- Extraction Empire: Undermining the Systems, States, and Scales of Canada's Global Resource Empire, 2017–1217 ed. by Pierre Belanger
Extraction Empire is part exhibition guide, part compendium, part edited collection, and part insurgency manual aimed at exposing Canada's historical birth within and ongoing complicity with systems of global colonial "extractivism." At eight hundred glossy pages and weighing in at more than two kilograms (four pounds), it is a literally and figuratively unwieldy attempt to marshal disparate scholarly and activist literatures toward a critical convergence on mineral and energy industries in Canada and beyond. Informed by scholarship but a decidedly unacademic approach to these questions, Extraction Empire generates some interesting insights through its juxtaposition of essays, poems, images, and artifacts, but it labors under its idiosyncratic structure, polemical framing, and lack of empirical insight.
As a collection, Extraction Empire has its origins in an installation prepared for the 2016 Venice Bienalle, created under the direction of urbanist and landscape architect Pierre Belanger. The installation featured a short film, screened subterraneanly through a hole in the ground, aimed at documenting the historical implication of mineral extraction in the colonization of Canada and that nation's subsequent emergence as a leading center of global mining capital by the end of the twentieth century. The subsequent collection bears the marks of this particular origin in its at times confusing and repetitive but also stimulating organization and content. A good deal of the material included appears to only indirectly reference mining, dealing with topics such as parks, urban planning, and Indigenous resurgence, its inclusion justified by its links to the "empire" side of the book's framing.
It's difficult to know how to approach or use this book, given that its structure resembles more bricolage than narrative inquiry. The volume [End Page 230] is composed of "Essays," "Visions," "Declarations," "Media," "Maps," "Surveys," "Treaties," and "Ads"—though not in that order. Indeed, these materials (a small proportion of which is original to the volume) are interleaved to generate jarring juxtapositions of text (say, a reprinted scholarly essay, interview, or poem) with images (from news pictures to diagrams of mineral survey posts to company advertisements and logos) and artifacts (such as copies of treaty texts, flags and coats of arms, or other official documents). This strategy provides moments of interest and insight as the reader encounters the "thing" under discussion (rather than a textual reference to it), but it can also be a bit bewildering when the images or artifacts appear decontextualized and unreferenced. Similarly, the overall page layout and sequencing is confusing to the point of being unhelpful, but there are also creative and arresting diagrams and pages throughout.
Th e exhibit and book's basic premise—that geology and the search for minerals have long been and remain deeply implicated in, if not central to, the expansion of European empire and the (ongoing) settler-colonial dispossession of Indigenous peoples—is a pretty well-established one. In centering this story on Canada, and linking mineral development to the full suite of settler-colonial strategies and technologies deployed in the country, from the fur trade to treaty making to residential schools and the reserve system, the book does make a contribution of sorts. Through both reprinted and original essays, the text links traditional approaches to Canadian resources and history (notably those associated with staples and Harold Innis) with critical insights from scholarly and activist literatures on settler colonialism and Indigenous studies. Lacking much engagement with recent scholarship on mining in Canada, the book falls short of generating original insights into the historical geography (or contemporary conditions) of mining, either at specific sites or in the country as a whole. At times, some of the text tends to mirror the bricolage approach of the volume as a whole, resulting in a sort of critical free association and repetition that made it difficult to follow. Nor is the role of Canada's mining...