Mining History and Hope

Blueberries growing near the site of the Kam Kotia Mine disaster (Timmins, Ontario). Photo by author

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the 2017 Canadian History and Environment Summer School. You can find all the articles here.

Mining and First Nations histories have been mixed up for a very long time. The treaty process in Canada stemmed originally from conflict between Indigenous people and prospectors on the Great Lakes, and mining continues to rely on First Nations communities, their consent, and their labour. First Nations people also disproportionately bear mining’s legacy, in the form of landscape change, contamination, and economic downturn.

Both mining and First Nations history have at different points lent themselves to declension narratives, but perhaps the blurriness of the boundaries of environmental history offers room for alternative arcs. My reflections stem from my three days at CHESS 2017 and the suggested readings, but were also shaped by the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Historical Association and the recent NiCHE series on hope in environmental history.

Blurriness and Borders: Hope in Mining History

As environmental historians we engage daily in a delicate balancing act. Our historical agents include all the usual human suspects (Indigenous and setter), plus nature. Not only do some of these agents shout louder than others, but the boundaries of what merits inclusion in an “environmental” history remains blurry.[1] Where does environmental history end and social/political/cultural/economic history begin?

In my work on the environmental history of the Porcupine gold rush I regularly feel pulled back and forth by the multiplicity of stories in the evidence. There is nature, including watersheds, deforestation, and geological change, the global mining scientific/technological context, the miners, the mine managers, the legislators, the farmers, and Indigenous people.  Somehow these perspectives (and others) must be stitched into a cohesive whole. I worry constantly about doing justice to Indigenous stories, many of which play a central role in Porcupine’s past. For example, the first surveyors for the Bureau of Mines sampled soil from an “Indian” farm on an island on Night Hawk Lake, and photographed families standing next to summer tents. Tom Fox guided white prospectors into the area and used to steal their supplies if they were left unattended over the winter. In 1905 prospector Alex Kelso found him clearing a water route into Porcupine of deadfall. These individuals and their relationship to land are integral parts of understanding Porcupine’s environmental past.

OBM 1911 Indians on Nighthawk Lake

My experience at CHESS got me thinking about the role of these stories in shaping the big trajectories of my work. Mining history’s penchant for decline is a characteristic shared by the broader discipline of environmental history: As Professor Tina Adcock recently reminded us in the Hope and Environment series, declension is maybe the closest thing we have to grand disciplinary narrative.

Indeed mining, with its pits, pollution problems, and boom-to-bust tendencies, leaves little room for alternatives. The land has, unquestionably, scientifically, measurably been rendered “worse” over time through mining. One simply cannot look over the landscape of leaking tailings heaps, barbed wire fences mounted with security cameras, and oxidized water in every local creek and feel hopeful. Some mining historians have offered stories of resilience and resistance as a way out of the declension trap, but resilience narratives risk obscuring the underlying fact that mining stems from external state/corporate interests alienating local people from their land and resources.[2]

And yet I do not feel like I’m writing declension history. Stemming originally from my own membership to a historic mining community, fueled by my earlier work on St’al’imc, Tsilhqot’in, Haida, and Coast Salish participation in the Cariboo Gold Rush, and solidified most recently by CHESS (with a nudge from Dorathee Schrieber’s “Hope and Expectation on Turtle Island”), I’m beginning to understand why.

The finite nature of precious metal is actually a reason for hope. Mining must end. And when it does, the land and its people will heal. I know this both because I have seen it in the documentary record and because I have lived the process personally.

The job of the environmental historian then, in recording the mining industry as it works towards its own end, is to cultivate and nurture a parallel narrative of ascension, of hope, and of human agency and capacity for sustainability and healing.

Practical Lessons for Environmental Histories of Mining

Having done some thinking on the boundaries of my discipline, its declensionist tendencies, and possible reasons for hope, I drew some practical lessons from CHESS.

Mining history is most productive when it centres human beings (on the individual level) and their connection to the landscape.[3] In mining history, gradual disconnection from land is a common theme, but I suspect this is a product of the documentary record rather than historical fact. As mining matured, document production moved away from the local landscape towards centres of state and corporate power. But as long as people remain on the land, there are records of close relationships. We are obliged to consult these records, documentary or otherwise, if we want to do justice to a place’s history.

Everything is connected, and this is especially true when it takes place in the same physical space.[4] There has been a tendency in mining history to tell Indigenous stories separately from settler history, but the two are irrevocably entangled. In the Porcupine I found the ancestors of Mattagami, Matachewan, and Flying Post First Nations living, working, and shaping the mining area despite their supposed removal after treaty 9. The two narratives took place on the same ground, and so need to be stitched together for the environmental history of the Porcupine to make sense.

More importantly, the past, even the hundred or thousand year-old past, connects to the present. I must ensure my research is not just unharmful but constructive and useful for the people who inhabit the land I study. Visiting the Mohawk Institute and hearing the testimony of survivors on the Six Nations reserve clarified this point for me.


By putting people and the land first, historians unbalance colonial structures of linear thinking.[5] If you take your relationship with the land seriously, productive and sensitive work naturally follows. Professor Deborah McGregor’s talk on land acknowledgements (followed by a beautiful acknowledgement from Professor Brittany Luby before her talk on Milk-Medicine) made this point. Settlers can be a bit weird about land acknowledgements, but I don’t think we have to be. If you think carefully and honestly about what is under your feet and who owns it, relates to it, and cares for it, then the acknowledgement ceases to be a trite formality and becomes a genuine extension of your scholarly commitment to the people who live on it.

CHESS allowed me to explore the context and the roots of entangled mining and First Nations history. Over three days I built on my understanding of both my place within my discipline and my obligations as a newcomer in Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and Mississaugas of the New Credit territory. I leave CHESS this year better equipped to write productive (and even hopeful) histories of mining.

[1] Jocelyn Thorpe got me thinking about the possibilities of blurriness when she wrote of the TRC “From what I can tell so far, the report is neither an environmental history nor a gender history. It certainly could be either, or both, but it is more than that as well.” Jocelyn Thorpe, “Indian Residential Schools: An Environmental and Gender History,” The Otter~La loutre, 27 April 2016,

[2] John Sandlos and Arn Keeling, “Claiming the New North: Mining and Colonialism at the Pine Point Mine, Northwest Territories, Canada,” Environment and History 18 (1)(February 2012): 32.

[3] For a fantastic model: Brittany Luby, “From Milk-Medicine to Public (Re)Education Programs: An Examination of Anishinabek Mothers’ Responses to Hydroelectric Flooding in the Treaty #3 District, 1900-1975,” Canadian Journal of Medical History 32, no. 2 (2015): 363-89.

[4] Lianne C.  Leddy, “Intersections of Indigenous and Environmental History in Canada,” Canadian Historical Review 98, no. 1 (March 2017): 86.

[5] As articulated by Deborah McGregor. “Traditional ecological knowledge: An Anishnabe woman’s perspective,” Atlantis 29: 2 (2005): 103-109 and Shawn Wilson, “What is indigenous research methodology?” Canadian Journal of Native Education vol. 25, no. 2 (2001): 175-79.

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Mica Jorgenson is an environmental historian of natural resources in Canada. She works in both the academic and public sectors, and teaches periodically at the University of Northern British Columbia.


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