Tracing the Trough (Part 1): Exploring the history and future of mining in Quebec and Labrador

Welcome to Newfoundland and Labrador—Tata Steel’s gatehouse in the background. Photo Credit: Arn Keeling

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Earlier this summer, a group of twenty student and faculty researchers enjoyed a unique opportunity to explore the history and geography of one of North America’s richest iron regions, the Labrador Trough. I was fortunate to serve as one of the “instructors” for a 9-day summer field school that brought together North American researchers in the MinErAL Network and Scandianvian researchers from the REXSAC Nordic Centre of Excellence, two international research networks exploring the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of extractive development. Along the way, we met Indigenous leaders, mine company officials, and community members, who generously shared the ideas and experiences. Taking the collective role of Innis’s “dirt economist,”[1] we sought to ground our conceptual understandings of the challenges of minerals-led development in the North in our observations of the landscape, gaining an intimate sense of the complex historical geography (and modern realities) of these places. Our tour took us through three very different mining towns exhibiting aspects of mining’s history, present, and future, all of which contribute to shaping the region’s society, politics, and environment. In this first of two posts, highlights from the first leg of our trip to Schefferville, Quebec.

Map of the Labrador Trough. Credit: Charlie Conway.

Mani-Utenam/Sept-Îles, Quebec:The only ground transport to Schefferville is by rail, and our group boarded the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway train early. The train takes anywhere from 12-14 hours or more, so there was plenty of time for “rolling seminar” discussions on mining law, negotiated agreements, and the environmental legacies of mining in Canada’s North. But we also took lots of time to observe the stunning landscape of the Moisie River and the halting return of spring to the northern boreal forest. In the passenger and dining cars, we chatted with Naskapi and Innu passengers, for whom the train (a portion of which is owned by these Indigenous nations) is a lifeline between Matemekush (Schefferville) and the Innu communities of Uashat and Mani-Utenam on the Gulf of St. Lawrence coast—not to mention numerous little sidings en route. Built in the 1950s to service the Iron Ore Company (IOC) development at Schefferville, the train was nearly decommissioned after mine closure in the 1980s. It was saved to serve the communities, and once again carries ore from the recently opened Tata Steel mine just north of the town.

All aboard the Quebec North Shore and Labrador (Tshiuetin) train! Photo Credit: Arn Keeling

Matimekush/Schefferville, QC: Although it was already very late May, ice clung to the shores of Knob Lake, which along with neighbouring Lac Pearce almost completely surround the town of Matimekush/Schefferville. Our group enjoyed the full run of the “Auberge” during our stay, a lodge on a little point sticking out into the lake, where (notably) Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis died in 1959. From this base of operations, we ranged around the nearby streets and neighbourhoods of what was, during Duplessis’s time, considered a model northern industrial community. Some of the curvilinear streets were abandoned, reclaimed by willows and scrub; others remained occupied, particularly closer to the town centre. 

This ruined cabin is reputedly where the decision to go ahead and mine the rich Knob Lake deposits was taken by Hollinger Mines officials in the late 1940s. Photo Credit: Arn Keeling

An entire section of the former Schefferville is now formally part of the Innu community of Matimekush; many Innu families were relocated here in the 1950s from their former community near Lac John. About 15 kilometres from town is the area’s other First Nations community: Kawawachikamach, home of the Naskapi Nation, who were also resettled to the area from the Ft. Mackenzie/Ft. Chimo region during the 1950s. Meeting with a band councillor at the school and visiting the lands office in “Kawawa” gave us insight into the Naskapi experience on this now-shared territory. Many Innu were preoccupied with looming band elections, but we later spent a fascinating few hours with Innu leader Réal MacKenzie. Both nations’ resilience in the face of the community’s post-closure collapse in the 1980s is significantly responsible for the town’s continued existence. But people from both nations also expressed ambivalence about mining’s return—even as they sought to generate some benefit.

Schefferville/Matimekush was nearly abandoned in the 1980s, and now seeing increasing activity with the return of iron mining. Photo Credit: Arn Keeling

                  Along the red-tinged road to the north of town, the region’s mining past and future collide. Just outside town, we stopped alongside several of the more than two dozen abandoned open pits, legacies of nearly 40 years of iron mining under IOC. Surrounded by barren waste-rock piles, their headwalls eroding, the pits embody the massive and long-lived transformations wrought by open pit mining. Innu elders described to us how historic mining activity displaced access to land and resources, and left a legacy of hazards in the form of water-filled depressions and concerning “red water” discharges. It’s a legacy that continues to shape local scepticism about renewed mineral developments—and has sparked a still-unresolved $900 million suit against former operator on behalf of the Innu, who demand IOC “pay the rent” for their exploitation of unceded Innu territory.

One of the many abandoned open pits from a previous era’s mining near Schefferville. Photo Credit: Arn Keeling

                  A few kilometres beyond, we passed two notable sites: first, the sign for Tata Steel, the company who since 2016 has brought iron mining back to the area; and second, we (again) crossed the serpentine border between Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, which Tata’s high-grade deposits straddle. From company officials, we learned how the Indian multinational mines and updgrades iron ore for shipment to steelmakers worldwide, while confronting the challenges of operating in a region with a rocky history of relations with mining. These days, the bulk of the company’s workers are fly-in, fly-out workers, significantly changing the dynamic between town and mine (though the company does have negotiated agreements with both the Innu and Naskapi nations that include employment and procurement benefits). Indeed, the town’s provincially appointed manager recounted the challenges of capturing benefits, restoring the town’s crumbling infrastructure, and recruiting population—“famille par famille”—in spite of the lack of local employees.

Tata Steel’s red-stained concentrator building. This installation is new, it’s just that everything is literally red from the high-grade iron. Photo Credit: Arn Keeling

                  Over three days of meetings, discussions, and exploration, we saw and heard so much more. Overall, we learned how Schefferville is once again riding the “resource roller coaster,” trying to reap the benefits of large-scale mining development while balancing the uncertainties of its long-term future. But what also became clear to me was the ways in which crises in the mining industry may be cyclical, but each new cycle begins from radically changed base conditions—of population, political economy, and technology. In the context of these changing conditions, the Indigenous nations of the region continue to juggle their aspirations for benefits and social improvement with their resolute desire to protect their rights to territory and self-determination.

“A ferro Vincennes”: Schefferville’s town slogan. Photo Credit: Arn Keeling

 In the second post: all aboard for the train (and bus) south to Fermont and Labrador West!


[1] Paul Peters, Dean Carson, Robert Porter, Ana Vuin, Doris Carson, and Prescott Ensign, “My Village is Dying? Integrating Methods from the Inside Out,” Canadian Review of Sociology55,3 (2018): 451-475; T. J. Barnes, R. Hayter, & E. Hay, “Stormy Weather: Cyclones, Harold Innis, and Port Alberni, BC.,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space33,12 (2001): 2127–2147.
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Arn Keeling is a professor in the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Learn more about the "Toxic Legacies" project at http://www.toxiclegacies.com

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