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Since at least the writings of Harold Innis, Canadian geographers have recognized resource development as central to the historical-geographical shaping of early Canada. Innis's insights about the importance of staple trades, though rooted in his analyses of the fur trade and cod fisheries, extended to extractive industries, particularly mining. While Innis highlighted how the "cyclonic" effects of booms and rushes associated with precious metals typified the instability and unpredictability of the industry in its early stages, he was ultimately sanguine about the potential for extractive development to implant modern industrialism in the Canadian hinterland.1

The generation of critics that followed were less optimistic. For instance, in his studies of the iron ore developments in the Quebec-Labrador borderlands, economic geographer John Bradbury explored the failure of mining towns in Canada's resource hinterland to overcome the problems of "isolation, community impermanence, instability, labor migrations, demographic distortions, and economic dependency."2 More recent work on the historical geography of Northern resource development similarly highlights the vulnerability of remote mines and communities to downturns in the commodity cycle, price shocks that can produce abandoned mines, settlements, and infrastructure rather than fostering broad-scale economic development.3

Near the end of his tragically shortened career Bradbury increasingly rooted his critique in a historically informed understanding of the colonial nature of these processes in what he referred to as the Fourth Empire of the St. Lawrence.4 Yet, although the work of Bradbury and other staples critics contained an anti-colonial edge, until relatively recently few observers drew critical attention to the role of extractivism (a socioeconomic ideal based on primary resource production and export) in processes of settler colonial dispossession. However, seen through the lens of recent scholarly work on settler colonialism, mineral and hydrocarbon extraction appears fundamental to processes of settler colonial reterritorialization in Canada—and, remains so, albeit under rapidly changing legal and historical circumstances.5 In this short reflection, we outline some approaches to the linkages between extractive development and settler colonialism in Canada as the nation's 150th anniversary celebrations draw to a close. We emphasise how the (attempted) erasure of Indigenous territoriality was made durable and material through ahistorical, futuristic representations of national (extractive) spaces. Ideas about what the nation was, and ought to be in the future, have been continually fostered by synoptic, hubristic resource development visions that positioned extraction as a force for liberal democratic progress. Gavin Bridge has argued that resources are always in a state of becoming; in Canada, this becoming produced a form of citizenship that produced the environment as a set of national economic resources, available to all at the expense of some. [End Page 117]

How, to paraphrase Cole Harris, did extractivism dispossess?6 First, as Glen Coulthard and other scholars of settler colonialism assert, central to the "colonial relation" in settler colonies is the history and experience of territorial dispossession, rather than the exploitation of Indigenous labour.7 In early Canada, mineral exploration and development contributed directly to the dispossession of Indigenous land and territorial sovereignty on the extractive frontier. Time and again mineral developments precipitated waves of settler invasion that rapidly displaced Indigenous communities. In many instances, such invasions precipitated Indigenous resistance. Typically, the discovery of valuable mineral resources prompted hasty treaty-making by the settler colonial state, a process designed to sever Indigenous people from their lands and territories, in order to gain access to the subsurface.8

The technologies of dispossession employed in this process were familiar ones: the map (in this case, both geographical and geological), the survey, and the legal geographies of property, backed by the violent authority of the settler colonial state. As Bruce Braun and Suzanne Zeller point out, geological exploration entailed a reimagining of the subsurface that brought underground resources into colonial/national imaginary as "a new frontier for capital, as the relentless search for profit seized upon the nation's newly intelligible domains."9 Explorer-geologists in service of the colonial state, such as Logan, Dawson, Tyrell, Low, Isbister, and Bell, filled the blank spaces on maps with geological assessments of territory. In their footsteps followed prospectors and capital, which superimposed cadastral grids of property and access rights over pre-existing social and ecological relations.10

Such practices helped facilitate the exploitation of what were otherwise regarded as remote territories, such as the Canadian Shield, Cordillera, and far North, considered unsuited for European, agricultural societies. As Traci Brynne Voyles discusses in the context of the American southwest, settler colonial territorializations discursively and materially reconfigured Indigenous lands as at once empty "wastelands" and as resource frontiers amenable to modern industrial exploitation.11 In the Canadian context, these imagined geographies intersected with discourses of emptiness and extremity associated with Northern frontiers that at once emptied them of Indigenous presence while projecting onto them aspects of national character and destiny.12 The wasteland discourse was further materialized in the reckless destruction and pollution of Indigenous territories by mines and mills, and the long-term legacies of environmental degradation and shattered communities they often left behind. The environmental changes induced by extraction and its related infrastructures are themselves material and embodied manifestations of dispossession.13

Indeed, in the years after the Second World War, these wastelands or empty spaces on the map assumed prominence in a new wave of visualizations of Canada's industrial future. This is particularly the case when considering competing visions for the colonization and development Canada's sparsely populated northern reaches.14 The 1950s brought a series of audacious attempts to reimagine northern space as productive and to implant Canadians within a fundamentally northern nature. This was the era of the high modern, transformational megaproject. Many of these proposals bore distinct, and multi-scalar local effects: the mines and mining towns that dot the northern landscape (and the hundreds more surveyed, designated or proposed). Others projected regional transformations: the Yukon River Diversion schemes would reverse the Yukon River so that it flowed into the Pacific Ocean instead of the Arctic, forcing it underneath the Coast Mountains in the process, all to build an aluminum economy.15 Still more fantastic proposals involved the complete re-engineering of continental hydrology: the US Army Corps of Engineers' North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) would have seen much of Canada's northern and western water, and not incidentally much of the Yukon River, flow through a series [End Page 118] of diversions, canals and buttressed natural troughs to the parched southern United States.16

Figure 1. "100 Important New Resources that will Help make Canada's Future Bright and Prosperous" (Department of Citizenship and Immigration, Canada: Ottawa, 1955).
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Figure 1.

"100 Important New Resources that will Help make Canada's Future Bright and Prosperous" (Department of Citizenship and Immigration, Canada: Ottawa, 1955).

Just as Harris points to the map as one of the signal technologies of dispossession in the creation of the Canadian nation-state, we point to two maps that articulate northern development dreams to illustrate how the discourse of extractivism performed dispossession on behalf of the settler colonial state in the Canadian north. These plans, and scores like them, positioned Canada as an "empty-yet-full" resource space.17 Development dreams – both public and private – show the persistence of these discourses of waste, emptiness, and projected possibility from mid-century to post-millennial representations of extractive frontiers, particularly those that produced northern visions of industrial futures. These maps not only articulated resource-laden constructions of a prosperous modern nationhood, they helped to produce extractive subjects in Canada, a settler colonial formation that internalized the idea that the hinterland space of the north was empty and ready for use, a kind of extractive terra nullius.18

In 1955 the Department of Citizenship and Immigration produced an extraordinary map (Figure 1) meant to teach Canadians about Canada's future but also to inculcate newcomers. Canada is represented as a resource space, a country whose economic, social, and political organization is determined by spatial distribution of extractive activities. The north here is [End Page 119] still mostly empty space, where resource development has only just begun. Northern resource mobilization highlighted on the map was connected to extractive or military activity: shipping on the northern coast of Labrador, nuclear power generation at Aklavik, nickel at Kluane Lake, asbestos at Cassiar, base metals at Pine Point, uranium at Beaverlodge, ore at Belcher Islands.19 Northern peoples are on the map in soft focus, as though disappearing icons of a bygone era, shortly to be replaced by the advent of industrial modernity. We can see the colonial markings of an imagined dispossession, acts that were ongoing when this publicity map was published. The map and its projection of potential resource wealth presaged John Diefenbaker's 'Roads to Resource' program (1958-62),20 a time when the idea that resource production was at the heart of Canadian identity congealed and was brought into being.21

Figure 2. "Mid-Canada Corridor, 2014" from John Van Nostrand, "If We Build It, They Will Stay," The Walrus, 8 September 2014. Cartography by Chris Brackley.
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Figure 2.

"Mid-Canada Corridor, 2014" from John Van Nostrand, "If We Build It, They Will Stay," The Walrus, 8 September 2014. Cartography by Chris Brackley.

The goal of these development dreamers was always to bring the north into an imagined industrial future. Some plans succeeded while many others did not, but no integrated northern [End Page 120] development ever really appeared, and many of the extractive developments turned out to be ephemeral and unstable. But such dreams never die completely, as this recent The Walrus magazine illustration (Figure 2) attached to a story entitled, "If We Build It, They Will Stay," attests.22 This "Field of Dreams" narrative has always had a seductive appeal in thinking about what the North could become. The author and illustrator are making a contemporary reference to Major-General Richard Rohmer's 1967 modest proposal for a "Mid-Canada Corridor" to develop Canada's boreal forest and subarctic regions as extractive and population centres. In this reckoning—harkening back to Innis's more positive take on staples—Canada was destined to be a world leader in resource exploitation, and our collective, extractive future was tied to that endeavour. The Mid-Canada Corridor of Rohmer's dreams needed infrastructure (roads, electricity, ports); mineral, metals, oil and gas development and a robust timber economy would follow in its wake.23

Rohmer's ambitions are nothing if not persistent. The Conference Board of Canada, for instance, plans for "mapping the economic potential of Canada's North" among other interventions.24 In the early months of 2016, researchers at the University of Calgary School of Public Policy made headlines with a proposal for a Northern Corridor—a linked transportation network designed to "open up" the north.25 Even more recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proposed the $360 million Yukon Resource Gateway Project, merging Rohmer's vision with Diefenbaker's transportation infrastructure goals by promoting resource road construction to mineral rich areas.26

Resources have always been central to the production of the north as settler colonial space. We want to suggest here that the visionary optics of contemporary northern development dreams must be seen alongside past visions of northern futures, especially in light of the ongoing colonial relations between southern and northern Canada. Many contemporary visions still pitch the north as a place of possibility, though one slightly modified by the incursions of modernity. The Churchill Marine Observatory will study arctic oil spill cleanup, several companies are now offering "last chance" cruises through the ice-free the Northwest Passage, while former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's northern visits asserted a vaguely chauvinistic notion of Arctic sovereignty. We might juxtapose these northern visions, and those that preceded them, against some of the more pernicious aspects of Canada's northern interventions: High Arctic Relocations, Shell's troubled drilling history in the Arctic, developments around the Mary River Iron mine, the legacy of zombie mines in places like Pine Point, YK (or Port Radium, or Rankin Inlet) uncovered in the 'abandoned mines' projects, or Emilie Cameron's deconstruction of the story of the Bloody Falls Massacre near Kugluktuk. This is all to say that the stories we tell about Canada's extractivist modality, and about northern resource potential in particular, matter. They produce certainty, opportunity, ambiguity, dislocation, and conflict in equal measure. They produce extractivism as obvious, logical and correct. They reify the place of extractivism at the heart of the Canadian project, producing the extractive subject as a fundamentally Canadian character. The northern visions that we catalogue in this piece are important reminders that extractivism and colonial relations have often been powerfully paired in Canada's 150 years.

Jonathan Peyton
Department of Environment and Geography University of Manitoba
Arn Keeling
Department of Geography Memorial University of Newfoundland


1. H. A. Innis, "The Hudson Bay Railway," The Geographical Review 20 (1930): 1–30; H.A. Innis, Settlement and the Mining Frontier (Toronto: Macmillan, 1936); Matthew Evenden, "The Northern Vision of Harold Innis," in Harold Innis and the North: Appraisals and Contestations, William J. Buxton, ed. (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2013), 73-99.

2. John H. Bradbury, "Towards an Alternative Theory of Resource-Based Town Development in Canada," Economic Geography 55 (1979): 164. See also John H. Bradbury, "The Impact of Industrial Cycles in the Mining Sector: The Case of the Quebec-Labrador Region in Canada," International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 8 (1984): 311-31; John H. Bradbury, "State Corporations and Resource Based Development in Quebec, Canada: 1960-1980," Economic Geography 58 (1982): 45-61; John H. Bradbury, "Declining Single-Industry Communities in Quebec-Labrador, 1979-1983," Journal of Canadian Studies 19 (1984): 125-39; John H. Bradbury and Isabelle St. Martin, "Winding Down in a Quebec Mining Town: A Case Study of Schefferville," Canadian Geographer 27 (1983): 128-44.

3. These themes run throughout the chapters in Arn Keeling and John Sandlos, eds., Mining and Northern Communities: History, Politics, and Memory (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2015). See also Thierry Rodon and Francis Lévesque, "Understanding the Social and Economic Impacts of Mining Development in Inuit Communities: Experiences with Past and Present Mines in Inuit Nunangat," Northern Review 41 (2015): 13-39; Mary Louise McAllister, 'Shifting Foundations in a Mature Staples Industry: A Political Economic History of Canadian Mineral Policy', Canadian Political Science Review, 1 (2007): 73–90; Trevor Barnes, "Borderline Communities: Canadian Single Industry Towns, Staples, and Harold Innis," in B/Ordering Space, eds. Henk Van Houtum, Olivier Kramsch, and Wolfgang Zierhofer (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), 109–22; Arn Keeling, "'Born in an Atomic Test Tube,'" Canadian Geographer 54 (Summer 2010): 228-52; Liza Piper, The Industrial Transformation of Subarctic Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009).

4. John H. Bradbury, "The Rise and Fall of the 'Fourth Empire of the St. Lawrence': The Quebec-Labrador Iron Ore Mining Region," Cahiers de géographie du Québec 29 (1985): 351-64.

5. Recent work making these historical and contemporary connections explicit includes: Emilie Cameron and Tyler Levitan, 'Impact and Benefit Agreements and the Neoliberalization of Resource Governance and Indigenous-State Relations in Northern Canada', Studies in Political Economy, 93 (2014), 25–52; Emilie Cameron, Far Off Metal River: Inuit Lands, Settler Stories, and the Making of the Contemporary Arctic (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016); Carly Dokis, Where the Rivers Meet: Pipelines, Participatory Resource Management, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Northwest Territories (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015); Rebecca Hall, "Diamond Mining in Canada's Northwest Territories: A Colonial Continuity," Antipode 45 (2012): 376–93; John Sandlos, and Arn Keeling, "Claiming the New North: Development and Colonialism at the Pine Point Mine, Northwest Territories, Canada," Environment and History, 18 (2012): 5–34; Arn Keeling, and John Sandlos, "Environmental Justice Goes Underground? Historical Notes from Canada's Northern Mining Frontier," Environmental Justice, 2 (2009): 117–25.

6. Cole Harris, "How Did Colonialism Dispossess? Comments from an Edge of Empire," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 94 (2004): 165-182.

7. Glen Coulthard, "From Wards of the State to Subjects of Recognition? Marx, Indigenous Peoples, and the Politics of Dispossession in Denendeh," in Theorizing Native Studies, eds. Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith (Durham, NC: Duke Universiy Press, 2014), 56–95; Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Patrick Wolfe, "Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native," Journal of Genocide Research 8 (2006): 387-409.

8. For an early example of this dynamic in the Great Lakes region, see Nancy M. Wightman and W. Robert Wightman, "The Mica Bay Affair: Conflict on the Upper-lakes Mining Frontier," Ontario History 83 (1991): 193-208.

9. Bruce Braun, "Producing Vertical Territory: Geology and Governmentality in Late Victorian Canada," Ecumene 7 (2000): 25; Suzanne Zeller, Inventing Canada: Early Victorian Science and the Idea of a Transcontinental Nation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987).

10. Dawn Hoogeveen, "Sub-Surface Property, Free-Entry Mineral Staking and Settler Colonialism in Canada," Antipode, 47 (2015): 121–38;

11. Traci Brynne Voyles, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo County (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

12. Shelagh Grant, "Arctic Wilderness And Other Mythologies," Journal of Canadian Studies 32 (1998): 27–42; Andrew Stuhl, "The Politics of the 'New North': Putting History and Geography at Stake in Arctic Futures," The Polar Journal 3 (2013), 94–119; Klaus Dodds and Mark Nuttall, The Race for the Poles (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016).

13. Paula Butler, Colonial Extractions: Race and Canadian Mining in Contemporary Africa (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015); Jean-Sébastien Boutet, "Développement Ferrifère et Mondes Autochtones Au Québec Subarctique, 1954-1983," Recherches Amérindiennes Au Québec 40 (2010): 32–35; Arn Keeling and John Sandlos, "Ghost Towns and Zombie Mines: The Historical Dimensions of Mine Abandonment, Reclamation, and Redevelopment in the Canadian North," in Ice Blink: Navigating Northern Environmental History, eds. Stephen Bocking and Brad Martin (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2017), 377-420; John Sandlos and Arn Keeling, "Toxic Legacies, Slow Violence, and Environmental Injustice at Giant Mine, Northwest Territories," Northern Review (2016) 42: 7-21.

14. "Colonization" was the word rather unselfconsciously used by many observers at the time: see, for instance, contributions to two Royal Society of Canada symposia: Frank H. Underhill, ed., The Canadian Northwest: Its Potentialities (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959); V. W. Bladen, ed., Canadian Population and Northern Colonization (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962).

15. Claus M. Naske, "The Taiya Project," BC Studies, 91/92 (1991): 5-50.

16. On NAWAPA see, Benjamin Forest and Patrick Forest, "Engineering the North American Waterscape: The High Modernist Mapping of Continental Water Transfer Projects," Political Geography, 31 (2012): 167-183; Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (New York: Penguin, 1993)

17. The phrase "empty yet full" is from Gavin Bridge, "Resource Triumphalism: Postindustrial Narratives of Primary Commodity Production," Environment and Planning A 33 (2001): 2149–2173.

18. For a contemporary analysis of environmental subjects in Canada see, Jonathan Peyton and Aaron Franks, "The New Nature of Things: Canada's Conservative Government and the Design of the New Environmental Subject," Antipode 48 (2016): 435-473; Eric Darier, "Environmental Governmentality: The Case of Canada's Green Plan," Environmental Politics 5 (1996): 585-606.

19. Jason Kirby, "This Beautiful Map Showed What Canada's Future Looked Like in 1955," Macleans, 15 July 2015 (Accessed 23 October 2017)

20. Philip Isard, Northern Vision: Northern Development During the Diefenbaker Era, (MA thesis, University of Waterloo, 2010).

21. Morris Zaslow, The Northward Expansion of Canada, 1914-1967 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2016 [1988]). On the northern relationship between science and geopolitics see, for instance, Richard C. Powell, "Science, Sovereignty and Nation: Canada and the Legacy of the International Geophysical Year, 1957–1958," Journal of Historical Geography 34 (2008): 618-638.

22. John Van Nostrand, "If We Build It, They Will Stay," The Walrus, 8 September 2014 (Accessed 23 October 2017)

23. Richard Rohmer, Essays on Mid-Canada (Toronto: Mid-Canada Development Foundation, 1970); Richard Rohmer, The Green North: Mid-Canada (Maclean Hunter, 1970)

24. The Conference Board of Canada, Mapping the Economic Potential of Canada's North (Toronto: The Conference Board of Canada, 2010); Anja Jeffrey, Adam Fiser, Natalie Brender and Brent Dowdall, Building a Resilient and Prosperous North (Toronto: The Conference Board of Canada, 2015).

25. Andrei Sulzenko and G. Kent Fellows, "Planning for Infrastructure to Realize Canada's Potential: The Corridor Concept," University of Calgary School of Public Policy Research Papers 9 (May 2016), 1-40.

26. Canada. Office of the Prime Minister. "New Road Access Improvements to Help Grow Yukon's Natural Resources sector," 2 September 2017 (Accessed 23 October 2017)

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