Mining holds empty promises for Northerners

Mining holds empty promises for Northerners
Dr. Lindsay Bell of the University of Toronto says the empty promises of mining jobs are what keep Northerners hooked on the endless string of resource extraction projects.Photo: Meagan Wohlberg.

Mining the NWT does little to provide economic security for the Northerners it promises to benefit, but in fact reproduces and supports existing inequalities affecting Aboriginal people in the territory, according to research by an anthropologist from the University of Toronto.

Lindsay Bell, whose thesis work examined the way natural resource extraction in the NWT is framed as a gateway to economic opportunity, is currently in the territory as a guest of the Aurora Research Institute’s South Slave Research Centre.

She gave lectures to business administration and Environment and Natural Resource Technology Program students at Aurora College’s Thebacha campus last Friday, and will be spending the next two weeks doing further research in Hay River.

As part of her PhD research, Bell followed students in an underground mine training program in Hay River for 18 months between 2007 and 2009 and found that only one of the 90 students secured work in the industry at the conclusion of their training – a result, she said, that is actually essential to keeping the resource industry profitable.

Bell argues that by keeping Northerners in a constant state of economic insecurity, mining companies ensure there is always a group of people buying into the promise of opportunities posed by resource extraction and constantly looking to the next mining project.

During the mine training program in Hay River, in which Bell was involved as an educator – she instructed a prerequisite course through Aurora College – she said students were taught to look at themselves as individually responsible for their own career successes or failures rather than understand the structural inequities that would inevitably keep many unemployed.

“At the end, when there weren’t any jobs because of the slowdown that coordinated with their graduation (the global financial crisis)…they got told, ‘Don’t be a victim of circumstance’ – that was one of the lines,” Bell said. “So I find that kind of heartbreaking. Something that’s actually quite structural becomes individualized.”

She said the program saw the “best” students as those who spoke in terms of individual responsibility and who were taught not to “blame others” for their lot in life. Students were not given an opportunity to critique the program and were often kicked out for not conceptualizing their futures entirely in the sense of wage work, Bell said.

“When students would be pushed out of the program, you’d hear things like, “Well she didn’t do x, y and z,” but anytime I really followed up on why people weren’t staying in the program, usually it had to do with maintaining really important social connections and other kinds of relationships, which were more permanent than jobs in mining,” she said.

“On the one hand you could argue it’s kind of assimilationist, but it never assimilates people; it just finds people that are most like that, people who are already good, governable subjects,” she added.

Despite the poor results of the mine training programs in terms of job security, Bell said she found it quite fascinating that people in the North continue to maintain faith in a future linked to resource development.

She said that’s likely a product of the way economic and social policies across the country continue to frame Aboriginal populations as in a state of suffering and needing to be saved, rather than looking at people’s ways of living as already meaningful.

That conception, she said, works to justify the basis for resource extraction, which is promoted by both industry and government as a poverty reduction strategy.

“Mining’s a solution to the problem, but my question is, how did you know there was a problem at all? People continually talking about other people as problems is actually what makes it work,” Bell said.

“There’s always this will to improve…That’s the motor. So it’s not just that we want to do economy, but it’s benevolent. There are these good intentions. But it’s interesting to back up and say, what are you improving?”

As well, she said, the entire back-and-forth between “insecurity” and “opportunity” created by the mining industry serves to prolong government inaction on important social issues, like outstanding land claims and housing shortages in Aboriginal communities.

“In national public culture, there’s this idea that there are all these problems associated with Aboriginal life. But those are never expressed in the present tense…It’s always expressed in the future anterior, in the sense of, say, ‘Devolution will…’” Bell said.

“I call it the politics of deferral, this idea that’s it’s going to be okay later. That’s what natural resource extraction does. It takes present forms of social suffering and expresses them in the future anterior: it’s okay that there’s these hardships now because there’s a solution underway. There’s always something happening.”

Bell’s current research in Hay River involves examining visual representations of the North by Northerners through various forms of photography. She returns to Toronto on Apr. 24.

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