Monday, August 19, 2013

Mining Anxieties: Harper's New North

The Globe and Mail ran two related stories today. Both focus on the north, and they share an interest in military matters. The top story in today’s paper is notable because it represents a shift in Harper’s northern strategy away from sovereignty towards resources and jobs. Harper’s yearly tour has in past years focused upon asserting Canadian sovereignty in the north. Canada’s Prime Minister put actions to his words when, for example, in 2008 he “declared that all foreign ships entering Canada’s Arctic waters must report their presence to Ottawa. That visit also saw Canadian jets scramble to intercept Russian planes approaching Canada’s airspace, an event the Prime Minister’s Office later celebrated with a photo-op” (“Harper Heads North to Promote Resource Development,” The Globe and Mail, Sunday, August 18th, 2013).

Now, it seems, Harper has changed his tune. With an election in sight and the Senate scandal brewing (The Globe and Mail, Monday, August 19th, 2013, page A4) the conservatives are working hard, it seems, to secure some kind of positive legacy before either re-taking office (unlikely if the scandal stays in the spotlight or intensifies) or being outvoted by the Liberals (with the fresh face of Justin Trudeau actually beginning look like a credible alternative) and the NDP, whose historic high point and a weak Liberal showing in the last election sealed a Conservative majority win. Working this tricky political terrain, Harper almost seems to be diverting attention as the scandal brews in the south with all eyes now looking to the “deep Conservative blue” north (“With election in view, Harper’s northern tour focuses on jobs” The Globe and Mail, August 19th, page A4).

Page A4 of the lead story in today’s Globe also features a big colourful photo of Harper standing on what looks like an airport runway with six Canadian Rangers: all dressed in red with the Rangers logo prominent on the standard issue sweatshirts and caps, and the camo-trousers and combat boots. Harper stands in the middle looking almost like he’s giving a thumbs-up but he’s not. His index fingers and thumbs are, instead, both half extended, and his gaze seems distracted by something, as though his focus this time is perhaps not really on the Rangers. Maybe this time they’re a passing photo-op. They look to be a bit of a ramshackly crew, some appearing pleased and others indifferent to the fact that they’re standing beside the Prime Minister. The Rangers will always be part of any northern plan that includes jobs as historically their role has been twofold. First, the Rangers are there to ‘keep an eye’ on things in the north, as in situ surveillance teams consisting primarily of indigenous and local inhabitants with deep knowledge of local terrain.

Second, the Rangers promote stability and identity in hard-hit northern communities. They provide jobs for local youth who could benefit from learning the knowledge of their elders, knowledge of terrain and techniques for surviving very harsh conditions, they might not otherwise have the chance to learn. So perhaps this is Harper’s reason for including the Rangers in this northern tour: they represent jobs. At the same time, when it comes to jobs in the north, above the timberline and, even farther, north of the Arctic Circle (Harper did go well beyond the Yukon to some of Canada’s least populated areas), jobs really means one thing: mining. This is where the story gets very interesting because there is another quasi-scandal associated with jobs right now, the right side of which Harper seems to have landed. This is the issue of bringing in foreign workers to do mining work. Harper is on the right side of this (in the sense of it benefiting his ratings) because there is new legislation requiring a $275 user fee for recruitment of overseas workers; as well as a French/English-only language requirement (i.e. no other languages are permitted).

Since we cannot reasonably expect Chinese workers to understand or work in Inuktitut, it is not fair to level the criticism that Inuktitut is excluded from this equation. But at some other level it is. Inuktitut and the Inuit are barely mentioned in Harper’s new northern plan and both will surely suffer under its inauspicious debut. Northern mines are notoriously racist and very difficult places for Inuit to work in. Furthermore, mining introduces catastrophic and irreversible change to small Inuit communities struggling to maintain some semblance of tradition and identity in the face of ongoing colonisation of Canada’s north. I have written about this issue in a forthcoming book chapter focusing on mining anxieties among Inuit youth in Quebec’s Ungava peninsula, and how those same youth have become pawns in Harper’s geopolitical ambitions for the north, alternately fodder for its militarisation or, on the other hand, for its industrialisation.

The other story in today’s Globe follows just below, on page A4, entitled “Canadian Forces test stealth snowmobile for cover operations in the Arctic.” This is a classic story, in a way, of Canadian technology and its specific struggle with space and communication. As George Wenzel and others have pointed out, the rifle and the snowmobile have transformed the northern economy like no other technology before or since their introduction into Inuit life-worlds. Claudio Aporta would add the somewhat more nebulous “satellite culture” consisting of a suite of devices from TVs to mobile cellular and satellite telephones. The new snowmobile that is being tested is a hybrid electric prototype that would reduce the sound emissions significantly, making them stealthier. However, it is pointed out that such machines are not actually responding to any real need given the lack of terrorist or foreign military incursion into Canada’s north (Russian submarines aside). A quieter north would be a wonderful thing. Anyone who has spent any time in Nunavik, for example, will notice that ‘downtown’ traffic noise can be deafening as locals take the idea of driving everywhere to new extremes.

The military is in stealth mode in Canada’s north as Harper rolls out his new plan timed cynically to coincide with a legacy-building agenda and a need to divert attention away from the scandal-ridden south. This ‘new’ northern plan is alleged to benefit Canadians but it will benefit only mainstream Canadians without addressing real needs of struggling northern and Inuit communities. Experience shows (and I have discussed this in depth in face-to-face interviews with some of northern Quebec’s mayors and elders) that gusts of rhetoric occasionally blow in from the south and these generally last in the media attention along the order of days or a week at most. Northerners, being used to storms, know how to wait them out. They know also that once it has passed it is up to them alone and with very little help from the south to dig themselves out, repair the damage and get on with their lives.

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