Reviews of Mining and Communities in Northern Canada

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 in Journal 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

Thanks to these reviewers! Check out Mining and Communities in Northern Canada for free via University of Calgary Press.

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!

Vancouver screening of Guardians of Eternity

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 guardianspostersp.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.

Free screening: Guardians of Eternity

SJ Guardians PosterYou 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.

This free screening is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 26, 7 p.m., SN 2109. It will be followed by a Q & A with Arn and John, and will end by about 8:30. The film’s release also coincides with the publication of their edited collection, Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, and Memory. This screening is co-sponsored by the departments of History and Geography, Aboriginal Resource Office, and Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies at Memorial University.

Parking for this event is available in Lot 15B.

For more, see:

Presentation: Community-based Science in the Arctic

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.

Cultural geography students create concept models for Giant Mine markers

“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.

Thanks to John Sandlos of the Toxic Legacies project, and to Max Liboiron for her advice and her magic box of building stuff.

New Pine Point paper released

by Emma LeClerc

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.


Abandoned mines research in Etudes/Inuit/Studies

TInuit studies coverwo 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.

Giant Mine and the underground parliament

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][1] 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][2] 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][3] 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][4] 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][5] 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][6] 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][7] 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][8] 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][9] 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][10]—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.


Mining the Anthropocene

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…

Key statistical sources and charts: World Mining Data 2013, World Mineral Production 2008-2012 (Centenary edition)

Mapping the Giant Mine controversy

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.

Giant - who is involved in the Giant controversy

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.