Environmental Change in the North: Toward Different Stories

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In recent years the Canadian North has become almost synonymous with environmental change as scholars from a range of disciplines assess the impacts of climatic change in the polar regions. Geographers and environmental historians are uniquely placed to contextualize these changes, and to call attention to the ways in which environmental change is shaped by colonial and decolonizing processes, by historical geographies of resource extraction, and by rapid political, economic, and cultural change in the region. My doctoral research contributes to this undertaking.

My recently completed doctoral studies in the Department of Geography at Queen’s University examined the “materiality” of stories about the Central Canadian Arctic. By “materiality” I mean both the diverse set of things of which stories are comprised, and the material effects of stories on northern people and places. I looked at the ways in which stories shape geographies of race, nature, political mobilization, and resource extraction in the Central Arctic.

The project was grounded in a study of stories about Bloody Falls, a point along the Coppermine River near present-day Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Bloody Falls was named and made famous by Samuel Hearne, an English explorer who claimed to have witnessed an Inuit-Dene massacre there in July, 1771. Using archival and ethnographic research methods, I was interested in making sense of the ways in which both Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledges about this story become legible, material, and consequential.

I was particularly interested in how the massacre story has contributed to histories of resource extraction in the region. How did the Bloody Falls massacre story shape relations between Inuit, Dene, Euro-Canadians, and copper, and how does it relate to other stories shaping resource extraction in the North? Although often depicted as an example of senseless and extreme violence, the Bloody Falls massacre was significantly shaped by imperial interest in copper and was one in a series of “copper stories” that have ordered northern resource economies. Examining northern resource geographies through stories reveals some of the complex ways in which Kugluktukmiut (“people of Kugluktuk” in Innuinaqtun) relate to copper and to industrial mineral economies, as well as the importance of integrating environmental, economic, cultural, and political concerns in assessments of northern mining.

In addition to an understanding of the impacts of mining in the north, my research provides a unique vantage point for assessing the ways in which environmental change impacts northern people and places. My work seeks to highlight how particular environmental knowledges become legible and political, as well as how northern Indigenous responses to environmental change are shaped by histories of Inuit-Dene relations and movements toward Indigenous self-determination.

But perhaps most importantly, the project explored the theoretical, methodological and political dimensions of ordering the North differently. To the extent that we make sense of environmental issues in the Canadian North through stories, and that this “making sense” leads to material consequences in the region, the stories we tell about environmental change matter. I explored practices of storying the north on different terms, for different purposes, and these practices, I think, might assist in creating a more environmentally, politically, and socially just future in the region.

Suggested Reading:

  • Cameron, Emilie. (In Press). “Copper Stories: Imaginative Geographies and Material Orderings of the Central Canadian Arctic.” In A. Baldwin, L. Cameron, and A. Kobayashi (eds.) Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature and the Historical Geographies of Whiteness in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Emilie is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at UBC.
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Emilie Cameron


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