Tracing the Trough (Part 2): Exploring the history and future of mining in Quebec and Labrador

Four-hundred-tonne trucks look like toys at the bottom of the awe-inspiring Mont Wright pit. Note pit rim at the very top of the image. Photo Credit: Arn Keeling

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This post is the second in a two-part series following a group of researchers as part of the joint MinErAL Network and REXSAC Nordic Centre of Excellence field school in Quebec and Labrador in the spring of 2019. You can read part one here.

Schefferville-Fermont: As we left Schefferville, Quebec, to return southwards, we boarded a Quebec North Shore and Labrador (Tshiuetin) train packed with Innu and Naskapi families heading for a fair in Sept-Îles. A general sorting emerged, with grandparents and infants occupying one quiet car, clusters of tweens gathered around Gameboys and other portable devices elsewhere, and our car: a mix of harried young parents trying to sleep, their little kids running up and down the aisles, and our tired, slightly bemused group of interlopers. Clearly, there would be no “rolling seminar” on the return leg of our journey. In any case, we disembarked early, hopping off where the tracks meet the Trans-Labrador highway to board a bus bound for the mining town of Fermont, Quebec.

Back on the QNSL train headed south from Schefferville, then west to Fermont, just over the Labrador-Quebec border. Photo Credit: Arn Keeling

                Fermont is to some extent the reverse image of Schefferville: also a planned mining town, the community has an unbroken history of mining, in spite of some ups and downs. The Quebec Cartier Mining Corporation constructed Fermont in the early 1970s to house employees for the Mont Wright iron mine, but unlike Schefferville it remained a company town. Fermont’s distinctive feature is the 1.3 kilometre-long “mur-écran” or screen-wall building, the brainchild of Anglo-Swedish architect and urban planner Ralph Erskine, who consulted on the project. The Wall houses municipal services and facilities, a daycare and school, a mini-mall, hotel, restaurant, bar, and residences, while acting as a “screen” protecting leeward homes and streets from wind and snow. Walking through the Wall gave me the feeling of a university residence crossed with a corporate campus, and a distinctly 1970s vibe from the orange-brown colour scheme and sign lettering.

View of “The Wall” from my hotel room (also in the Wall), Fermont, Quebec. Yes, there is still snow on the ground the last day of May… Photo Credit: Arn Keeling
This photo from a display inside the Wall captures the ‘70s vibe still evident around the wall’s corridors. Photo Credit: Arn Keeling

                While in Fermont, we toured the town site and met with current and former mayors, who described the town’s unique arrangements and recent challenges. Few people own homes and properties, but rather occupy company-controlled properties, mainly owned by Mont Wright mine owner (now European steel giant ArcelorMittal). Still, it is a family-oriented community of about 2400 permanent residents, now spanning three generations of mining families and, nowadays, even some retirees. In spite of the continuity and stability this has offered, the town has also experienced recent stressors. In the early 2010s, a boom associated with Mont Wright expansion and the new Bloom Lake iron development nearby brought a sudden influx of workers, families, and their attendant needs to Fermont, an “invasion” with which it struggled to cope. Somewhat reluctantly, the town acceded to the creation of fly-in, fly-out residences (one at the Mont Wright mine site, another right in Fermont housing Bloom Lake workers) to accommodate the newcomers, even as it sought to maintain its sense of community.

                Here we also visited the impressive Mont Wright mine, a massive, kilometer-wide open-pit iron mine, swarming with gargantuan trucks and shovels. We received a comprehensive tour of the pit, concentrator, and separation circuit, as well as the maintenance shed for the 400-tonne ore hauling trucks. After upgrading to about 65-66 percent iron, the mine’s concentrate is shipped via rail to world markets through the port of Sept- Îles. With Champion Iron (an Australian company) recently reopening the nearby Bloom Lake iron mine, and boasting up to a 40-year mine life, the Fermont area’s mining future seems fairly secure—barring another major commodity market downturn, that is.

Labrador City—From our base in Fermont, we drove up to the Labrador West area in two separate visits. We first spent a lovely afternoon touring the twin mining towns of Labrador City and Wabush with long-time local resident Peter Reccord. A Newfoundlander, Peter came to Labrador in the town’s early days as Carol Lake in 1964 and worked for decades for the Iron Ore Company and other mining-related ventures. While also a classic single-industry town, apart from its initial period Labrador City was not a company town. People own their homes and residents have often had to weather downturns, layoffs, and strikes over the years. Most recently, the global slump in iron prices and the closure of the Wabush Mine in 2014 hit the area (especially the town of Wabush) hard. Peter praised the community’s resilience in the face of these past and present bust phases, while also noting the changes these cycles bring, such as the construction of new residences for commuting workers (which give companies greater flexibility in employment). The Wabush Mine, now operated by Tacora Resources, recently resumed production, closing the loop of the most recent bust and boom cycle, but the many “For Sale” signs on homes around the town of Wabush still show the scars of this latest downturn.

View from Wabush, Labrador, of the Wabush Mine, newly reopened by Tacora Resources. Photo Credit: Arn Keeling

                Our Labrador City visit also brought us face to face with the future of mining and northern mining towns. One small insight came from a non-descript building in the centre of town, from which we could hear the humming of cooling fans as they whirred around the server farm within. Yes, the region’s cool climate and ample, cheap energy supply is attracting a new kind of resource industry: data mining and warehousing. Here in Labrador, we find the front and back ends of the digital economy (and its material underpinnings) occupying virtually the same space. A greater digital surprise awaited us at Rio Tinto’s Operational Logistics Optimization Centre, tucked away in a former school building in the centre of Labrador City. Here is the future of mining: walls of plasma display screens in a darkened room and people real-time monitoring every aspect of the mine’s production facilities, from average ore grades to the tire pressure on the massive haul trucks. In real time, production data are sent to Rio Tinto’s headquarters in London, and mine products (say, of iron pellets or concentrate) can be adjusted on the fly to meet market demands and global prices. [Unfortunately, these data are so sensitive we were not permitted to take photos of the screens.] One employee demonstrated for us the latest in automation: a pilot semi-autonomous drill that can remotely drill out blasthole patterns without an onboard operator. Bye bye pick and shovel, hello click and shovel. With millions more tons of ore in new deposits awaiting extraction in Labrador, we wondered, what will the trends toward automation and rotation work mean for the community itself?

This non-descript building literally hums with activity as home to Labrador City’s first server farm. Photo Credit: Arn Keeling

                Overall, however short and partial, our journey through the Labrador Trough provoked deep reflection on the past, present, and future of mining and mining communities. Like all good fieldwork, it both illuminated and helped us “ground” many of the issues and questions we study elsewhere, including the historical geography of mining towns, heritage and identity in mining communities, boom and bust cycles, Indigenous encounters with extractive industries, mining-induced environmental change, and the cumulative environmental legacies of large-scale extractive projects. Exhausted but buzzing with insights, we debriefed for a day in Quebec City, sharing our initial thoughts and reflections – and hoping to do it all again next year in Sweden!

The MinErAL-REXSAC fieldschoolers (and guides). Photo Credit: Arn Keeling

Special thanks to our many hosts and interlocutors in the region during the field school; to trip logistics organizers Aude Therrien and Jean-Sébastien Boutet; and to Karen Bouchard for note-taking assistance. And of course to the brilliant REXSAC and MinErAL students and researchers!

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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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