Environmental Justice Goes Underground? Historical notes from Canada’s Northern Mining Frontier

by Arn Keeling and John Sandlos

ArnKeelingPine Point pit lakeMany argue that energy and industrial minerals are essential to our modern, technological society. But what if those minerals are found close to existing communities or in places where other important land uses or environmental services are located? In these cases, mining activity can present dire threats, including toxic discharges, public health impacts (dust, water pollution, etc.), and conflict over resources.

In northern Canada, mining generated environmental problems where mineral deposits were developed near First Nations communities. These groups derived few economic benefits from the mines yet had to live with – and in some cases still endure – the negative impacts.

Our recent article for the journal Environmental Justice explored whether theories of environmental justice can be used to understand how mining affected aboriginal communities in Canada’s northern territories in the twentieth century. Our research, combining archival sources and oral history research, suggests mining’s impacts have been widespread and, in some cases, devastating.

Whether uranium at Great Bear Lake, gold at Yellowknife, silver at Keno Hill, Yukon, or lead-zinc at Pine Point, NWT, mining brought aboriginal communities into contact and conflict with southern industrial society. Before the 1970s, there was little to no regulation of these developments, and the environmental consequences ranged from large-scale landscape change to (at Giant Mine in Yellowknife) the toxic arsenic pollution of air, water, animals and people.

In many cases, the companies simply walked away at the end of mining, leaving local communities and the federal government to deal with the legacies of environmental impacts and toxic exposure. In 2002, the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development identified at least 30 abandoned mine sites requiring cleanup in Canada’s northern territories, with potential environmental and health threats stemming not only from arsenic but also cyanide, heavy metals, and acid drainage.

Much of the research on environmental justice stresses the process by which environmental hazards are intentionally sited next to minority groups or other economically disadvantaged communities. In the case of mining, it is obvious that companies tend to develop their operations where economically feasible mineral deposits are located, rather than simply taking a path of least political resistance to siting their polluting industry. Thus we also argue that a focus on the toxic siting issue so closely associated with environmental justice alone misses important aspects of how mining has affected aboriginal Canadians.

Since the Klondike gold rush, mining in the north has been closely associated with the extension of non-aboriginal settlement, economies and institutions in the north. This process brought wrenching change to aboriginal northerners, resulting in dispossession, social dislocation, and the disruption of traditional lifeways and land uses.

As commodity prices have surged, mineral exploration and development have returned to the north in a big way. In some cases, old mines are being investigated for possible reopening, while others are still undergoing environmental remediation. These developments underscore the need to examine the historical injustices associated with past mineral development, with an eye to ensuring a healthy, equitable, and sustainable northern future.

Read open access article published in Environmental Justice: Environmental Justice Goes Underground? Historical Notes from Canada’s Northern Mining Frontier

Dr. Keeling is Assistant Professor, Department of Geography,

at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Dr. Sandlos is Associate

Professor of History and Graduate Coordinator, Department of History, also at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Photo:  by Arn Keeling, Pine Point Mine in the Northwest Territories