Ecofeminist Ethics and Environmental Injustice in Nancy Huston's Le Club des miracles relatifs
Nancy Huston's Le club des miracles relatifs (2016), a disturbing dystopian portrayal of dehumanization and ecological cataclysm in the oil sands of Alberta, conveys a nightmarish vision of "la Sainte Trinité Big-Money-Oil," an expression signifying the relentless exploitation of the area by dozens of large oil companies (Huston, Brut 67). Inspired by Huston's sojourn in the Fort McMurray area in April 2014, this cautionary tale presents the dangers of the resource extraction industry in starkly gendered terms and suggests a troubling parallel between the patriarchal exploitation of nature and the oppression of women. The use of apocalyptic rhetoric and the evocation of a hypermasculine view of the world, in particular, serve to create a sense of urgency and to highlight the unequal power dynamics. Further, recurrent references to the inculcation of macho traits associate the mining industry with a contemporary form of "frontier masculinity" (O'Shaughnessy and Dogü 268). At the same time, those who seek to protect the environment are cast as "feminine" and are equated with impotence, notably ecologists and First Nations peoples whose lands have been polluted by toxic waste. Whereas the dominant culture is centered around men who take pride in being "musclé et macho" (Huston, Brut 87-8), ecologists and the indigenous population are disdainfully designated as "femmelettes" (62) by those who support the intensive exploitation of the oil sands. For Huston, then, the terrifying world of the mining site represents a negative form of progress in which women and ethnic minorities have the most to lose.
In a discussion of the links between ecofeminism and environmental justice, Sylvia Mayer observes that "[t]he responsibility [for environmental damage] lies predominantly with those human beings and social milieus whose position in socioeconomic power relations has enabled them to take political decisions and profit from their results—in many societies largely, but not only, a male elite" (118). Nancy Huston's Le Club des miracles relatifs (2016), a disturbing dystopian text about the destruction of the Earth and the devalorization of humanity in the oil sands of Alberta, seems to illustrate Mayer's argument through the creation of a nightmarish vision of "la Sainte Trinité Big-Money-Oil," an expression signifying the relentless exploitation of the area by dozens of large oil companies competing for a greater share in the market (Huston, "Alberta" 67). Inspired by Huston's sojourn in the Fort McMurray area in April 2014, this cautionary tale about the potentially disastrous impact of fracking presents the dangers of the resource extraction industry in starkly gendered terms and suggests a troubling parallel between the patriarchal exploitation of nature and the oppression of women, especially those from the neighboring First Nations lands. As Elaine Zuckerman aptly comments in her discussion of the sociopolitical repercussions of tar sands pipelines in relation to women's and gender issues, "Oil extraction and pipelines everywhere not only degrade the environment, but also often precipitate increased rates of sexual violence, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, prostitution, and human trafficking" (Zuckerman). Throughout Le Club des miracles relatifs, Huston effectively highlights these unequal power dynamics in order to foster environmental awareness and evince a sense of moral outrage.
Recent years have seen the publication of a significant number of articles and reports that raise important questions concerning gender relations in the context of the resource extraction industry. Indeed, unsettling gender dynamics have been identified as a problem in oil-producing regions throughout the world, including Canada (Zuckerman), behaviors which point to the primacy of the masculine. As Geoff Dembicki argues in an article entitled "Oil Sands Workers Don't Cry," the strong emphasis placed on manliness at mining sites such as Fort McMurray, where 92 per cent of the workers are men, has resulted in a situation in which "a convincing performance of hyper-masculine traits can confer power and prestige" (Dembicki). This type of "frontier masculinity," which has often been observed in the extraction industry in the north of Canada, "is premised on a vision of the [End Page 49] masculine as strong, rugged, self-sufficient" and "defines itself against all that is constituted as feminine, non-white and urban" (O'Shaughnessy and Doğu 268). The oil sands region of Alberta in particular has frequently been characterized as a contemporary frontier, both in the press and in scholarly articles. For sociologists Sara O'Shaughnessy and Göze Doğu, for example, "Nowhere is frontier masculinity more 'out there' in Canada than in Fort McMurray" (267). In a similar vein, Sara Dorow has described the frenzied work environment in the area as a "pressure cooker," contending that marginalized groups, especially women and ethnic minorities, bear the brunt of this potentially explosive atmosphere (289).
Huston's galvanizing visit to Fort McMurray first led her to write "Alberta: L'Horreur 'Merveilleuse,"'1 which appeared in Brut: La ruée vers l'or noir (2014), a collection of essays that presents an ominous vision of the region and angrily condemns the impact of the mining industry on the local environment, from its spillages and broken pipelines to the contamination of the water table and the production of greenhouse gases.2 For Huston, Fort McMurray represents in microcosm the future awaiting contemporary societies if they continue to disregard the environmental and human costs of investing heavily in fossil fuels. In the essay, her intense reactions—what she calls her "cri de coeur" (Huston, "Alberta" 56)—underscore the horrors she witnessed during her visit, and her play on the different meanings of the word "brut" forcefully brings out the magnitude of her distress: "Ce texte est donc un document 'brut' sur le monde de 'brutes' que les compagnies pétrolières ont mis en place pour extraire du 'brut"' (Huston, "Alberta" 56). Likewise, the genre chosen for Le Club des miracles relatifs, dystopian speculative fiction, enables Huston to portray the destructive impact of "fossil capitalism" (Adkin 3) at Fort McMurray as emblematic of a broader phenomenon. In this sense, the allegory depicted in the novel echoes political scientist Laurie Adkin's contention that "Alberta, as a first world 'petro-state,' represents the conflicts and choices that we confront, as a species, on a global scale" (3). Although all of the actual place names have been changed in Huston's text, the locations themselves are nonetheless recognizable, thus reinforcing the allegorical reading: Huston gives Fort McMurray the name Luniville, while Alberta becomes Terrebrute, Newfoundland l'Ile Grise, China the Empire Est, and Canada OverNorth; similarly, in an ironic allusion to the nectar of the gods, oil is simply designated as "l'ambroisie." As Huston notes, "Ce que raconte mon roman est terrifiant, mais à peine fictif" (L'Orient Littéraire), a feature which makes it particularly effective as an urgent call to action.
Throughout Le Club des miracles relatifs, the use of apocalyptic rhetoric and the evocation of a hypermasculine view of the world bring to light Huston's terrifying vision of manmade environmental catastrophe. At the same time, the recurrent trope of hell on earth, with its echoes of Dante's Divine Comedy, serves to denounce the consequences of privileging profit over the protection of natural resources—"Capitalisme contre nature," as David Dufresne succinctly puts it in his essay in Brut (32). In Hell in Contemporary Literature, which examines various forms of post-war Western descent narratives, Rachel Falconer characterizes hell as "the absolutely horrific experience from which no one [End Page 50] emerges unchanged" and draws attention to the importance of the journey through Hades as a "transformative passage" (1) in the works she discusses. Huston's novel constitutes a compelling example of such a descent narrative, deploying a wide range of rhetorical strategies in order to depict the environmental damage caused by the resource extraction industry as a contemporary form of hell.3 Indeed, Le Club des miracles relatifs exhibits many of the well-established motifs identified by Falconer as core components of an infernal journey, including "a threshold crossing," a guide who already inhabits the underworld, monsters, "flocks of damned souls," regions or circles of hell, and "an encounter with the demonic" (43). O'Shaughnessy and Doğu have observed that the isolation of Fort McMurray and the dangerous highway leading to it have contributed to its reputation as a "modern-day northern frontier" (269), and Huston's text creates a strong sense of crossing the threshold into an unknown, demonic world whose entire structure is determined by the functioning of the "machine infernale" (CMR 61),4 the operations of the fracking industry.
In a key chapter of Huston's novel, Luka Romanyuk, the director of the Centre de Maintenance Respiratoire at the AbsoBrut mining site, assumes the role of guide to the underworld. He shows the worksite to the newly-arrived Varian MacLeod, a sensitive twenty-two-year-old man who has come to Terrebrute in search of his father Ross, an unemployed cod fisherman from l'Ile Grise who had left to find work in Terrebrute but who has not been in contact with his family for several years. The episode which recounts the descent into hell presents Luka as an initiatory pathfinder and creates a clear parallel between Luka and Virgil guiding Dante through the circles of the inferno. For Varian, "Ils ressemblaient auraient-on pu dire à Virgile et Dante" (CMR 99).5 The portrayal of the tour, which can also be read as the fictional equivalent of Huston's supervised visit of Fort McMurray, highlights the powerful emotional impact on Varian, who experiences "un sentiment de panique incoercible," "titubait de choc," and is described as "frappé de mutisme" (CMR 100, 102, 99) as he discovers the different regions of hell, such as the extraction site itself, the workers' claustrophobic camps, the lakes of toxic effluent, and the hospital that cares for workers who have contracted debilitating respiratory illnesses after inhaling noxious fumes. The use of unusual typographical blanks, which recur throughout Varian's inner monologues, creates a halting style and denotes his struggle to find the words with which to express his stunned reactions.
The depiction of Terrebrute as a form of hell is reinforced by numerous references to what Lawrence Buell calls "environmental apocalypticism."6 For Buell:
Apocalypse is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal. Of no other dimension of contemporary environmentalism, furthermore, can it be so unequivocally said that the role of the imagination is central to the project; for the rhetoric of apocalypticism implies that the fate of the world hinges on the arousal of the imagination to a sense of crisis.(285) [End Page 51]
Huston makes full use of the master metaphor in order to evoke an impression of impending doom, suggesting through her use of "tragic apocalyptic rhetoric" that "the consequences of failure to heed the warning are catastrophic, and the danger is not only imminent, but already well under way" (Garrard 95). Indeed, Le Club des miracles relatifs intimates that the disaster has already occurred—"il est ici même l'enfer! Là sous nos yeux" (CMR 102)—and Varian refers explicitly to the idea of metaphor having become reality: "C'était arrivé c'était arrivé c'était là devant leurs yeux Les tyrannosaures de Terrebrute avaient promu ces images infernales de métaphores en réalité" (CMR 103).7 In addition, Huston's inclusion of a quotation from the Old Testament warning of the apocalypse to come8 draws attention to the effects of the "substances mortifères" (CMR 103) used on the site, while the "énormes monceaux de soufre" (CMR 103) and the "innombrables cheminées crachant de la fumée noire" (CMR 102) recall the fire and sulphur that poured down on the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah as divine punishment for their sins. Greg Garrard notes that apocalyptic rhetoric tends to lead to a "search for culprits" (106), and Huston's text clearly designates the oil companies and government policies as responsible for the ecological cataclysm which has left the earth "massacrée défigurée violée et horriblement éventrée les tripes à l'air" (CMR 99). In particular, the accumulation of disturbing details pointed out on the tour signifies a negative form of energy and evokes the seemingly unstoppable momentum of an industry which functions day and night, and whose giant machines "grignotent les falaises noires de Terrebrute Chaque seconde de chaque jour" (CMR 99). At the end of Varian's first encounter with the demonic, his expression of his anathema for "la cruauté illimitée de la cupidité humaine" (CMR 107) reinforces the idea that the unbridled pursuit of profit has led to the ecological crisis in the area and underscores the notion that the earth is being sacrificed so that "les grands patrons puissent se départager la planète et fêter l'augmentation exponentielle de leur bonus annuel" (CMR 101).
Huston's inferno is clearly associated with a hypermasculine frontier mentality. Indeed, Le Club des miracles relatifs portrays a male-dominated industry which, as O'Shaughnessy and Doğu have noted, "[n]ecessarily privileges a very masculine form of labour and a masculine relationship of domination of nature that harkens back to colonial times" (271). Although a few women do operate the heavy equipment, the sense that AbsoBrut is a man's world imbues every part of life at the mining site. Even the characterization of the workers' quarters as places where "des corps d'hommes mangent, dorment, respirent, souffrent et font de l'auto-assistance [masturbate]" (CMR 18) emphasizes the omnipresence of men. Upbeat catchphrases displayed on giant billboards provide cues for the construction of a form of masculinity based on physical strength—"LA TAILLE COMPTE!," "TU ES GRAND!" (CMR 17), "VOTRE FORCE COMPTE!" (CMR 228)—thereby highlighting the theme of brute force which Huston associates with the mining sector in Terrebrute/Fort McMurray: "le corps costaud et l'esprit étroit" (CMR 229). A further dimension of the rugged frontier mentality appears in references to the workers' intense sexual drive. On pay day, according to the narrator, "la ville dégouline littéralement de testostérone" (CMR 287) as the workers pour into bars and strip clubs after work to assuage their [End Page 52] repressed desires. The fact that a broken pipeline spewing out oil is described as "un monstrueux pénis métallique éjaculant sur le sol" (CMR 223) further accentuates the link between hypermasculinity and the oil industry, thus echoing political scientist Michael Ross's contention that "petroleum perpetuates patriarchy" (120).9
Repeated allusions to the utter immensity of the equipment used in the fracking process serve to underscore man's domination of nature and exemplify the scale of the destruction inflicted on the environment. In "Alberta: L'Horreur 'Merveilleuse,"' Huston observes that the enormous excavators she saw at the mining site she visited had become "les symboles sacrés de la nouvelle virilité qui voit le jour en Alberta," disturbing icons that illustrate men's "fantasmes de puissance" (63). Likewise, the massive machines used at AbsoBrut constitute one of the key signifiers of hypermasculinity in the novel. The fetishization of machines is especially evident in the fact that huge trucks have dislodged women as the favored images on calendars, and we learn that "la pin-up de juillet est un turbodiesel de livraison rouge de cinq tonnes" (CMR 222). When discussing her visit to Fort McMurray, Huston also comments negatively on the importance accorded to such machines, arguing that:
C'est une mécanisation de l'être humain. C'est comme si l'homme était en train de se transformer volontairement en machine, de faire partie de ces camions et de ces excavateurs qui arrachent la surface de la Terre. Quand on les regarde, c'est comme si l'on voyait des dinosaures. Et l'on voit les hommes qui se mélangent à ces corps mécaniques de dinosaures et qui détruisent leur propre maison, leur propre terre.
The thematics of dehumanization recurs in Le Club des miracles relatifs, where the workers at AbsoBrut are portrayed as a continuation of their machines and thus resemble cogs in the infernal oil-producing process.10 Varian is informed during his guided tour that "les machines sont les héros" (CMR 100), and a lengthy description of the workers' "corpsmachine" represents them as mechanical bodies of labor who have become one with their machines and who attack the earth while hard rock music assaults their senses. In Varian's words, "Grimper dans une excavatrice ou une grue c'est faire un avec elle La conduire c'est participer à une forme d'union intime plus mystérieuse que le mariage… Leurs mains sont des pelles larges de sept mètres leurs jambes des pneus hauts comme un immeuble" (CMR 100). In the same episode, numerous verbs evoking the mutilation of the earth by these powerful tools of production—"déraciner," "entasser," "lancer," "déchiquetter," "creuser" (CMR 100)—effectively convey the idea that in the battle between the oil companies and the environment, the latter is severely threatened. As Varian is ominously forewarned when being interrogated by a member of the local police force, "C'est un monde post-humain, MacLeod. Il faut s'y adapter ou disparaître" (CMR 69).
With their macho attributes and their merciless desecration of the environment, the AbsoBrut workers in Le Club des miracles relatifs constitute the "flock of damned souls" that Varian encounters as he negotiates the various circles of hell. While drawing attention to their frontier mentality, Huston also expresses [End Page 53] the idea that the laborers are in many respects being exploited by companies who "convainquent les mecs à muscles et à misère comme dit Luka de venir faire le sale boulot" (CMR 106-107). The novel paints a dismal picture of their lives and often focuses on the alienating working conditions in which only the men's basic needs are met. Luka and Varian, who are both employed in the Centre de Maintenance Respiratoire, witness on a daily basis the toll that continuous exposure to noxious products takes on the workers, and their observations emphasize the health risks of working "dans les entrailles de la terre à projeter la vapeur d'eau sous haute pression contre le sable et à inhaler l'air empoisonné douze heures par jour sept jours sur sept deux semaines sur trois" (CMR 104). In particular, they allude to patients suffering from injuries and illnesses such as severe burns, blindness, rare forms of cancer, and respiratory illnesses.
In his discussion of the ingrained notion that "big boys don't cry," Dembicki notes that, "Deep within the rugged Albertan wilderness, being 'manly' means working hard, acting strong and rarely worrying about personal health or safety," and he goes on to argue that the inculcation of this mentality has led to a precarious situation in which many workers struggle with "alienation, addiction and feelings of impotent frustration." Le Club des miracles relatifs points to a similar set of circumstances in Terrebrute, where the presence of "les milliers d'hommes parqués dans les camps de travail près des mines" is directly associated with "orgies homosexuelles, addiction aux appareils de loterie vidéo, utilisation récréative de cocaïne, de stéroïdes et de femmes indigènes" (CMR 43-44). In many episodes, the accumulation of distressing details succeeds in conveying the impression of a sterile world in which recourse to drugs, alcohol, and prostitution is the norm, and intellectual and artistic pursuits are largely absent. The novel thus suggests that this exploitative totalitarian-like culture with its alienating working conditions has produced an underlying sense of disempowerment and vulnerability among the employees. Despite the men's "fantasmes de puissance" and their exaggerated virility, Varian equates them with animals destined for slaughter—"Jamais vu autant d'hommes en cage qu'ici à Terrebrute…entassés comme les poulets les cochons et les vaches que vous assassinez pour les dévorer" (CMR 152)—and they are in this sense portrayed as expendable components of the relentless process that keeps the world supplied with oil.
The notion of vulnerability and expendability applies equally well to the female protagonists depicted in the novel, where a series of disheartening portraits of women from a broad range of countries and backgrounds accentuates the idea of impoverished gender relations at every level of society and testifies to the prevalence of violence in the men's interactions with women. In their article on Fort McMurray entitled "The Gendered and Racialized Subjects of Alberta's Oil Boomtown," O'Shaughnessy and Doğu posit that, "While frontier masculinity is a discourse with evident influence on men's identities, it also delineates certain subject positions that are available to women" (269). In the male-dominated universe of Terrebrute, prostitution, for example, has become a major form of employment for women,11 and the use of capitals in the evocation of "la boîte de strip-tease annonçant FILLES! FILLES! FILLES! […] alors que sur le perron et dans le parking il n'y a que garçons! garçons! garçons!" (CMR 94) attests to the [End Page 54] existence of polarized gender dynamics and to the paucity of professional opportunities available to women. Huston's depiction of the female characters, especially its emphasis on their mistreatment at the hands of men who work in the extraction industry, thus seems to advocate for "an environmental ethic that deals with the twin oppressions of the domination of women and nature" (Merchant 7). In Le club des miracles relatifs, the portrait of Haitian Farah Chauvet, who runs a women's shelter with her Jamaican friend Briona, serves to bring out the theme of male violence. The two women work tirelessly to tend to the mental and physical problems of the "femmes en miettes" (CMR 88) who seek refuge at the shelter, and Farah reflects dispiritedly on the fact that domestic abuse in Luniville is at its highest during the holiday season, noting that they received 28 calls and admitted nine women on Christmas Eve alone. In this chapter, as in several others, the accumulation of graphic details conveys the nature and severity of the women's injuries, and Farah asks herself, "Qu'ont-ils les hommes?" before disconsolately evoking "les jours où trop de femmes arrivent tremblantes et sanglotantes au refuge, une avec un oeil beurre noir, une autre le ventre et les cuisses entaillées de coups de couteau, une autre aux côtes cassées, une autre les mains écrasées" (CMR 94).
Many of the references to violence in the novel concern those involved in the sex industry. The reference to "FILLES! FILLES! FILLES!" (CMR 94) suggests that there is a high concentration of prostitutes in Luniville, and the "FILLES! FILLES! FILLES!"/"garçons! garçons! garçons!" dichotomy elicits a situation in which men's alienation and sexual frustration determine the roles occupied by women. In the text, sex workers are represented by two characters in particular, Eileen Wu and Marnie Vermilion. Eileen, who studied singing and dance in China and dreamed of performing with the Peking Opera, works in a strip-tease club in Luniville where she is also expected to engage in private sessions of lap-dancing once the main show is over. The description of her pole dancing in public for the first time emphasizes her fear of potentially aggressive behavior and portrays her as an erotic object of the male gaze, the "regard affamé" of the male clients (CMR 209). At the same time, the representation of her performance paradoxically underscores that it is only when she finds herself in the humiliating position of using her body to make money that she feels she has any control over the situation—"elle sent son pouvoir" (CMR 203).
The idea that serving men's sexual needs is one of the few options open to women in a community dominated by a hypermasculine worldview is reinforced by Eileen's observation regarding strip-club employees in general. In her words, "Qu'il s'agisse des serveuses, des employés de vestiaire ou des danseuses, tout le personnel féminin de l'établissement s'habille et se comporte en pute car c'est cela qui fait s'ouvrir le portefeuille des clients" (CMR 220). In similar fashion, when the cook Debbie needs money to pay for her mother's surgery, she agrees to help a group of Poles and Russians "celebrate" Christmas. After multiple men have sex with her, she is left mentally and physically traumatized, and the workers' inhumane treatment of her causes Luka's sister Leysa to conclude that "la gentillesse de Debbie perdra face aux stéroïdes masculins" (255). Here, the stark opposition between "gentillesse" and "stéroïdes masculins" draws attention [End Page 55] to the theme of oppression, and Luka's comparison of Debbie to a bird injured in an oil spill—"On aurait dit un de tes canards après un déversement d'ambroisie" (CMR 255)—further underscores the notion of the dual domination of women and the environment. Finally, Leysa's damning declaration that "Les grues blanches perdront face aux grues métalliques" (CMR 255), with its play on the two meanings of "grue" (the birds which symbolize Debbie's innocence and the cranes associated with the extraction industry), again highlights the theme of the exploitation of both women and nature.
The 29-year-old Marnie, who works as a prostitute using the name Redwing, embodies the intersection of gender and race and forms part of the sizeable transient workforce as she flies to and from Luniville and her home in Peltham. It has been estimated that "more than half of Alberta's prostitutes are Aboriginal" (O'Shaughnessy and Doğu 285), and Amnesty International's 2016 report on gender relations and Indigenous rights in energy development in northeast British Columbia found that "violence towards Indigenous women is intensified in resource extraction regions to the point where it is a routine part of life" (Hill et al.).12 Marnie's experiences in Huston's fictionalized Alberta exemplify these findings, while illustrating the challenges facing Indigenous women working in the sex trade. Indeed, the chapter on Marnie draws attention to the discrimination shown toward First Nations prostitutes, who are viewed as the least desirable ethnic group and who are subjected to the most abuse. In this episode, the novel refers explicitly to the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women using images that recall the fur trade of earlier frontier times: "Ces dernières années, un bon millier d'entre elles ont été rayées de la carte: assassinées ou 'disparues.' C'est toujours une question de peau. Ouep, les Blancs continuent de nous écorcher, de tanner notre peau et d'en faire une marchandise" (CMR 288).13
Moreover, the unsettling description of how Marnie constructs an image for her escort service photos, carefully hiding the traces of needle marks on her forearms, accentuates her ironically provocative tagline, "Délicieuse peau indigène" (CMR 283). Likewise, the wording of her advertisement, in which she refers to herself as a "vilaine conasse indigène" (CMR 283), brings out the demeaning way in which Indigenous women must market themselves if they want to find clients. Recurrent references to hunters and their quarry, along with Marnie's affirmation that "Les Peaux-Rouges doivent supplier d'être maltraitées" (CMR 288), underscore the association between violence and race evoked in the Amnesty International report and suggest an unequal predatory relationship.14 These images of First Nations women as prey further underline the idea of men's persistent degradation of women and the environment, thereby reinforcing the ecofeminist dimension of the text.
At the same time, Marnie also represents the concerns of First Nations peoples in general, and she appears in several key episodes that give prominence to the theme of environmental justice. In this context, both ecologists and the Indigenous population are cast as feminine by those who epitomize the views of the oil companies, thus strengthening the link between gender issues and environmental interests. While the workers associated with the exploitation of the oil sands are delineated as hypermasculine, those who seek to protect the [End Page 56] environment are dismissed through the use of the diminutive "femmelettes" ("Alberta" 62), and even renewable energies are disdainfully treated to as "des énergies 'efféminées'" (Klein 89) and are in this sense associated with emasculation. In Le Club des miracles relatifs, First Nations peoples and environmentalists are both rendered in derogatory terms by representatives of the oil industry who express a desire to return to an earlier time when "Les Peaux-Rouges et autres baiseurs de caribous [ecologists] n'avaient pas encore commencé à râler au sujet du viol de Mère Nature" (CMR 98-99). The condescending attitude towards ecologists, who are repeatedly referred to as "toqués des arbres" or as "baiseurs de caribous," appears in several chapters of the novel alongside passages which trivialize traditional First Nations beliefs. In a long, satirical monologue, for example, one of Varian's interrogators belittles the Indigenous peoples' conception of their relation to the earth by referring to their convictions as "des fadaises," "des conneries," and "[des] idées débiles" (CMR 238, 239). In particular, the interrogator mocks one of their most fundamental beliefs, "l'interdépendance des vivants ainsi que le respect pour tous les éléments qui constituent la nature" (Papillon 63). As he puts it in his parody of a mother's words to her daughter, "n'oublie jamais que nous sommes les enfants de la Terre Mère, et que nous devons prendre soin de protéger notre frère Caribou, notre soeur Morue, notre cousin Héron et autres fadaises dans le même style" (CMR 238). The end of this passage, which highlights the opposition between "Mère Nature" (described negatively as a "salope") and "le Père Ambroisie" (revered as the emblem of progress), reinforces the gendered power dynamic which runs throughout the novel (CMR 239). In this sense, the hierarchical representation of gender in the text suggests a worldview in which oil companies are privileged over Indigenous peoples, profit over environmental protection, and short-term gain over sustainability.
In addition, Marnie's viewpoint provides a link to the thematics of environmental racism. It has often been observed that, "Indigenous peoples bear the brunt of the socio-economic and environmental burdens in regions where resource extraction happens on a huge scale, yet Indigenous peoples benefit the least from the massive profits generated by resource extraction" (Hill et al.). As portrayed in the novel, a significant outcome of this discriminatory stance involves the polluting of First Nations lands. Several illuminating passages give chilling details as to the devastating effects of this type of pollution. When showing Varian the retention ponds at AbsoBrut, for example, Luka explains that, "Leurs poisons s'infiltrent dans la nappe phréatique de là dans le fleuve de là dans l'eau courante des villages en aval villages habités essentiellement par des autochtones parmi lesquels le taux de cancer est monté en flèche ces dernières années" (CMR 102). The "soupe toxique" seeping out of the ponds (CMR 102) and the "jus toxique" from oil spills (CMR 223) point to the "toxic assault" experienced by the Indigenous population (Cole and Foster 15).15
Moreover, the long passage in which Marnie ties the death of her daughter Rosie to the oil companies' contamination of the land and water around her hometown clearly elicits one of the realities of environmental racism, the fact that industrial plants and waste facilities are disproportionately situated near ethnic [End Page 57] and racial minority communities. The litany of causes enumerated by Marnie when indicating the reasons for her daughter's death all center on the aftereffects of prolonged exposure to chemical pollutants, while at the same time evoking the notion of "slow violence," a term coined by Rob Nixon to denote the ramifications of "catastrophic acts that are low in instant spectacle but high in long-term effects" (10). As Marnie angrily observes:
Elle est morte d'avoir vécu ici à Peltham. Elle est morte d'avoir respiré l'air de Peltham et d'avoir bu l'eau de Peltham, de s'etre assise sur la mousse de Peltham, de s'etre baignée dans la baie de Peltham et d'avoir touché le poisson de Peltham … Elle est morte d'avoir vu des boutons et des taches rouges sur le bras et sur les jambes. Elle est morte d'avoir vu ses ongles devenir jaunes puis orange. Elle est morte d'avoir vécu ici, d'avoir mangé ce que mangent les gens d'ici et bu ce qu'ils boivent.(CMR 281)
Marnie's powerful indictment of the extraction industry thus underscores the idea that both women and the environment suffer from the fallout of "toxic dumping" (Merchant 161). The depiction of the area around Peltham as an "environmental sacrifice zone" (Bullard 26) is reinforced by Marnie's scathing condemnation of the failure to respect treaties that govern the use of Indigenous lands: "La vérité c'est que TOUTES CES TERRES SONT À NOUS, même selon les termes de leurs propres putains de traités, alors ils ont décidé que les traités étaient caducs. Pas la peine de protester, on ne peut pas l'emporter sur les Blancs car ce sont eux qui font et défont les règles" (CMR 285). For Marnie, the unequal power dynamic inherent in environmental racism recalls an earlier era during which millions of animals were slaughtered and their skins transformed into luxury goods for wealthy white customers. As she succinctly concludes, "Depuis le début, les Blancs ne nous ont apporté que maladie et désolation" (CMR 286).
Who, then, survives the descent into hell in Le Club des miracles relatifs? Although Luka, Leysa, and Varian organize a secret literary club16 to teach some of the workers about classic Russian literature as a way of bringing beauty into their lives, the three protagonists are all eventually destroyed by the infernal machine, thus signifying the ultimate triumph of Big-Oil-Money (Huston, "Alberta" 67). The fact that the main characters are sacrificed to "le dieu de l'ambroisie," along with Varian's father—another "baiseur de caribous invétéré et impénitent" (CMR 272)—seems to confirm Dante's famous admonition above the gates of hell, "Abandon hope all ye who enter here." On a different level, however, Huston herself does survive her transformative journey through the oil sands region and returns to tell the tale, in both documentary and fictional form. In this way, she joins the ranks of authors who are engaging with environmental issues and calling for greater awareness of ecological questions. When discussing the role that literature can play in this endeavor, Julie Sze affirms that "Literature offers a new way of looking at environmental justice, through visual images and metaphors," arguing that "This new way of looking references the 'real' problems of communities struggling against environmental racism, and … [i]t allows for a more flexible representation of environmental justice, one with a global view and historical roots" (163). With its use of allegory to evoke a global problem and its [End Page 58] focus on the historical relation of First Nations peoples to the land, Le Club des miracles relatifs succeeds in highlighting the very real nefarious effects of fossil capitalism. It remains to be seen, however, to what extent Huston's "cri de coeur" will be heard; in the meantime, recurrent reports in the media continue to remind us of the troubled relationship between the oil industry and native peoples in many areas of the world, while concomitantly intimating that much remains to be done to change oppressive power dynamics and to redress the injustices precipitated by the patriarchal exploitation of nature.
Patrice Proulx is Professor of French and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Her current research interests include contemporary Caribbean and Québécois fiction, francophone film, and the literature of immigration in France and Quebec. Her articles have appeared in such journals as The French Review, L'Esprit Créateur, Québec Studies, and Nottingham French Studies, as well as in a number of edited collections. She is an editor of The Feminist Encyclopedia of French Literature (1999), and coeditor with Susan Ireland of Immigrant Narratives in Contemporary France (2001), and Textualizing the Immigrant Experience in Contemporary Quebec (2004).
Susan Ireland is Professor of French at Grinnell College. She is an editor of The Feminist Encyclopedia of French Literature (Greenwood, 1999) and, with Patrice Proulx, of Immigrant Narratives in Contemporary France (Greenwood, 2001) and Textualizing the Immigrant Experience in Contemporary Quebec (Praeger, 2004). Her current research interests include memory studies, portrayals of individual and collective trauma, the Algerian novel, representations of the harkis, and the literature of immigration and diaspora in France and Quebec.
1. Earlier versions of Huston's essay can be found in Le Monde (14 June 2014) and Le Devoir (17 and 18 June 2014).
2. The other essays in Brut were written by authors and activists Rudy Wiebe, Naomi Klein, David Dufresne, and Melina Laboucan-Massimo.
3. In "Les Corbeaux," Dufresne describes Fort McMurray as "une ville d'enfer, sans passé et sans présent, pour laquelle seul le futur compte, et encore, le très court terme" (29).
4. All intraparenthetical references to this text will be referred to by the abbreviation CMR.
5. Significantly, Margaret Atwood considers both Dante and the Book of Revelation as conventional allusions in dystopian fiction: "In the background of every modern Utopia lurk Plato's Republic and the Book of Revelation, and modern Dystopias have not been uninfluenced by various literary versions of Hell, especially those of Dante and Milton" (Atwood 93–94).
6. This is the title of a chapter in Buell's The Environmental Imagination (280-308).
7. "Les tyrannosaures sont les types qui dirigent les plus grosses compagnies d'ambroisie" (CMR 104). The blank spaces in this quotation exemplify Huston's recurrent use of typographical blanks to underscore Varian's emotions, as discussed on page three of this essay.
8. "Les torrents d'Edom seront changés en poix Et sa poussière en soufre Et sa terre sera comme de la poix qui brûle Il fait pleuvoir sur les méchants Des charbons, du feu et du soufre Un vent brûlant C'est le calice qu'ils ont en partage Alors l'Eternel fit pleuvoir du ciel sur Sodome et sur Gomorrhe du soufre et du feu" (CMR 103, emphasis in original).
9. Ross makes this argument in the context of the oil industry in the Middle East and North Africa.
10. In this sense, Huston seems to echo Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' well-known assertion in The Communist Manifesto that industrial capitalism, with its "extensive use of machinery" has led to a situation in which the worker has become "an appendage of the machine" (71).
11. As O'Shaughnessy and Doğu indicate in their study, "There are numerous reports of high rates of female prostitution in Fort McMurray and other northern resource towns involving women who constitute another kind of 'transient' workforce" (285).
12. The Amnesty International report, entitled "Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Gender, Indigenous Rights, and Energy Development in Northeast British Columbia, Canada," can be accessed at https://www.amnesty.ca/outofsight.
13. Lucy Anna Gray, in an article that examines violence against Indigenous women, reports on the high numbers of those who have vanished: "The numbers of indigenous women reported missing has remained remarkably constant in recent years. There were 5,646 Native American women entered as missing into the National Crime Information database last year, with 5,711 in 2016. In the first six months of 2018 there were 2.758 indigenous woman [sic] reported missing" ("Forgotten Women").
14. Marnie also specifies that "Elle n'a d'autre choix que de cibler les tordus et de préciser qu'elle est autochtone … les chasseurs préfèrent des proies à la peau brune ou noire ou jaune" (CMR 288).
15. For a discussion of the concept of "toxic consciousness" in literary works, see Cynthia Deitering's "The Postnatural Novel: Toxic Consciousness in Fiction of the 1980s."
16. It is the name of the organization, Le Club des miracles relatifs, which gives the novel its title.