Notes from the Field: Mining, memory, and meaning in Resolute Bay

July 19, 2012

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.