsenic, some 237,000 tones, is buried underground in frozen chambers. The Canadian and NWT governments are working to remediate the site and the current plan includes keeping the contaminants frozen, perhaps into eternity. The recently passed environmental assessment includes a number of measures, including an independent oversight body and a perpetual care plan, and includes the requirement that research into a more permanent solution be conducted and that the project be reviewed every 100 years. This is one of Canada’s most contaminated sites and understandable there is much public awareness and concern. Guardians of Eternity introduces the people who are most affected by this legacy of a gold rush and looks at the challenge of communicating the danger to future generations posed by the existence of a substance that will remain highly toxic forever.
I travelled to Yellowknife (with a heavy box of maps!) in May with the intention of 1) mapping the changes in traditional land use activities around Wiìliìcheh (Yellowknife Bay), and 2) understanding how mining contamination is perceived and experienced by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN).
Upon my arrival, I was immediately greeted by YKDFN’s traditional knowledge specialist, Mr. Randy Freeman and former Chief of Ndilo, Fred Sangris. Little did I know that Randy and Fred would become my ‘right hand men’ during the course of my fieldwork. From taking me out on the boat to check fish nets, and teaching me how to tell the difference between a healthy and unhealthy fish liver, to showing me traditional travel routes, my experience would have been completely different without them!
Catching, Cleaning & Cutting Fish
During my interviews, I asked land users to identify on two maps where they go hunting, fishing, collect drinking water, and gather berries and medicinal plants. Most importantly, I asked if there were any sites that they tended to avoid for certain land use activities, and if so, why? It became clear that mining contamination, along with restricted hunting zones, increasing recreationalists and municipal waste were major influences in changing traditional land use patterns. Elders explained to me that prior to mining activities, the Yellowknives Dene used to fish along the flanks of Wiìliìcheh and hunt in Wag’we (where the town of Yellowknife currently sits). Today, land users avoid this area out of fear and uncertainty of arsenic contamination. When participants were asked to indicate where they feel safe to drink water and catch fish for consumption, they drew an invisible boundary line south of Wiìliìcheh. What is interesting is that this invisible ‘safe zone’ seems to be based on the knowledge and experience of the land user (there are no public health advisories in effect). Many land users explained to me that fish caught in Wiìliìcheh had sores or deformities, and even at times tasted oily. Further, when talking about firewood in the vicinity of the Giant Mine, one participant described,
‘If you never seen a green flame before, cut some trees around Giant Mine and burn them you are gonna see green blue flames. It’s unnatural. It might be uh sulfur dioxide, it might be arsenic, it’s contamination, it’s pollution from the mines.’
‘Visiting’ the Giant Mine Site
In addition, danger signs such as ‘KEEP OUT CONTAMINATED AREA,’ ‘ASBESTOS: Cancer and Lung Disease Hazard’ and ‘KEEP OUT OPEN PIT’ now bombard and encircle the Giant Mine site. Imagine driving by this site every day knowing less than 100 years ago it was a blanket of blueberries? If there is one thing that’s for sure it’s this: that the scarred landscape around Yellowknife Bay serves as a constant reminder of past environmental injustices. From blue flames, to fish deformities, and fenced off areas, the Yellowknives Dene were forced off of their lands, and with this project I will show where exactly these changes took place.
Before leaving for fieldwork, I was advised countless times not to worry, not to stress too much, not to be afraid that I didn’t know enough or that I would make a fool of myself (which inevitably happened of course). After a few short weeks in the field, my ideas would likely change, my perspectives would be altered and a clearer storyline of information would hopefully present itself. And I suppose some of those things did happen… some of my ideas changed, my perspectives were broadened, but the story only got more and more complex with every person I met.
Giant Mine Headframe (Caitlynn Beckett)
I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with people from a variety of backgrounds and fields including federal, territorial and municipal government employees, scientists and engineers, First Nations leaders, community activists, regulatory bodies and consultants. These people all had very different ideas about what remediation is, what Giant Mine should look like, and how remediation should be done. These differing opinions highlight the difficulties of such a value-laden process. While some focused on remediation as a technical process of risk management, others saw it as an opportunity to heal historical wrongs and to rebuild trust. Many people fell somewhere in between, recognizing the importance of both approaches. This lead me to question how the technical processes of remediation, and the broader processes of resource extraction, fit within contexts of colonialism and reconciliation in Northern Canada. How can the concepts of sustainable development and remediation constructively include both environmental and social issues – and can this feasibly be done in a community haunted by a colonial past and mistrust of government?
Inspecting Thermosyphons (freeze column technology) at Giant Mine (C. Beckett)
In addition to interviews, in February I had the chance to attend the Giant Mine Surface Design Workshop. Participating in this workshop helped to shape my initial research questions and I began to see remediation as a broader healing process, deeply connected to the histories of colonialism, treaties and resource extraction in the Northwest Territories. Throughout interviews, many people identified this as a major point of contention in the project. For many community members, remediation is not simply a matter of technically fixing the mine; they want to be involved in the process; they want to know how they will manage this site for generations to come; they want to heal both the land and the community. Throughout the past 15 years, and through the Environmental Assessment, I think that is has become clear to many Yellowknivers that the remediation process at Giant is more about trust and communication then it is about the actual arsenic.
I also had the opportunity to attend the first meeting for the Giant Mine Oversight Body and a meeting for the Giant Mine Advisory Committee, organized by the Yellowknife’s Dene First Nation. These meetings provided a chance to see the remediation project team in action. However, more than anything, it was all about the people I met (of course)! The people I interviewed, the people I spoke with on the streets, and the people who took us fishing, canoeing and camping helped to direct my research and to show me how it could be useful. Experiencing the culture and the nature of the Northwest Territories was an especially important part of my positive fieldwork experience. At one point, an interviewee was describing how, historically, hundreds of Dene people gathered annually at Tartan Rapids to catch and dry fish before heading further north to hunt caribou. Afterward, I reflected on the fact that I had just spent the weekend canoeing, fishing and camping at those same rapids. The connection really hit me. From both Yellowknivers and the Dene, there was an overwhelming feeling of devotion to the land, both physically and spiritually, which carried through in the Giant Mine remediation discussions. I experienced the fear of wondering what might be in the tailings dust as we drove across the mine site with the windows down and I experienced the difficulty of working through a problem with people from different cultural and language backgrounds. All of these things had felt so remote from afar.
For me, the most enlightening part of fieldwork has been the heightened amount of responsibility I now feel for my research. One goes through ethics approval applications, and it all seems easy, like an exercise in common sense. But I now feel much more committed and connected to the community of Yellowknife and the people who have worked so hard for the past 15 years to heal Giant Mine. I feel a responsibility to do the best possible job that I can, to record their story, to respect the varied perspectives and stories that were shared with me and to provide something that will be useful in the ongoing remediation process.
What will Giant Mine look like in the future? How will people know that the site is contaminated, and how to contain and maintain the arsenic hazards that exist at the site.
A dedicated group of people who live and work in and near Yellowknife have been working for over a year with researchers at Memorial University to answer just this question. Dubbed the “Communicating with Future Generations” Committee, we have talked about everything from the best methods to store records about Giant Mine to what kinds of monuments or stories might best communicate what the site contains. If you are interested in our discussions, we have produced a summary report and a brief two pager on the issue.
A lot of our thinking on this issue has been informed by the work done on communicating long term nuclear waste hazards at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico. You can get more information on the designs the WIPP group imagined to warn people away from the underground nuclear repository, and also read our full report (and two page summary) on how the WIPP ideas might be applied at Giant Mine.
We also want to hear your ideas! Whether you live in Yellowknife or have something to contribute from elsewhere, you can post your ideas about communicating with the future at Giant Mine to our public Facebook page. We look forward very much to hearing your responses, and hope the online discussions will help inform a community workshop we plan to hold in Yellowknife at the end of September.
Edge YK posted this story recently about official warnings against swimming, fishing or drinking water from some local lakes, including the popular Frame Lake, around Yellowknife.
“Frame Lake, Jackfish Lake and around a dozen other small lakes near the Giant Mine bypass road are not safe for swimming, drinking or fishing due to heightened levels of arsenic, Dr. André Corriveau announced today. Frame Lake, in particular, has arsenic levels more than 10 times the limit suggested by Health Canada’s safe drinking guidelines.”
Most of the arsenic deposited in these regional water bodies originated in the early period of Giant’s operations, which began in 1948. Before 1951, no pollution control was used and arsenic smoke was sent straight up the mine’s roaster’s stack. Pollution continued, although at lower levels, through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
Below is a map from the GNWT indicating levels of arsenic contamination in regional lakes.
John and Arn recently sat down with Bojan Furst, producer of the Rural Routes podcast, for a discussion of their work around abandoned mines and the challenges of remediation at Giant Mine. You can hear or download the podcast here.
Guardians of Eternity is coming to Vancouver! Arn will be hosting a free screening of the film at the University of British Columbia on Tuesday, March 29 at 5:30 p.m., in Room 229 of the Geography Building. Q&A to follow. All are welcome!
Guardians of Eternity is a documentary film about the toxic legacy of an abandoned gold mine in northern Canada. The Giant Mine is closed now, but the mess that has been left behind will be with us forever. The Yellowknives Dene First Nation is on the front line because the mine is on their land.
The final results book from the Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada project is here! John Sandlos and Arn Keeling have published a edited book, Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, Memory, with University of Calgary Press. Primarily composed of student work from the SSHRC-funded Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada Project, Mining and Communities assembles oral history and archival stories from across the vast breadth of northern Canada, assessing the varied impacts of mining primarily on Aboriginal communities. The book has been released as part of the Canadian history and Environment series edited by Alan MacEachern, and is available as an open access ebook at http://press.ucalgary.ca/books/9781552388044. You can download the whole book, or individual chapters at this site.
In addition to funding from SSHRC for the research, Mining and Communities received generous support from ArcticNet, the Network in Canadian History and Environment, and the Aid to Scholarly Publication Program.
The new documentary, Guardians of Eternity, is now available for screening. You could host a screening at your university campus or another venue in Canada or anywhere else. Directed by Yellowknife filmmaker France Benoit and produced by Sheba Films, Guardians of Eternity traces the history of arsenic pollution at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine from the perspective of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. The film also asks how we might communicate the long term hazards of arsenic pollution at Giant Mine to future generations. An engaging and visually stunning documentary, Guardians of Eternity is part of a broader SSHRC funded project, Toxic Legacies, that is currently developing public outreach material on the issue of arsenic contamination at Yellowknife. For more on the film, including a trailer and details on hosting a screening, please see www.guardiansofeternity.ca. For more information please contact John Sandlos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You are invited to join Arn Keeling and John Sandlos for the St. John’s launch of “Guardians of Eternity,” the collaboratively produced documentary film by France Benoit about the toxic legacies of Yellowknife’s Giant Mine. The mine is closed now, but the toxic contamination left behind could be with us forever. The Yellowknives Dene First Nation is on the front line because the mine is on their land. The film tells the story of Giant Mine’s toxic legacy from the Dene perspective.
By Rosanna Nicol (Coordinator, Toxic Legacies Project) and Arn Keeling (MUN Geography)
The week of June 8 we held a number of workshops in Yellowknife and Dettah to get folks thinking creatively about how they would communicate to future generations the dangers at Giant Mine and its management needs. The timing was perfect: the Remediation Team was holding surface remediation options workshops the following week.
Our discussions, intentionally unconstrained by physical and financial realities, were a great way to get the ideas flowing before entering into a week of considering technical options of surface remediation of the site.
One example of a monument built by youth in Dettah.
The workshops were centered around an interactive design activity where participants worked in small groups using an assortment of materials and odds-and-ends to design a monument at the Giant Mine. Minimal instruction was given – rather, it was a safe space for creative experimentation. We held four separate monument-building activities, mostly focussed on youth and one public event in the evening in Yellowknife (which ended up centering around radio interviews with a local journalist). A number of the activities were specific to Yellowknives Dene youth; only the evening workshop in Yellowknife included adults and we joined in as well. It was particularly silly, and quite lovely to see grown adults with extensive knowledge of the site and issues surrounding it translating their ideas into miniature landscape models.
A marker with a mythical worm that eats arsenic trioxide.
In all the workshops, and especially in those where participants were previously engaged with the issues (which often comes with a lot of fear and overwhelm what with living next to an extremely contaminated site with no known solution), the inherent silliness of playing with scrap material coupled with the gravity of the issues made for a kind of absurd, cathartic experience – part of the charm and success of these activities.
Below is a short summary of the workshop structure and some reflections on the results including photos:
The participants were briefly introduced to the situation at Giant Mine, the arsenic containment plan and the possibility of perpetual management requirements. Lessons and ideas from the Waste Isolation Pilot Project relating to nuclear waste were introduced, with a focus on Level 1 and 2 messaging using monuments and “menacing earthworks.” Participants were given between 20-40 minutes to work on their design and then each group introduced their concept. In spite of the obvious differences in conceptual engagement with the idea of communicating with the future, some interesting commonalities stood out in these sessions.
Containment: given the arsenic is underground and is forecast to stay there, most builders included some form of containment, backed with a strategy of exclusion. Strategies varied, from deep isolation of the arsenic chambers, to securing the perimeter. Fencing of various types, whether walls, electrified barriers, or moats, aimed to exclude unwary and/or unwanted folks from the site.
A simple barrier meant to contain the danger at the site. This, coupled with leaving the site as it is, would keep people away.
By and large, containment and exclusion went hand in hand, although some presence of humans (in the form of technical personnel) was often incorporated, and some included information centres and messaging outside the perimeter (see point 3 below). Nobody seemed worried about animals or anything on the site. Some models envisioned facilities for the maintenance of containment (freezing structures, thermosyphons, monitoring stations, etc.). In other words, the key to the site for many was the ensurance of permanent containment of arsenic; the theoretical possibility of containment’s obverse, leakage, was not really addressed.
Surveillance: in addition to containment and exclusion, surveillance was a surprisingly common element of these models–especially amongst young people. Guard towers with domed observation decks, cameras, and other forms of site surveillance (outwardly or inwardly directed) were common.
Guard towers out in front of an imagined Giant Mine of the future.
Not sure what this says about the apparent banality of surveillance and security in our time…. But it seems to indicate a strong feeling that not only is the site dangerous, it is dangerous for people to access the site.
Another model for a guard tower.
Some folks (again, especially kids) worried about people getting at or releasing the arsenic (like terrorists). Is this a vision of a Giant (Mine) Panopticon?
Messaging: Without a bit more discussion around envisioning future societies, we think this aspect of the project was underdeveloped.
Lots of signage in this one! Will future generations be able to read these languages?
People made signs of various kinds, but there were few examples of various “levels” of messaging, the question of language, or the use of symbology (with some exceptions). I guess there were a few examples (using the chess men or little people) of using totemic figures to warn people from the site. Mainly, There were signs–lots of signs, mainly aimed at supporting the mission of containment/exclusion.
The message is clear: Danger! But will future generations understand?
Reclamation/remediation and use: Somewhat related to point 1, there was a range of forecast land use goals envisioned, implicitly or explicitly. One of the Dettah youth focussed on leaving the site “ugly” and unusable (an idea which, incidentally, got some traction with Johanne and others at the remediation workshop).
Concept of one Dettah Yourth: keep the site ugly so everyone knows something bad has happened here.
Partly here the idea is that ugliness would preserve the message of danger while restricting future land uses. Quite fancifully, one elementary school group made their site a recreation facility, complete with zip line! Most models seemed to track a kind of middle ground on end land use, with contaminated areas not being really used at all but some areas subject to remediation for use to some standard.
Inviting people in – an interpretive centre designed to inform people how to maintain the Giant Mine Site (and mark the thermosyphon areas)
Certainly, it raises the issue that reclamation and other strategies at the site are ultimately guided by both the issue of waste and contamination as well as that of potential future land uses–something to keep in mind as we work up this material.
All in all, a fun set of activities. Big thanks to Max Liboiron of Memorial University’s Sociology Department for the materials!
On June 17th representatives of Alternatives North, Yellowknives Dene First Nation, City of Yellowknife, North Slave Métis Alliance, Government of Canada and the Government of the Northwest Territories signed a landmark environmental agreement for the Giant Mine Remediation Project. Several years in the making, the agreement provides for an independent oversight body that will review the status of the project and act as an intervenor at public hearings. The agreement also contains for provisions on public reporting and research on how to provide a more permanent solution than the current plan to contain 237,000 tons of underground arsenic in perpetuity. You can read the media release and see the environmental agreement.
The federal government is proposing to use a system of thermosyphons like these at Giant Mine to freeze and thereby stabilize underground chambers filled with toxic arsenic trioxide. Photo by Arn Keeling
Giant Mine is an abandoned gold mining operation that was active between 1948-2004. The mine was a significant producer of arsenic trioxide dust, which was initially sent up a roaster stack with absolutely no pollution controls. After a Yellowknives Dene child died and several other community members were sickened in 1951, pollution controls did slowly improve (though did not eliminate) the amount of airborne arsenic in the local environment. The two companies that operated Giant Mine (Giant Yellowknife Mines, Ltd. and Royal Oak) stored the arsenic dust collected in pollution control equipment in underground chambers, creating a vexing contamination problem that has become the responsibility of the Canadian government. The government currently plans to freeze the arsenic underground, along with measures to mitigate arsenic on the surface of the old mine. After a recent environmental assessement of the project, the government adopted a shorter term time frame for the frozen block project, hoping to find a more permanent way to remove the threat of arsenic at Giant Mine
In January, I had the opportunity to join a panel held at the University of California Irvine’s Newkirk Center for Science and Society, addressing the topic of “community-based science in the Arctic.” The panel was part of a larger UCI Program on Arctic Governance, which unfortunately I couldn’t attend, so I “Skyped” in, which worked quite well. The Newkirk Center also captured the presentation and slides in this nifty video, in which I discuss my experience and that of some of the Abandoned Mines team in working with northern communities to document their experiences of environmental and social change related to extractive development. Thanks to the Newkirk Center for the invitation; I hope you like the video.
“Project Dystopia,” “The Information Tomb” and the “Giant Facility for Environmental Hazards” were among the conceptual models developed for markers and warning systems at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine by a class of cultural geography students at Memorial University. The abandoned Giant Mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories is the location of 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide buried in underground chambers, which the federal government has proposed to control by freezing in place for at least 100 years. Memorial University’s Toxic Legacies project is exploring community concerns around this remediation plan, including the question of how to communicate this hazard to future generations.
Students in Arn Keeling’s third-year Cultural Landscapes class grappled with this problem by creating scale models for their design concepts of commemoration and warning systems. During a class workshop, they used everyday objects like blocks, figurines, cardboard and carpet swatches to imagine how to mold the landscape above Giant Mine to both warn future generations of the hazards underground and to inform them about how to care for the site. They drew on the Memorial research team’s report on Communicating with Future Generations, landscape theory, and other sources to think about the role of landscape markers in a “multi-level” messaging system to warn the future about toxic contaminants at the mine.
The very creative results ranged from minimal markings above ground (so as to avoid attracting the curious), to complex and fanciful symbolic systems intended to deter humans from entering and disturbing the underground arsenic chambers. Many conceptual designs addressed the thorny question of language change by using symbols, monuments, and even colour to communicate danger. Others created mathematical or cartographic symbols to indicate the hazards at the site, or instructions on how to ensure the continued freezing of the underground chambers. Education was a feature of several projects, for groups who advocated the importance of teaching the future about the problems at the mine. Check out some images of the results below.
All the project teams suggested that memorial and commemorative landscapes do have an important role in communicating hazards to future generations. However, as one group noted, “it is important to re-evaluate memorialized hazards to determine the most effective methods of literal and figurative communication as possible. Through this constant innovation and collaboration, society today will hopefully be able to warn people about the hazards that we discover, and those that we create.” Certainly, the models created by the students provide considerable food for thought on the many challenges of how to commemorate the toxic legacy of Giant Mine while warning the future of its dangers.
“Checkmate”: designed as symbolic information system.
This diorama features a two-level messaging system while also acting as a figurative map.
“The Information Tomb”: an underground system of information and warnings.
This team felt it was important to secure the perimeter of the site.
This concept included both an educational function and the securing of the mine site.
“Project Dystopia” created a symbolic landscape of life and death to communicate hazards.
Thanks to John Sandlos of the Toxic Legacies project, and to Max Liboiron for her advice and her magic box of building stuff.
In a new paper for the journal The Extractive Industries and Society, “From Cutlines to Traplines: Post-Industrial Land Use at the Pine Point Mine,” Emma LeClerc and Arn Keeling explore the legacy effects of mining on local economies and landscapes. Pine Point is a massive open pit, lead-zinc mine on the southern shore of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. It began operations in 1964 and shut down in 1988, leaving 46 open pits and a network of abandoned roads and cutlines.
One of the many cutlines around the former Pine Point mine, still open some 25 years after mine closure.
Local land users from Fort Resolution were displaced from traditional land use near Pine Point throughout the mine’s operation. However, our research shows that since closure, local land users have actively adapted hunting and trapping practices to maintain the Aboriginal mixed economy at the abandoned site and surrounding areas. In spite of their grave environmental concerns about the state of the poorly reclaimed mine, local land users have re-appropriated the site to hunt and trap. Many have even used some elements of the degradation to benefit land use by establishing traplines in abandoned cutlines. The complexity of land users’ interactions with the abandoned landscape shows that local land use is dynamic and continues to be shaped by mining long after closure.
This active maintenance of the land-based economy has implications for how we think about the long-term effects of mining and abandonment, in particular. Because mining transforms landscapes, it continues to affect the land-based economy long after extraction operations cease. LeClerc and Keeling argue that mining operations seeking to meaningfully engage with local communities must address impacts on local land use at each stage of an operation, including closure and abandonment.
One of the key goals of the Toxic Legacies Project is to work with community groups in Yellowknife on how to communicated the hazard of 237.000 tons of arsenic trioxide frozen under the ground to future generations. To tackle this issue, several team members have read deeply into the work that was done at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where the first U.S. nuclear waste repository is located. Over the past thirty years, WIPP officials have developed proposals for a complex system of signs, symbols, text, and archival repositories to communicated nuclear hazard over 10000 years. As we thought about Giant Mine, we realized that some issues are similar (the original plan was to freeze the arsenic forever) and some were very different (unlike a nuclear waste repository Giant Mine will likely require active maintenance for long periods of time). Also, the ground kept shifting under our feet (not literally, thankfully); the recently completed environmental assessment of the Giant Mine Remediation Project resulted in a 100 year time frame being adopted (with the hope that new technology will allow for removal of the arsenic threat undeground). Even so, there are still some key issues to consider on transferring knowledge of the site between generations. We hope this report will provide a useful kick-start to discussion of this issue in the City of Yellowknife. You can access the full report or a short two page summary from the links below:
Two papers from researchers working with the Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada team (ArcticNet branch) appear in the newly released issue of Études/Inuit/Studies, as part of a special volume on Industrial development and mining impacts.
Heather Green’s paper, “State, company, and community relations at the Polaris mine (Nunavut), focuses on the Canadian government’s shift away from supporting mining developments in the late 1970s to early 1980s, on Inuit employment in the mining industry, and on the difficulties of Inuit from Resolute Bay in obtaining employment at Polaris, one of Canada’s pioneering High Arctic mines.
In “‘That’s where our history came from’: Mining, landscape and memory in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut,” Tara Cater and Arn Keeling investigate community experiences of historical and contemporary mineral development in the Arctic through an analysis of the cultural landscape of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.
Overall, this special issue of Études/Inuit/Studies provides important insights into past, current and future encounters of Canadian Inuit communities with industrial mining. The journal is available for order via the website linked above, and is subscribed to by many university libraries across the country.
In early June the Toxic Legacies Team converged on Yellowknife for our first major field research trip. Although things could have gone very badly (lost luggage with crucial camera equipment; 3 team members ill at one point or another), we had a fantastic two weeks of constant activities.
John Sandlos and Arn Keeling spent a lot of time talking with groups and individuals about the issue of communicating with future generations (see a future blog on this) at Giant Mine. We met with Yellowknife mayor Mark Heyck, talked with our partner group Alternatives North, met with a representative of the Giant Mine Remediation Team, and presented to the City of Yellowknife Heritage Committee.
We also hosted a fantastic workshop in Ndilo (with a bus bringing folks from Dettah), introducing the project to the Yellowknives Dene communities and holding a long discussion about how the Yellowknives’ traditional knowledge and stories might be used to communicate the hazard at Giant Mine to future generations.
Mary Rose Sundberg spoke passionately in Weledeh about the importance of oral history, Kevin O’Reilly gave an overview of the perpetual care issues at Giant Mine, Johanne Black talked about her work on Giant with YKDFN Lands and Environment, Arn Keeling summed up the status of our historical mapping work at Giant, while our film crew (France Benoit, Ron Harpelle, and Kelly Saxberg) outlined their work on the “Guardians of Eternity” project.
At all of our meetings, we were impressed with the depth of knowledge and expressions of commitment to the issue of ensuring that the Giant Mine site is commemorated so that does not represent a danger to those in future.
Our film crew was almost constantly at work, conducting interviews and building our stock of footage of the lanscapes surrounding Giant Mine. A highlight was a field trip to Burwash, the first small gold mining operation in Yellowknife (c. 1935) and community, and thus the first site of contact between the Yellowknives Dene and the new northern mining economy. In addition to the crew, the field group included the YKDFN traditional knowledge specialist Randy Freeman, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center staffers (local history specialist Ryan Silke and archaeologist Glen McKay), YKDFN member Fred Sangris, and John Sandlos (freed for a day from the archives).
Beneath the bright sun and amid the emerging mosquitos, we surveyed what remains of the old townsite, looked for signs of Yellowknives occupation in the area (which dates back centuries), and talked about the history of the area at the site of the old mining shaft.
As a result of our many discussions, we hope to create a local working group in Yellowknife that will discuss strategies for communicating hazard and the perpetual care requirments at Giant Mine to the near and distant future.
We are moving forward with all projects, so look for more updates in this space in the coming months.
With the launch of the Ontario Liberal election platform, Premier Kathleen Wynne made it official: a centrepiece of her campaign is a $1billion investment in infrastructure to spur mineral development in the “Ring of Fire” region 500 km northeast of Thunder Bay. With or without a matching federal investment, the provincial Liberals (and the NDP, Andre Horwath suggested in a recent leaders’ debate) would send millions of public dollars north to develop an access highway and spur roads to the region, unlocking vast chromium deposits and other possible mineral plays in copper, zinc, nickel, platinum, vanadium, and gold.
And what’s not to like about the proposal? The Ontario Chamber of Commerce suggested that mining development in the Ring of Fire could generate 5500 jobs and $25 billion in economic activity by 2047. The government’s investment in roads and infrastructure would be amply repaid through $2 billion in taxes and royalties. First Nations in the region have been divided on the question of mining impacts, but Wynne promises them representation on a private–public development corporation that will coordinate the broader project. The additional promise of jobs, training, and local investment is tantalizing for First Nations that are among the least affluent in Ontario. For a provincial economy that has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs in recent years, and for First Nations who sit upon one of the most significant untapped mineral complexes in Canada, development seems a win-win for everyone.
History nevertheless offers a cautionary tale to the unbridled enthusiasm for mineral-led economic and social development in Canada’s remote regions. In an essay published two years ago in the journal Environment and History, Dr. Arn Keeling and I described how in the 1950s very similar boosterish rhetoric was applied to the a vast lead-zinc deposit at Pine Point on the southern shores of Great Slave Lake. In private meetings, at Royal Commission hearings, and in press statements, federal government bureaucrats suggested that development at Pine Point would lift local First Nations out of the moribund fur trade and stake their economic future on modern wage labour. According to the federal government and the mining company Cominco, the only thing needed was public investment in a rail corridor linking northern minerals to southern markets. The railroad, according to public officials, would be a great development project, stimulating mining development throughout the Northwest Territories with immense benefits for local First Nations and the national economy. The federal government ended up spending close to $100 million (about $790 million in today’s dollars) on the Great Slave Lake Railroad project, a spur extension of the Mackenzie highway from Hay River to the mine, and also a dam to provide hydro power for the project.
How successful was the railroad and the mine as a spark for northern development? There is no doubt that the mine, which operated from 1964 to 1988, was a highly profitable operation. But as a stimulant to broader social and economic development in the NWT, the mine and the railroad remained at best a limited success. Neither the government nor the mine developed local training and recruitment programs, while the highway was not extended westward to the Chipewyan and Metis community of Fort Resolution until 1972, severely limiting people’s access to the wage labour opportunities at the mine. Archival documents, oral interviews, and the work of other scholars suggests (Deprez 1973, Macpherson 1978), First Nations participation at the mine was extremely limited. Add in a lack of royalties and other financial benefits for First Nations plus the widespread local feeling that the cleanup of the mine was inadequate, and many people from Fort Resolution (and to an extent the Katloodeeche First Nation reserve near Hay River) believe they were stuck with a large environmental mess while receiving virtually no economic benefits from the mines. The Great Slave Lake Railroad failed to stimulate any other significant mining activity in the region; the spur line between Hay River and Pine Point was pulled out shortly after the mine closed due to low commodity prices in 1988. Although many people (Native and non-Native alike) have suggested that the town of Pine Point was one of the best places they had ever lived (a sentiment expressed in oral interviews we conducted and the Goggles brilliant NFB multi-media project), this too was fleeting as the town was completely demolished after closure. For many Aboriginal people in the South Slave region, the Berger Inquiry’s assessment of Pine Point as a form of mega-development that failed to provide significant economic benefits for the permanent residents of northern Canada holds still rings true across the many years since the mine shut its doors.
History, of course, never repeats itself in exactly the same way. The Ring of Fire does at least seem to hold more long term mineral potential than did the South Slave region. In addition, mining companies today typically sign Impact and Benefit Agreements with northern Native Communities affected by development, providing in some cases guaranteed jobs, financial benefits, and training opportunities (though these agreements are confidential so in many cases analysts lack knowledge of the details).
On the other hand, the case of Pine Point does suggest at least some reason for caution about the boosterish tone coming from Ontario politicians and industry enthusiasts. Public (and other) investments in mining ventures are always inherently risky, and geographically remote projects such as Pine Point and the Ring of Fire are particularly vulnerable to any significant slide in commodity prices, which can leave in their wake idle mines and shuttered communities. Also, our research on Pine Point and other mines suggests that mine labour often does not replace hunting and trapping activities, but often Aboriginal people move between the two economies in accordance with the relative advantages of each and the cultural priorities of individuals and communities. Mine employment is not necessarily a panacea for northern Native people, and First Nations concerns about the impact of mining activity on the hunting and trapping economy in the Ring of Fire should not be dismissed as reflections of “backwardness” in the same way as they were at Pine Point. At the very least, the lack of training and education opportunities at Pine Point offer an important warning to First Nations in the Ring of Fire, who are right to be wary of any rapid development timeframe that may neglect the pressing training, education, social impacts and environmental issues within their communities. The prevailing wisdom seems to be, if you build it–in this case a highway or a railroad rather than a ballpark–then they (the mining companies) will come. But unlike the dreamy world of W.P. Kinsella, simply building it does not necessarily wash away all problems, particularly the social, environmental, or economic problems that First Nations in the Ring of Fire currently face or that may be introduced as a result of mining activity.
Paul Deprez, The Pine Point Mine and the Development of the Area South of Great Slave Lake, (Winnipeg, MB: Center for Settlement Studies, 1973).
Janet E. Macpherson, “The Pine Point Mine,” in Northern Transitions, Volume I: Northern Resource Use and Land Use Policy Study, eds. Everett B. Peterson and Janet B. Wright (Ottawa, ON: Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, 1978), 65-110.
Hi readers: As the final reflection post for the MOOC on Scientific Humanities convened by Bruno Latour, I composed this short report on a scientific or technical controversy/debate. It’s a bit late, so I don’t think BL himself will comment, but I hope some readers enjoy it…
At the abandoned Giant Mine in Yellowknife, a controversy I’ve been tracing for parts of this course, a kind of toxic parliament has convened below the surface of the earth. The participants are metaphorically but also sometimes literally drawn underground by arsenic: specifically, [the 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide] buried in subterranean chambers there, the byproduct of over half a century of gold mining and smelting. This massive toxic presence has sparked controversy over who is responsible for it and how to ensure it does not escape its interment and contaminate the environment. As a historical geographer, I have been [working with a historian and local community members] to both document and intervene in this controversy—in effect, attempting to both shape and join the underground parliament gathering to govern this site. The stakes for this institution are high: arsenic trioxide does not degrade and will remain toxic to life forever, so creating durable yet flexible technological and governance interventions is critical.
The origins of this parliament are, of course, both political and socio-technical. Arsenic came to be stored underground after [attempts to engineer a solution to air pollution problems from gold processing at Giant Mine] led to the problem of the persistent materiality of arsenic, now in deadly trioxide dust form. These decisions were made (and contested) by experts such as mining engineers; the public and its representatives had little direct say in the matter of underground storage. The issue entered the public realm, however, when the federal government inherited the mine site and its toxic basement from the bankrupt mining company in 1999. Again, [plans for the containment or disposal of the arsenic] were mooted by scientific experts, with the public largely contained to the sidelines (although, somewhat confusingly, the experts and the regulators were employees of a government agency). The engineering solution was to freeze the arsenic underground, to be maintained in its frozen (therefore inert and immobile), through the use of thermosyphon technology (discussed in Module 3).
As so often in politics, the first bricks of this new parliament were the ones hurled by protestors. In this case, in 2008 the city government (in response to public concerns) and the local aboriginal First Nation triggered a public review of the project by the territorial government (recall that the agency proposing the solution is a federal one). The resulting [environmental review process] lasted several years, between scoping, reporting, and public hearings. Particularly during the 2012 public hearings, intense debates occurred surrounding the technical feasibility of the freezing plan, the feasibility and cost of alternatives (such as exhuming and reprocessing the arsenic), and the regulatory oversight of the project. At public meetings, [citizens expressed their anxiety and concern] about the proposed freezing and water treatment processes—as well as their doubt and suspicion of the expert reports prepared to justify them. As one noted, “I ain’t a scientist and I ain’t an engineer, I’m just a common citizen that lives in the community and is faced with the worry of what might happen.” He also lacked faith in public authorities to oversee the work properly: “It’s a constant reminder to me of the government’s lax attitudes toward industrial development in the North. So, when they say they’re going to clean something up, I want to believe them. But I have difficultly believing them.”
So here we have all the elements of a scientific humanities controversy: expert-driven technical processes, questions of public (and civic) authority, uncertainty about the outcomes of socio-technical interventions, and an overriding, if troubling, reminder of the deep entanglement of nature and society in the Anthropocene (as well as an example of the uncanny ability of waste, in its persistent materiality, to trace such associations). Yet, through the interventions of concerned citizens, activists, and local residents, we can see halting efforts towards disrupting the exclusive, anti-politics of technical decision-making and opening opportunities for ‘non-experts’ to intervene in (potentially) meaningful ways in the Giant controversy. For instance, one of the key recommendations advanced by citizen-activists during the public hearings was for the establishment of an empowered [independent oversight body] to provide ongoing feedback and governance of parts of the project (especially given the situation where the project proponent, the federal government, is also the regulator). Although the environmental assessment agency endorsed this recommendation in its [decision] last year, not surprisingly the project proponent has resisted establishing such a body with anything more than a consultative role.
Secondly, and here’s where our latest work on this issue comes in, local activists and First Nations have raised [critical questions around the (very) long-term governance] of this project, which proposes a solution “in perpetuity” to the question of arsenic management. Such questions were poorly addressed, indeed virtually ignored, in the technical planning process. Working with these citizen groups, we are exploring the issue of [how to communicate toxic hazards (and their containment) to future generations]—not unlike the problem created by nuclear waste storage, for instance. We believe that any solution to this problem is unlikely to be found simply in the domain of experts, but rather in a literal *parlement* where people, things and ideas (like “toxicity”) can be represented and given voice. The goal, then, is to convene a discussion where the actors include not only those ‘present’ (literally, being there now), but also those in the future whose presence we may struggle to conceive, but whose interests are no less at stake than our own.
As part of my continuing participation in the MOOC run by Prof. Bruno Latour, here are some reflections on mining as an indicator of the planet’s entry into the Anthropocene. It was supposed to by accompanied by some funky data visualization, but I haven’t got the data in a format I need it and, well, time’s passing. So here’s the post:
Mineral exploitation is particularly suitable as a diagnostic of the Anthropocene for a variety of reasons, but most basically because of the radical temporal disjunction between the rates of formation of mineral resources (geological) and the rates of their exploitation and depletion (on the order of centuries or decades). If this new geological epoch is indeed characterized by human-induced change, it is well to reflect on the incredible rapidity of that change…
One “floating utterance” sometimes heard about the global impact of mining is that human mineral exploitation now moves as much surficial material as do geological processes such as weathering, etc. The volume of this material, the vast majority of which is “waste,” is on the order of thousands of millions of tonnes annually.
Statistics on mineral production reveal a similar Anthropocene “signal” as the metrics highlighted by Steffen in his TED talk video. By and large, this expansion has mirrored (and indeed, partially driven) modern industrial development. For instance, minerals for use in electrification (copper), construction/alloys (iron ore and zinc), armaments (nickel), as well as precious metals like gold (see below), all show exponential growth in production in the past century. These trends continue apace: global mineral production for all mineral raw materials surged between 1984 and 2011, from 9.4 billion tonnes to 16.6 billion tonnes.
There are some important implications of this growth for considering the scope of Anthropocene impacts. First, declining ore grades (the amount of the target mineral in any given rock formation) has meant that, even as mineral production increased, mineral waste production did so even more. These days, target minerals are often fractions of a percent of the total material moved and processed, meaning that mines may have exponentially greater landscape and environmental impacts, perhaps best illustrated in the stunning photographs of open pits and mine wastes by Edward Burtynsky.
Second, reflecting the basic point about rates of extraction noted above, concern has emerged over “peak minerals,” the rapid depletion of key industrial minerals and the prospects for scarcity of key industrial minerals this trend suggests. Given the oft-repeated importance of minerals to modern industrial society, an interesting thought experiment might be to consider whether the end of these minerals might signal the end of this (perhaps short?) geological epoch…
Following the previous post derived from my MOOC musings, I put abandoned mines back to work for the next course module, which asked us to tentatively “map” a controversy. The key questions to be addressed are:
What is the controversy about ?
Who are the actors of the controversy ?
How are actors connected ?
Where does controversy take place ?
When does the controversy develop ?
Using Giant Mine as a “controversy,” here’s what I came up with:
This controversy is one drawn from my research and is, at first blush, a typically “local” controversy over an environmental issue with a techno-scientific dimension (discussed in my post on techno-scientific objects). The controversy is about the Giant Mine Remediation Project, a plan to clean up an abandoned mine near the community of Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The main challenge and controversy is how to deal with 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide dust buried in the former mine.
To start with the last question first, the controversy developed in the mid-2000s over plans by the Canadian government (through its Aboriginal and Northern Affairs department, AANDC) to freeze the material underground using thermosyphons. Initially, the government resisted a full public environmental assessment of the project, but public outcry led to a referral to the Northwest Territories regulator, the Mackenzie Valley Review Board, for review in 2012. In the Environmental Assessment process and in the media, various actors and interests mobilized to contest selection of this technoscientific solution (derided by critics as “freeze it and forget it”) and the governance processes surround the project. These actors included AANDC, territorial government regulators, the indigenous people of the area (Yellowknives Dene First Nation), the City government, an environmental NGO (Alteratives North) and others.
Arguably, lively non-human actors are critical parts of this debate–arsenic, of course, frozen underground but posing a persistent health and environmental threat, as well as the groundwater threatening to mobilize it into the environment and the shifting permafrost regime of this northern environment (which the thermosyphons are, in a sense, meant to restore to freeze the arsenic in place).
Because this is a “local” controversy (albeit one with arguably far-reaching implications), it’s not a controversy especially suited to the kinds of quantitative analytic tools so interestingly introduced in this module. Rather, it is ideal for an ethnographic and historical approach to ‘following the controversy’ although of course local and national media have played roles in shaping public debate at crucial junctures.
I’ve created a concept map using IMHC Concept Map tools to illustrate some of the links between these various actors, as well as indicating some of the key issues at stake for the intervenors. What this shows (somewhat messily!) is that there are a number of cross-cutting links amongst the players, due to regulatory responsibilities, activities, and even just the sorts of mundane connections one expects to see in a small social setting. Thus, there are “sides” in the debate, but they do not necessarily harden into intractable positions, even though there are significant divisions on key issues.
I’m left to reflect on ‘where’ (in the sense discussed in this module) this controversy takes place. Clearly there are sub-controversies to be mapped, beyond the question of the suitability of the freezing plan and technology, some of which I’ve noted here: the questions of project costs (spiralling quickly); the demands for independent oversight (since AANDC is both the project proponent and regulator); and the question of the perpetual care of this toxic site (arsenic trioxide does not degrade and will remain toxic forever). Macro controversies associated with this issue include:
the issue of environmental justice for indigenous people, who associate the mine with dispossession and the poisoning of their traditional territory;
the issue of citizen involvement and empowerment in environmental assessment
the issue of mine closure and remediation practices and regulation, and the relative responsibilities of government and industry for these problems;
and regulatory processes, seen as a key failing of the remediation proposal process.
In any case, because of these various issues, what appears at first to be a minor “local” controversy has a considerable technical, political and ethical “hinterland” that makes it a very rich controversy to follow, indeed.
I’m taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) from science studies guru Bruno Latour called “Scientific
Humanities.” As part of an assignment, I wrote about the idea of thermosyphons (including those being deployed at Giant Mine) as a “sociotechnical project.” I thought I’d share the post here:
The Thermosyphon: cold technology, hot issue.
As Prof. Latour tells us, “any object is only a temporary stage extracted from a series of transformations the initial project had to undergo to navigate a range of opponents and supporters…” (paraphrasing a bit here). So it seems to me (pace Lepawsky and Mather), that we need to start *in the middle* and avoid the implicit stability and linearity of the association/substitution diagram (even with its detours), while preserving the essential traceability of these relations and moves.
So, come with me to Northern Canada, to an abandoned mine just outside of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, where we encounter these strange, ranked, tube-like figures on the landscape, clearly not part of the old mine. They are **thermosyphons**, and here in Subarctic Canada (perhaps paradoxically), they are intended to keep the ground *frozen*, so as to protect people and nature. ![Thermosyhpons at Giant Mine]
Thermosyphons are at once a novel and mundane technology–[simple science], according to one news report–now at the centre of an intense controversy about how to properly remediate an abandoned mine and protect the local environment and communities from poisons buried in the mine. But to understand why this is controversial, we need to trace this project back to the point at which it moved from mundane, if somewhat clever technological object (no more fascinating, in some ways, than a straw), and forward to when it moved the centre of a dramatic debate about toxicity, climate change, and the future of human existence on earth.
Like so many ‘inventions,’ thermosyphons are at once simple and ingenious. They are a two-phase convection device that consists of an enclosed tube and a gas/fluid medium (carbon dioxide) that allows heat to be transmitted from one end of the tube to the other, with no artificial power or refrigeration. Their use in cold regions dates to the 1960s, but they really took off in the 1970s as they began to be used to solve problems of construction and ground stabilization in permafrost environments.
See, when people disturb the surface (vegetated or otherwise) of permafrost (areas of ground permanently frozen below a certain level, even in summer), that permafrost ground becomes unstable, which can lead to slumping, heaving, etc. In addition, the surface material in many northern regions isn’t really great construction material for dams and mine tailings facilities–it’s porous, and tends to leak and slump. So in the 1970s, engineers began experimenting with “frozen core” dams, using the natural cold of the environment to provide a solid barrier against water. Applying thermosyphons, they could ensure these dams would remain stable, even in the warmer summer months, by keeping the frozen core cold through the air/gas exchange process.
The same issues apply to the built environment: roads, railways, pipelines, buildings, etc., all tend to degrade permafrost; one way to keep the ground below these installations solid is to install themosyphons, which keep the ground nicely cold year-round. This technology is now widely used in circumpolar regions, including in Yellowknife, where the parking lot of the territorial legislature sports thermosyphons to keep the pavement (relatively) secure. It’s also used for hockey rinks. Very Canadian.
Behind (well, not far behind) this technology is a body of knowledge and suite of actors familiar to many northerners: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for one, but also many mining and civil engineers, consultants, construction companies, town planners, and (likely) insurers, all with a common interest in keeping the ground cold, even as they transform it. Capital and entrepreneurs, too, play their role: as a recent [Wall Street Journal] article noted, the Alaska company Arctic Foundations now supplies the circumpolar world with thermosyphon technology. Indeed, as the article notes, the company and its technology have an ever-more important role to play as northern regions face a new challenge to their comfortably (?) familiar cold environment: climate change is rapidly altering permafrost regimes in the north and presenting new engineering challenges to industry and infrastructure in the region. Stay tuned: like the deus (diabolus?) ex machina, Klima will return in dramatic fashion to the thermosyphon story.
Thermosyphons to the rescue
The thermosyphon comes centre stage in this story as the proposed solution to the immense and frightening techno-political problem of how to deal with the toxic legacy of a bankrupt and abandoned gold mine in Yellowknife. The Canadian government, inheritors of this dubious legacy, conducted a series of engineering studies in the mid 2000s to find the best solution to the disposal–or securing–of the 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide left behind by mining that the local community feared would ultimately poison the environment. As the government’s [Giant Mine Remediation Project] website is at pains to point out, in seeking a solution, federal authorities sought the advice of expert [technical advisor] and an [Independent Review Panel], consisting of nine recognized experts in the fields of geotechnology, mining, mineral processing and environmental engineering, toxicology, hydrogeology, risk assessment, and public health. The government ultimately proposed the “frozen block method,” essentially proposing to freeze the arsenic in place underground (it’s not frozen now; permafrost has been disturbed) and to maintain that frozen state using thermosyphons “in perpetuity.”
Here’s where those thermosyphons start to look, for many in Yellowknife, less like friendly symbols of stable ground and more like harbingers of an uncertain and scary future. During the environmental assessment process for the proposal, some experts and many members of the general public (including local indigenous communities) challenged the suitability of thermosyphons as a guarantor of future frigidity, citing the need for ongoing maintenance and occasional replacement. Thermosyphons, with their simplicity and lack of need for external power sources, were touted by the government and technical supporters as key to their suitability for the “long term” solution to the problem; but it is the very question of *how long this term is* that opponents seized upon in their criticism. What about seismic events, they asked? What about climate change, occurring more rapidly in Arctic regions than anywhere else on the planet? Could this friendly technology handle the load? Government experts answered yes, but the criticisms registered strongly with the regulators reviewing the project.
Perhaps even more pointedly, some raised the question of the maintenance of this site, “in perpetuity.” How is it possible to ensure the stability and effectiveness of this technology into a long-distant future, much less beyond the political whims of elections cycles and budget priorities? How can we ensure that future generations understand why these skinny sentinels stand at this site, and the nature of the danger that lies beneath, poison to all life?
As a sociotechnical project, the thermosyphons at Giant Mine ramify like few others I’ve encountered (though no doubt, like many others I haven’t given a thought to). The debate over their use at Giant Mine is ongoing, and I’ll be following their transformations in my research, as I try to understand some of the questions they raise about extraction, justice, care, and (yes) technology.
Early in October, Professors John Sandlos and Arn Keeling organized a workshop with the Rachel Carson Center (held at Memorial University in Newfoundland) on Extractive Industries in the Arctic. With scholars from around the circumpolar world participating, the workshop was extremely engaging, with much productive discussion about the past, present and future of the Arctic.
For a full workshop report, including acknowledgement of our supporters, click here.
Toxic Legacies and Northern Exposures Projects Departments of History and Geography Memorial University of Newfoundland 2014-2015
John Sandlos, Department of History, and Arn Keeling, Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland, are seeking three graduate students at the MA level to work on projects related to the history and geography of toxins at abandoned industrial sites in northern Canada. These positions offer opportunities to work as part of an interdisciplinary team, and funding to conduct research travel in northern Canada as necessary.
Two One-Year Master’s (MA) in History The successful candidates will develop major paper projects on the toxic legacy of former industrial sites (mines, hydrocarbon developments, exploration sites) in northern Canada. One of these projects will assess the role of history and memory in the current controversy surrounding the environmental assessment of the Giant Mine Remediation Project in Yellowknife, while the theme of the second is open.
Two Year Master’s (MA or M.Sc.) in Geography The successful candidate will produce a thesis-based study of historical land use and ecological change in the Giant Mine area.
Comprehensive funding packages are available with opportunities to augment the amounts through scholarships or Graduate Assistantships.
MemorialUniversity of Newfoundland is one of Canada’s leading comprehensive research institutions. It hosts the largest library in Atlantic Canada in addition to specialized research centres. The university is located in St. John’s, a unique and culturally vibrant city set within stunning natural beauty.
Although the funding packages are tied to the researchers, prospective students must follow the formal application process for graduate school at Memorial University of Newfoundland. For more information on the School of Graduate Studies go to http://www.mun.ca/sgs/home/.
It’s Geography Awareness Week across the land (well, the land of Canada, at least). As part of a series of associated events at Memorial University, Arn gave a ‘pop-up geography’ 5-minute talk on zombie mines. Check it out, here: GAW2013.
John Sandlos (MUN history) and Arn Keeling (MUN geography) are travelled to Yellowknife in July to launch a public engagement and research partnership focusing on the “perpetual care” of a toxic mining waste site in the Northwest Territories. Working with academic partners, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and Alternatives North, a Yellowknife NGO, Sandlos and Keeling received a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant to study the toxic waste disposal plans at Giant Mine. The project, entitled “Toxic Legacies: Community Perspectives on Arsenic Pollution at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine,” seeks to generate both public engagement and deeper understanding around the challenges posed by long-term environmental contamination.
Opened in 1948, Giant Mine was once one of Canada’s most significant gold producers, and is now one of its worst toxic sites. Over 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide, the byproduct of roasting gold ore, are buried below the surface at Giant. Because the original owner went bankrupt, the site is now a federal government liability. Recently concluded public hearings in the NWT examined the government’s controversial plans to freeze and permanently store the arsenic underground—plans now estimated to cost nearly a billion dollars.
With their partners, Keeling and Sandlos will co-ordinate research into the historical legacies and future challenges posed by Giant Mine. The project aims to produce an oral history volume documenting the environmental and socio-economic changes experienced by the Yellowknives Dene as a result of mineral development.
In partnership with the Yellownives and Alternatives North, the project will also examine how community involvement and Aboriginal knowledge can contribute to solutions surrounding the challenges of perpetual care and communication with future generations. The partners will conduct local workshops and fact-finding missions, comparing the Yellowknife situation with similar cases, such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico.
Finally, working with Ron Harpelle at Lakehead University and professional filmmakers, the team will also create and distribute a documentary film examining the long-term legacies of Giant Mine.
The three-year Toxic Legacies project is an outgrowth of Sandlos and Keeling’s Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada project, a multi-year, SSHRC-funded investigation into the environmental and social legacies of industrial mineral development in Northern Canada.
John Sandlos and Arn Keeling have written a post for the blog of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (the site is called Seeing the Woods). The post describes a concept we have developed called the zombie mine (sorry, it doesn’t involve actual zombies hauting a mine, but it does refere to other kinds of “haunting” effects from abandoned mines). To see the blog, click here.
The Abandoned Mines team leads, John Sandlos and Arn Keeling, recently prepared a historical summary of the arsenic problem at Giant Mine for submission to the Mackenzie Valley Review Board. The board is conducting an environmental assessment of remediation alternatives for the 237,000 tons of arsenic trioxide stored underground, a byproduct of 50 years of mining at the site. This toxic material poses a major threat to the Yellowknife area environment and public health, as well as the challenge of managing this toxic site in perpetuity (and issue we wrote about earlier in the summer).
The environmental assessment public registry is accessible to the general public. You can find our report here.
Notes from the Field: Mining, memory, and meaning in Resolute Bay
by Heather Green After months of studying the Polaris mine on Little Cornwallis in Nunavut, many miles travelled for archival trips, and much frustration engaging with archival documents, I had the great opportunity to travel to Resolute Bay, the closest community to the Polaris mine (60 km away) and get the stories I couldn’t access through the archives. My entrance into the world of graduate studies has also been my introduction to northern history. I’ve always had an interest in the history of de-industrialization, landscape, and memory as well as aboriginal history. Studying a post-industrial aboriginal community in the Eastern Arctic seemed an obvious choice for me to merge both of these interests and to place myself outside of my comfort zone. Organizing this fieldwork, travelling to the Arctic, and conducting oral history interviews with former Inuit Polaris mine workers definitely took me outside of my comfort zone and, I’m glad to report, this resulted in great academic and personal success.
The Polaris mine was the world’s most northerly base metal mine extracting lead and zinc from rich ore deposits on Little Cornwallis Island from 1982 to 2002; however, negotiations of developing a mine began in 1972-1973. Cominco, the company which ran the Polaris mine, negotiated with the federal government and the NWT territorial government for ten years prior to operation. The archival documents I have been able to access stop the same year that the mine operation began. Prior to 1982, I have discovered that Cominco was environmentally aware of its operation, conducting several environmental assessments. They spent a six year period engaging in a mutli-phase consultation process with seven aboriginal communities deemed to be most impacted by the mine. They intended to offer training employment to Inuit workers and had a goal of hiring Inuit as high as 50% of their workforce. But what really happened when the mine began operation? This was the question I took to Resolute hoping to find an answer.
The Polaris mine operated in isolation. What this means is that the mine was separate from any community, it was a fly-in/fly-out operation running on rotation work with temporary accommodation for those workers on site. However, Resolute Bay is the community most identified with the Polaris mine, as it is only 60 km away from the mine site, the company held all of its official public meetings in Resolute, and the Inuit of Resolute had hunted in the area adjacent to the mine in Little Cornwallis Island for decades (beginning at the time of the 1953 relocation). Prior to arriving in Resolute, I knew the reality of Inuit employment at the mine was as low as 10%, and not all of this percentage was from Resolute. Such a low number of community members working at the mine, physically distanced from the mine site, lack of a permanent community, and any visible reminder of the mine site buried or removed during reclamation had me wondering “do the people in Resolute Bay retain a mining heritage?”, “did they ever think of themselves as a mining town?”, “what is the connection between landscape and memory in such a unique case?” and “is this case representative of a ‘typical’ de-industrialized town?.” I came to discover answers to these questions and many more from the people in Resolute.
First of all, Resolute has no mining heritage as a community. It is not in the collective memory of the town, the younger generation is widely unaware there had ever been a mine nearby, and there are no monuments or commemorations items to the mine; it’s as though there had never been a mine. Individual workers, of course, have memories of their time at the mine, but even those I talked to said that they do not often think about the days of mine work. For most of them, “it was a job” and when the job ended, they moved on to another job. All but one of the former mine workers I spoke to said they enjoyed working at the mine, and all interviewees claimed that mine work is not a part of their self-identity. One interviewee recalled instances of prejudice faced while working at the mine.
I have come to conclude four possible reasons for this lack of mining heritage and identity: 1) there were only ten Inuit workers from Resolute Bay. Every individual I spoke with identified the same ten people. I had the chance to talk with 7 of these 10 (two were out of town and one did not want to be interviewed) and many aspects of their stories were similar. No Inuit employees actually worked underground (two interviewees say there may have been one, but he was not from Resolute if there was one). All those from Resolute employed did surface work such as heavy equipment operator, security, polar bear monitoring, or basic labour. 2) The mine did not bring any significant economic advantages to Resolute, aside from those ten individuals employed. There was no increase to local business, and the only extra service brought to the community was extra jet services and even these usually catered to the mine. Furthermore, 70-80% of the population of working age residents in Resolute already had wage earning jobs and people were not desperate for mine employment. 3) As expected, because operation did not bring significant socioeconomic changes to Resolute, closure did not take away from the local economy. The only reported loss was the loss of the extra jet service and airfare became more expensive. In fact, some reported that with closure and removal of the mine, the animal population around Little Cornwallis increased and “that was a good thing.” 4) The absence of a visual reminder on the landscape makes it easy to forget. Not only was mine infrastructure removed/buried, but there were no significant negative environmental impacts reported near the community due to mining operation. Even concerns people had during development and operation, and continuing concerns, are easy to forget being so far away from daily life.
Prior to operation, Polaris was sensationalized in newspapers as a one-of- a-kind mine due to its size and scale, its barge built in Montreal and towed into Arctic waters, and its High Arctic location. When studying Polaris, it is clear that it truly was a unique operation, not only in comparison to post-industrial places in general, but it’s unique in comparison to other northern mining operations specifically. Cominco had barely any influence or involvement in the community of Resolute Bay during operation of the mine. Aside from meetings pre- and post-operation and the occasional Christmas celebration, the town did not hear from Cominco. In my fieldwork experience, a colonial presence was most strongly felt prior to operation. Interviewees agreed that if more people from the town had worked at the mine they would think about it, and remember it, differently. Many were critical of broken promises from Cominco or feel they were misled by the company in Cominco’s initial plan to hire Inuit workers and bring benefits to the community. Most people reported that they do not think of the mine as a good or bad thing for Resolute because Resolute did not really benefit from the mining running and did not lose anything from closure. Interestingly, every individual interviews said they thought if there was to be another mine nearby it would be a good thing for the younger generation to get jobs and skills.
Our own Scott Midgley recently guest-posted on Baffinland Witness, a web site chronicling the development of the new Mary River mega-project mine on Baffin Island. The lessons of history abound for new mines in Nunavut.
I had the amazing opportunity of attending the Toronto Historical Materialism Conference at York University (May 11-13th 2012) this weekend. In particular, I was interested in hearing the “Indigenous Politics Forum: Primitive Accumulation, Environmental Destruction and Resistance in Indigenous lands:” session I and II. Speaking in these sessions were two members associated with the ArcticNet research project: “Adaptation, Industrial Development, and Arctic Communities:” Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carelton University, Emilie Cameron and Warren Bernauer, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at York University. Both speakers were deeply passionate about their work in Nunavut, critically examining the “social footprints” of extractive industries on Inuit owned lands. But more than that, I was interested in how the speakers negotiated their positionality in terms of the audience, their research, and their very presence in the communities they worked in.
As a graduate student looking critically at the new relationships developing between mining companies and Inuit communities in the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut, I am fascinated by (post)colonial spaces of contact: where Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds meet and grapple with each other. It is these encounters, and the search for minerals that brings these diverse interests together into conversations over actual material resources, that my masters thesis seeks to engage with. Yet, before I can ask critical questions around how these actors meet and attempt to engage in dialogue over land, resources, and capital, I must address the “elephant in the living room.” Call it culture, or colonialism, or Indigeneity but it is ultimately the deeply vulnerable, historical “wound” that remains on the landscape and the peoples of the Nunavut territory. This wound remains within the communities that have been forcefully relocated, the children who struggle to grasp the intergenerational gaps between their own sense of “Inuitness” and their (in)ability to speak to their Grandparents, and the historical development projects which removed children from their communities as social experiments to attend Southern schools. These encounters remain, and have been internalized by arctic communities, haunting the landscape and its people, and it stays a “wound,” whether northern researchers speak about it or not. It shapes the very relations that occur within arctic communities, and haunts the shared and uncertain futures enacted by new partnerships with mining companies.
Yet, the predominant scholarship occurring in the Canadian North, in reference to the “human dimensions” of climate and social change in arctic landscapes focuses on the buzz words of adaptation, resilience, and vulnerability. My recent participation in the International Polar Year Conference 2012 in Montreal, Quebec provided me with a solid foundation of the major interests of Northern scholars and funding. Many projects presented their ability to incorporate Traditional Knowledge (TK), or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) into their research, and how this traditional knowledge could be used alongside an engagement with Western scientific knowledge. While I found many scholars were deeply engaged with the incorporation of Traditional Knowledge into their own work, and were interested in learning more about Indigenous ways of being, I was equally confused by its easy, almost clockwork incorporation into so much contemporary Northern research.
After four years studying Indigenous studies and Global Development Studies at both Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand I have spent a long time in self-reflection over this notion of a colonial wound. As a postcolonial geographer, I am interested in the haunting of the landscape and its peoples. But what needs to be stressed, is that studying these colonial wounds is not just a liberal kindness, or a sensibility as good and ethical researchers working in arctic communities, acknowledging the need for respect and mutual beneficial relationships with Indigenous peoples; rather, I would argue that not talking about colonialism and historic environmental and social injustices allows for northern research to become an almost “anti-politics:” viewing arctic communities as solely vulnerable to changing environmental conditions and turning the researcher’s gaze to what Emilie Cameron calls the scale of the local. Arctic communities become bounded to the local scale, where they are rendered traditional and vulnerable to change: both environmental and social. Changes that can solely impact them as a population at the local level. Changes they can only speak back to at the local level. This adaptation literature allows for the North to critically forget its history, to forget the deeply geopolitical spaces of the North, and to undermine the agency of its Inuit and non-Inuit citizens. By confining arctic communities to the local, researchers can forget issues of globalization, colonialization, and neo-imperialism.
In fact, the silence on issues of colonialism and social injustices, are dangerous because Northern researchers become themselves, perpetuators of the colonial good. By ignoring the political, they save vulnerable populations from environmental harms, while claiming to be objective, and never critically examining their own location. They then believe they are entitled to do this research, to make a difference in the Canadian North, and to advise climate change policy. They believe themselves tools.
At the Historical Materialism conference, Indigenous scholar and poet, Lee Maracle, was in the audience and during the question period she very angrily spoke to a scholar who researched the incorporation of Traditional Knowledge into co-management policies in the North West Territories. The scholar had called herself a tool, a scribe of sorts, to record this traditional knowledge. Lee angrily stated that Non-Indigenous researchers always seem to miss their own role in (neo)imperialism. She argued that when Indigenous communities ask someone to come and record their stories, this is a position. It is not a tool. She argued that Non-Indigenous scholars seem to feel entitled by this position, thinking “I am valuable to the community because I have these skills…” Maracle argued that this is a gross distortion, stating that non-Indigenous scholars should work to understand how the community sees them as valuable, because at the end of the day, the scholar is merely a witness. And being a witness in itself is a beautiful and powerful position: arctic communities cannot witness themselves, what is needed is a witness, someone who will record social and environmental injustices with humility and vulnerability, and not entitlement and distortion. What is required in Northern research is for researchers to turn and face themselves, not just the “supposed vulnerable arctic communities,” but their own world and their own assumptions and entitlements.
I would argue that what is needed in Northern research is a deeper decolonizing of methodologies. A deeper understanding of what it means to be a witness. A reassertion of the political and an engagement with these hidden histories, and shaky and vulnerable shared futures. It is only through facing ourselves, getting beyond this disabling colonial “shame” that we can address the wound and actually understand how arctic communities value us, and appreciate our own value. This value does not come from forgetting who we are and where we stand, and rendering arctic communities as islands of the local; rather, it is by transforming our research into a ceremony of witness which we attend, looking back at ourselves and then those that we study with, through a deeply emotional, political, and historical lens.
This is messy research. And it is hard. And Non-Indigenous scholars seem to be very bad at it. Many ask: “I do not understand. What is different about Indigenous communities? We have these problems where I live too!” This in itself is an “anti-politics” argument. As non-Indigenous scholars we do not share the same histories. In Nunavut, the suicide rate is very high. Suicide rates are important as they ensure we pay attention to the real issue, that we address the political. Suicide rates are so high because of a loss of hope, a loss of that place to stand, a deep internalization of colonial and postcolonial injustices. Life expectancy is lower in Nunavut. Sexual abuse is higher. We live in vastly different worlds. The rest of the predominantly Non-Indigenous South is not as stressed, as haunted by these stories. To do good work in arctic communities we must firstly acknowledge difference, we must see difference differently, and we must position ourselves within the political. Because we are always political whether we choose to speak about colonialism, or whether we choose to speak in “anti-political” language. That which is not spoken always remains within our words, haunting our easy incorporation of traditional knowledge, and begging to be acknowledged and addressed. Our research in the Canadian North requires our acceptance (and attendance) of our role as witnesses.
My experience at the International Polar Year Conference held in Montreal this year was just that – an experience! I was able to attend APECS workshops the weekend leading up to the conference, and on the evening of the workshop meet and greet excitement was in the air. Between so many “early career scientists” buzzing to exchange research ideas and the student riots happening outside of the Palais des Congrès the atmosphere was contagious. As a social science researcher, one of the most productive and encouraging aspects of the IPY experience for me was attending the IASC Social & Human Sciences Working Group meeting. Because this conference has such a strong scientific focus, at times I found the break-out sessions challenging to relate to and to see how my own research fit. The SHS Working Group allowed me to hear about exciting social science work happening in Arctic areas and to understand more fully how my research will contribute to this. That realization was quite validating. Finally, I heard much talk about networking at this conference. Many researchers were eager to locate well known scientists around the conference hall. I also was able to network with “big name” international academics and researchers in the social science disciplines. More importantly, in my opinion, was that IPY gave me an opportunity to “network” with other early career scientists and get a sense of what is currently happening (under the radar in many cases)! I met some really interesting people who have done and continue to do important work in the Arctic. When I left the IPY conference I came away with a sense of feeling privileged to have the opportunity to do Arctic research and excited about what the future holds for the upcoming generation of social science Arctic researchers.
The Abandoned Mines team has a strong presence at IPY 2012 in Montreal, the final meeting of the most recent International Polar Year. Three students have posters highlighting their work: Scott Midgley on Nanisivik and Svalbard; Heather Green on the Polaris Mine; and Tara Cater on Rankin Inlet. In addition, there are papers being delivered tomorrow, between 3:30 and 5 p.m. (room 520d in the Palais de Congres, for those of you in MTL), by John Sandlos and Arn Keeling (on Rankin Inlet) and Scott Midgley (on Nanisivik). Look us up if you can!
What does “perpetual care” of a contaminated mine site mean in practical terms? Alternatives North, an ENGO based in Yellowknife, tackles this question head on in a fascinating report recently filed with the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board for its consideration of the Giant Mine cleanup. You remember Giant Mine: where over a half-century of gold mining left 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide buried in underground chambers, not to mention widespread surface disturbance, contamination, waste rock and tailings piles, etc., all within 6 km of Yellowknife. The MVEIRB is reviewing the proposed federal cleanup and stabilization plan, which has generated considerable controversy in the community.
The federal government is proposing to use a system of thermosyphons like these at Giant Mine to freeze and thereby stabilize underground chambers filled with toxic arsenic trioxide. Photo by Arn Keeling
The Alternatives North report, available on the MVEIRB public registry, asks the critically important question: what are the key principles of “perpetual care” that must guide the remediation? This question is crucial because the federal cleanup plan calls for the in situ stabilization of the arsenic underground… forever. Based on a study commissioned by Alternatives North called The Theory and Practice of Perpetual Care of Contaminated Sites (by MiningWatch’s Joan Kuyek), the current report identifies five key principles for guiding decision-making at Giant:
Responsibility to future generations
Protection of the “commons”
The “precautionary principle”
Free, prior and informed participation and consent
Nature as a guide.
The report and these recommendations gives those of us thinking about mining, history and justice a lot to consider. How, by remembering, can we ensure such problems never happen again (which the report points out is job one)? Can historical research contribute to identifying how such a disaster happened and who is responsible for it (in moral, and perhaps even legal terms)? And how can our understanding of history and communication across time (and space) help ensure future generations understand the nature of the hazards at Giant?
Some scholars have considered this latter problem at other sites, such as long-term radioactive waste storage facilities. Concordia communications professor Peter van Wyck’s studies of nuclear waste and uranium mining, for instance, highlight important justice and communications theory insights into confronting the historical, contemporary, and future hazards associated with uranium production and other nuclear activities, including at the abandoned Port Radium mine site. Similarly, environmental sociologist Valerie Kuletz explores the “tainted desert” around the Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States, where uranium mining, nuclear testing and finally nuclear waste disposal have created a “sacrificial landscape.” She examines the attempts by artists, anthropologists and others to create a symbolism for the proposedcanceled nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain that will somehow communicate to future generations, unimaginably different from our own, that this site is toxic to life.
The Alternatives North report raises important issues for the environmental review of the Giant Mine remediation project. It’s doubtful that these questions were actively considered in the highly technical solutions proposed by the federal government. While some of the principles or their specific application to the Giant case may be debated—particularly the idea that “nature” can somehow “guide” technological decision-making—these are critical considerations for addressing the historical legacies of this, one of Canada’s most notorious abandoned mines.
In 1976 a new mine began production on the northern tip of Baffin Island in the Canadian High Arctic – a location that experiences complete darkness from late November until early February and an average temperature of -29C in January. Located 750km north of the Arctic Circle, the Nanisivik lead-zinc mine was the first Arctic mine and northernmost mine in Canada at the time of its establishment in 1976. Opened by Mineral Resources International (MRI), the Nanisivik venture was supported by the government in the hope that this pioneer project would pave the way for mining across Canada’s northern resource frontier. The mine typically employed 200 people during its operation, and a purpose built town site including a school, church, post office, recreational centre, dining hall and housing was constructed to support those who worked at the mine. Understanding the establishment and impact of this unique venture has been one of the foci of my research over the past year.
Historical and contemporary documents reveal the captivating way in which Nanisivik was cast as an experiment to test the feasibility of operating in the Arctic. Jean Chrétien, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, described Nanisivik as a “pilot Arctic mining venture involving many new concepts” and hailed Nanisivik as “a model for future mineral developments in the Arctic” that sought to ground- proof new technologies, fine tune Arctic operations and introduce Inuit to an industrial lifestyle (Gibson 1978, 51). In particular, this venture provided an opportunity to develop Canadian shipping in the Arctic, and through rigorous scientific study become a working model of technological innovation and engineering triumph (Yates 1975). The government envisaged Nanisivik as prompting an industrial revolution in the Baffin Region (Hickling Partners Inc 1981) but also as a “method of maintaining Canadian sovereignty and security in the North” (LAC archival files). To ensure that the legacies of this Arctic experiment were positive, the government and MRI formed the Strathcona Agreement under which MRI pledged compliance with the government’s social, environmental and economic objectives for the North (Indian Affairs and Northern Development 1976).
This experiment proved successful: the Nanisivik mine profitably operated for twenty- six years until its closure in 2002. Nanisivik’s closure renewed the importance of the mine as a pilot project amid efforts to ensure that Nanisivik left only positive legacies. Reclamation has been completed and monitoring is currently on-going, but contamination has resulted in demolition of the townsite and no new economic activity has developed at Nanisivik. Current research is investigating how the historic legacies of mining have been dealt with after the closure of this pioneering High Arctic mine – stay posted for updates!
Hot off the press: in the latest issue of the international journal Environment and History, abandoned mines researchers Arn Keeling and John Sandlos critically examine the failures and contradictions of mega-project resource development in the Canadian North, through the case of the Pine Point Mine in the Northwest Territories. Based on archival research and our own exploration of the Pine Point landscape, we write that “while the mine and planned town built to service it flourished for nearly a quarter century, the larger goals of modernisation, industrial development and Aboriginal assimilation were unrealised.”
Operating from 1964 to 1989, the Pine Point mine provides important touchstones for contemporary debates about northern resource development, economic stability, and environmental sustainability. At the time of construction, the mine was heralded as a catalyst for an economically depressed region, and the federal government poured nearly $100 million in direct subsidies for infrastructure to support the mine. This included construction of the Great Slave Lake Railway from northern Alberta to the southern shores of Great Slave Lake, to transport ore from Pine Point to the Cominco smelter in Trail, B.C.
An street in the abandoned town of Pine Point (J. Sandlos)
Today, the abandoned mine and town at Pine Point present a remarkable landscape: shorn of all buildings, all that remains the former town of 2,000 are cracked streets and sidewalks. Similarly, the mine operation has been dismantled, leaving behind a lone powerline and an extensive landscape of open pits, waste piles and haul roads. The once productive landscape is derelict, slowly being recolonized by vegetation and animals. (The social history of the former town has been explored in an imaginative recent multimedia exhibit hosted by the National Film Board, “Welcome to Pine Point.”)
In the article, we examine the rationale behind the mine’s development and its impact on local First Nations communities. Our interpretation of this history draws from political ecology to argue that “the forces of mega-project development joined with modern mining’s technologies of ‘mass destruction’ to produce a deeply scarred and problematic landscape that ultimately failed in its quest to bring modern industrialism to the Canadian sub-Arctic.”
Recent comments from Joe Oliver are damaging to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline hearings not as much from persuasiveness but from distraction. Like the ethical oil argument, Oliver’s accusations about foreign puppeteering of Canadian environmental groups has distracted from the more important points of debate (tanker traffic, energy security, manufacturing jobs, pipeline ruptures, climate change etc.) and occupied the media spotlight on the opening of the hearings.
Much time was wasted and ink was spilled (including this piece) in discussion of Oliver’s letter. News sources across Canada were clogged with coverage and discussion. The executive director of the Sierra club, John Bennet, made likely his most watched T.V. appearance, hopelessly debated Kathryn Marshall from the Ethical Oil Institute, a display reminiscent of the 2000 presidential debates between Al Gore and George Bush.
The comments polarize Canadians over the incredibly complex issues of economy, energy security, and environmental protection by saying that if you’re against the gateway you’re against Canada. As a piece of PR it was really quite brilliant but absolutely terrible for the tone and quality of political debate in Canada.
The debate about foreign influence on oil sands policy is an important, though not paramount in the pipeline inquiry. Terry Glavin wrote a great article on the scale and significance of foreign investment in oil sands development. However this article is testament to the power of Oliver’s comments in distracting from more important issues.
One of best direct responses to Oliver’s letter, was from Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party. Her letter seeks re-frame the debate to issues of energy security, environmental protection, climate change, and the economy.
But more significantly, May’s letter reveals the power of the aggression of the rhetoric Harper government, as her letter takes remarkably centrist position on environmental policy for a Green Party MP. She does not mention climate change until her last sentence, and her discussion of the need to build refineries in Canada to bolster Canadian energy security and jobs is structured in much the same terms as was former Conservative Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed’s statements in a November interview with the CBC opposing the Keystone XL pipeline.
Yet there are some noteworthy exceptions from Oliver’s media frenzy that deserve much more attention.
Nathan Vanderklippe wrote an article about how the courts and parliament will play the defining role in the Northern Gateway decision, in spite of whatever outcome emerges from the inquiry.
The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline route. Map by Google.
A feature by Ian Brown drawing connections from J.B. Tyrell’s 19th Century surveys of the Athabasca region to Thomas Berger’s 1970s Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry and how this legacy can be applied to the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings.
A report published in November, by David Hughes, a geologist who worked for the Ministry of Natural Resources for over 30 years, presents a scathing set of arguments about the Enbridge proposal and the urgent pressures to expand bitumen export infrastructure. He argues that current infrastructure can export the existing and planned production, that the Northern Gateway is unnecessary. Further, he posits that Enbridge figures of projected growth of oil sands production are misleading and speculative, and we are rapidly liquidating the richest surface reserves, meaning bitumen extraction will get significantly more energy intensive and expensive as the resource is developed. The life spans of oil sands leases are relatively short, with the newly approved $9bn Joslyn North project only to last 20 years. Reports such as this hint that Canadian taxpayers may in the next few decades be left absorbing the costs of a collapsing Fort McMurray and festering abandoned oil sands leases amidst a domestic oil shortage.
This report received some publicity from news outlets towards the end of 2011. Despite being far from an environmentalist himself, comments on the Globe and Mail’s coverage of the article suggests that many have written off Hughes’s report as environmentalist propaganda, as the report was commissioned by Forest Ethics. This week, Andrew Nikiforuk again covered the report in The Tyee. Unfortunately, this is one of the only media mentions of the Hughes report, and being a smaller paper, The Tyee does not generate the web traffic of bigger Canadian news agencies and it is unlikely the article was widely read.
Hereward Longley is an MA student in history, working with the Abandoned Mines project on the history of oil sands development.
Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Arn Keeling, Department of Geography, and John Sandlos, Department of History at Memorial University are seeking one graduate student at the PhD level to work on the historical geography and environmental history of resource development in the Circumpolar Arctic, starting Fall 2012.
The successful candidate should maintain a strong interest in resource development issues in the Arctic, particularly the social, environmental, and economic impacts of development on local communities. This student will join a dynamic and diverse graduate program at Memorial, including students working on the Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada Project (www.abandonedminesnc.com).
Comprehensive funding packages (including funding for research expenses) are available pending the outcome of current grant applications. There will be opportunities to augment the fellowship amounts through scholarships or Graduate Assistantships.
Memorial University of Newfoundland is one of Canada’s leading comprehensive research institutions. It hosts the largest library in Atlantic Canada in addition to specialized research centres such as the Maritime History Archive and the Centre for Newfoundland Studies. The university is located in St. John’s, a unique and culturally vibrant city set within stunning natural beauty.
Although the funding packages are tied to the researchers, prospective students must follow the formal application process for graduate school at Memorial University of Newfoundland. For more information on the School of Graduate Studies go to http://www.mun.ca/sgs/home/. Find out more about the Department of Geography at http://www.mun.ca/geog/graduate/.
Although Inuit voices, experiences and actions can be accessed (to a certain extent) from archival documents and anthropological reports, it became central to our research to understand first hand how the mine has been memorialized and remembered in the minds of Inuit. As a result our research team conducted 10 interviews with elders (men and women) who had either worked in the mine or had lived in the community while the mine was operative. From these interviews we heard an array of personal stories and histories associated with Rankin Inlet’s mining history and the many socio-economic and cultural upheavals that were occurring simultaneously. The stories ranged from being celebratory and nostalgic to cautionary and tragic. Many people had fond recollections of the “good old days” and stressed the important role the mine had played in their lives and the continued importance of mining in Arctic communities. Others, however, referenced the hardships faced when they relocated/migrated from other regions in the eastern Arctic to Rankin Inlet, the poverty experienced by many upon arrival and the difficulties adjusting to life in a settled community.
Trish interviews a Rankin elder, with the help of translator Peter Irniq and cameraman Jordan Konek.
By the time the last interview was conducted I realized that a connecting theme, adaptation and survival, had weaved its way through each individual interview. As Peter Irniq and many others stressed through the telling of their own stories Inuit were and are a highly adaptive people. As I began to process what each individual had shared in their interview, it struck me that we had spoken with members of a generation of Inuit who had been born into a world that no longer existed except in their own memories. Each elder we interviewed, to a certain degree, had experienced and survived (either personally or collectively) famine, relocation, residential schools, TB clinics, government directed settlement, insufficient community infrastructure, poverty and other upheavals. Although the transition for many Inuit from igloo to mineshaft was difficult and emotionally fraught, these past realities did not saturate their memories of those times. Despite the fact many Inuit had come to Rankin Inlet solely to find work in order to make a living after the collapse of the fur trade and caribou herds, the community (for many) very quickly had become their home. Even after the mine closed in 1962 many Inuit (more than half) decided to remain in the community. When asked during our interviews, elders were extremely proud of the role Inuit played in the opening of the mine and ultimate survival of the community (now the second largest in Nunavut). It was a humbling experience to hear their stories, for in their minds the feelings of surviving and adapting as a community were the most cherished.
Although certain individuals’ perceptions of Rankin Inlet’s mining era had shifted toward the nostalgic, when compared with interviews conducted in the early 1970s, the way the mine was remembered became the most fascinating aspect of conducting oral history research. Oral history is not about collecting facts and figures, it is meant to capture how individuals perceive and interpret their past and how and why these interpretations change over time. Without having collected oral histories it would have been next to impossible to ascertain from written archival records the various emotional connections and reactions Inuit men and women had toward the community and their connection to the mine. In other words in many instances for Arctic history to be written and understood properly it is essential that southern based researchers strive to generate networks, pathways and relationships between Inuit communities. For in the words of Arctic historian Shelagh Grant, “without an Inuit voice telling their story, there can be no true representation of Inuit history.”
Shelagh Grant. “Inuit History in the Next Millennium: Challenges and Rewards” in Northern Visions edited by Kerry Abel and Kenneth S. Coates, (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2001): 106.
Trish at Iqalugaarjuup Nunanga (Meliadine River) Nunuavut Territorial Park near Rankin Inlet.
After spending almost a year researching Rankin Inlet’s mining history I had the opportunity this past August (2011) to travel to Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet) in the Kivalliq region in Nunavut to assist in a community workshop and the collection of oral histories. Over the course of pursuing my MA my research led me to explore the socio-economic and cultural impact of the North Rankin Nickel Mine (operative from 1957-62) on government/mining policies and the lives of Inuit in the eastern Arctic. The nickel mine was the first operating mine in the Canadian Arctic, indeed the community of Rankin Inlet formed around the mine site. Although it was the first time Inuit had gained employment within the mineral extractive industry, from the outset they played an essential role in the mine’s success. Literally over the span of a decade Inuit went from migrating between seasonal hunting camps and living in skin tents and igloos to living in prefabricated houses in permanent coastal settlements and working in industrialized, modern wage labour environments. While certain kinship groups and individuals rejected the highly monitored industrial landscape that marked Rankin Inlet’s mining era other adapted and indeed embraced the many changes occurring at this time. At the time in question government and mining officials viewed this rapid period of change as both socially and economically progressive and culturally corrosive.
Interestingly, the benefits and impacts of mining in the Arctic are still being framed in similar contradictory terms. Rankin Inlet is currently on the verge of experiencing a second mining boom, due to the development of the Meliadine West gold project located approximately 16 km outside of the community’s center. This research is therefore timely, for in order to understand the present day consequences of large-scale industrial mining activities in remote Arctic communities, it is important to understand the history of mineral extraction in the region and its socio-economic and cultural effects on various Inuit groups. Therefore our research attempts to determine how the mine itself and impacts of the mine were received by a variety of actors and how the mine has been remembered at various different stages at a regional, community and individual level. Consequently, in mid August, 2011 Dr. Arn Keeling (Professor of Geography at Memorial University and a lead researcher associated with the Abandoned Mines Team), Jordan
Konek (a filmmaker from Arviat associated with the Nanisiniq Group), Pallulaaq Friesen (a
community facilitator) and Peter Irniq (a gifted translator and former Commissioner of Nunavut) and myself (Patricia Boulter) set out to find answers and create networks of knowledge surrounding some of these very timely and pertinent research questions.
Please check out our Summer 2011 Newsletter for all the latest news on the Abandoned Mines Project. There are many exciting reports from the field and information on where we are heading with the project!!!!
The Abandoned Mines project teamed up with Inuk researcher and filmmaker Jordan Konek last week to explore the history of the Rankin Inlet mine. Here’s a link to the Nanisiniq Arviat History Project website, which contains Jordan’s reflections on a great week of interviews and research. Also, check out our Rankin poster describing the research for the community, and watch this space for fieldwork reports from our end!
Svalbard, an archipelago in the Norwegian High Arctic, like many sites in the Canadian High Arctic, is a place you would typically not expect to find mining activity. But like the Canadian Arctic, not only do you find mines on Svalbard, but evidence of historical mining and the abandoned communities left behind.
Geographers have long been interested in studies of place and landscape. Many visitors to Svalbard similarly become intrigued with the geographies of its landscape. Arriving expecting to experience and consume pristine Arctic nature on Svalbard, visitors are often puzzled by the industrial landscape that dominates Svalbard’s main settlements. In Longyearbyen, the landscape is dominated by an iconic coal powerplant smokestack that constantly churns out dark smoke. The mountainsides are scarred by the remains of mining infrastructure. In Pyramiden, high modernist Soviet housing and austere administration blocks form the basis of this abandoned Russian mining town. Not only does the scale of human activity come as a surprise to visitors on Svalbard, but also, the industrial character of this activity forms a stark contradistinction to the imagined purity of the Arctic.
As geographer and visitor, as reader of the landscape, as interpreter of texts and as a researcher posing questions to people on Svalbard, it was my aim to decode the geographies of mining on Svalbard. This summer I spent one month on Svalbard conducting research to better understand the reasons for the development of mineral exploitation on this remote archipelago, to consider the economic, geopolitical and environmental implications of this development, and to speculate on the future of mining on Svalbard.
The industrial landscape of Longyearbyen stands in strong contrast to the natural landscape on Svalbard.
Abandoned mining infrastructures have become part of the fabric of Longyearbyen, the administrative centre of Svalbard.
Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian mining settlement on Svalbard. A Lenin bust in the foreground overlooks the centre of the town and Nordenskiold glacier.
Over the coming months, I’ll use my research material to answer these research questions – so stay posted!
In May, John and Arn returned to the South Slave areas to discuss early findings from their oral history and documentary research at Pine Point. In addition to this poster describing our results, we met with community members in Katl’odeeche and Fort Resolution to get feedback on the project and “next steps.” Special thanks to community members who joined us for these events, and to Victoria in Katl’odeeche and Rosy in Fort Resolution for helping us organize them.
Original page image from "Pine Pointer," September 1986
So far, our research has been focused on the thousands of documents we collected from the national archives in Ottawa and the NWT archives in Yellowknife. Using digital cameras, we collected information related to the development of Pine Point, analysed the information, and wrote a paper, soon to appear in the journal Environment and History.
In the summer of 2010, we collected over 40 oral history interviews from people in Hay River and Fort Resolution, discussing their memories of the Pine Point mine and town, and life in the region after the closure of the mine. We’ve transcribed these interviews, and sent them to the interviewees to be verified. The interviews provide amazing insights into the history of the area, and will be deposited with the communities to keep for their own archives. Meanwhile, we’re going through the transcripts in more detail to understand the impact of the Pine Point mine and its closure on the region.
As historians, we put a lot of stock in intensive archival research and sometimes oral history interviews. Since 2007 I have been part of a research team trying to understand the environmental and social impacts of mining in northern Canada, pouring through thousands of documents and conducting dozens of interviews with residents of the region. But often the essence of what you are trying to understand about the past jumps out at you in the moment and place where you are standing.
Giant Mine Headframe and Processing Facililties (J. Sandlos)
In May 2010 I was perched on the shoreline of Great Slave Lake in Dettah (a small Yellowknives Dene community across the bay from the city of Yellowknife) with Arn Keeling, staring at the former Con Mine’s huge Robertson Shaft headframe (the dominant feature of the skyline) and the facilities further up the bay at the abandoned Giant Mine. “You know,” Arn said to me, “these people really were living in the shadow of the gold mines.” It was only when I stood in that place that I could imagine what it must have been like for the Yellowknives to suddenly hear blasting along the opposite shore, and eventually to watch the big mine developments and the City of Yellowknife take form. As so many of our interviewees told us, nobody consulted the Yellowknives; the mines and the city just grew up as if from nowhere and spread their long shadow over nearby native communities.
Of course, the Giant Mine and the older Con and Negus mines brought changes to the region, many of them dire for the Yellowknives. The mines and the city were located in an area that the Yellowknives regarded as their “bank,” a rich hunting, fishing, and berrying area that was critical for local food production. Not only did the mines occupy this former space but toxic emissions made it dangerous to eat berries or use local water supplies. First Con Mine in the 1930s and then Giant Mine beginning in 1948 began to spew toxic arsenic trioxide dust into the local atmosphere from their roaster stacks. At Giant, the emissions went untreated until 1951, a raw source of pollution that had severe health impacts on humans and animals in the regions. One small child died of arsenic poisoning. An area that had once been a source of subsistence for the Dene had now become a threat; their local landscape and sensory environment (even the smell of the air) were subject to sudden and sometimes catastrophic change due to the introduction of mining to the region.
Abandoned Mines Project Map
The Abandoned Mines Project is studying the history of five abandoned mine sites: Keno Hills Mine (YK), Giant Mine (NWT), Port Radium (NWT), Pine Point (NWT), and Schefferville (Quebec). In some cases, nearby communities that were affected by the mine area also marked on the map.