Introducing “Mining and Communities”

Abandoned headframe at Giant Mine, Yellowknife, NWT. Photo by Arn Keeling.

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We’ve invited the editors of the six new titles in the Canadian History & Environment series at University of Calgary Press to introduce the book they’ve edited. In this post, John Sandlos and Arn Keeling introduce Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, and Memory.

Edited collections are the unloved children of the academic community, often maligned as grab bags of disparate papers assembled hurriedly by editors who could never write their own books. mc1While some collections do achieve notoriety as path breaking work (Cronon’s Uncommon Ground comes to mind here in the field of environmental humanities) edited volumes are often excluded from book prizes, less likely to get reviews in major journals, and sometimes are excluded from some forms of financial support for publishing.

It is true that some edited collections suffer from problems with incoherence. But by maligning a whole genre of books scholars underestimate the potential for edited collections to act as the perfect dissemination vehicle for collaborative research initiatives. We value (and perhaps romanticize somewhat in the historical profession) the individual achievement of the lonely writer of a comprehensive scholarly book; no mean feat, to be sure, but also a genre with its own share of problems with ponderousness and tedium.

At the same time, we dismiss as a second class citizens books that are the product of multiple perspectives and team-based approaches brought together under one cover (which is not just a nicer way of describing incoherence). With the increasing use of open access digital publishing platforms such as University of Calgary’s web portal for the Canadian History and Environment series, readers can choose to pore through an edited book in its entirety or download individual chapters, raising questions about whether coherence matters as much as producing strong individual research papers on particular theme. It can also be argued that electronic communication has done much to mitigate the problem of incoherence in edited collections; authors can easily exchange chapters, discuss them through the full panoply of electronic media, work collaboratively toward the thread of continuity that should run through a strong collection.

With Mining and Communities, we tried to take this collaborative element one step further, developing an edited collection as the deliberately planned product of a collaborative research project. The bulk of the papers in the volume, eight to be precise, came from graduate students who had worked on aspects of our abandoned mines projects funded through SSHRC and ArcticNet. At one of our bi-weekly “mining group” meetings at Memorial University, a discussion on publishing work in refereed journals seemed to generate little enthusiasm, but the idea of taking on a book that presented our work together generated a great deal of excitement. The book became in part a reflection of our discussions about methodological issues, analytical approaches, and the differences and similarities among out diverse case studies.

Abandoned headframe at Giant Mine, Yellowknife, NWT. Photo by Arn Keeling.
Abandoned headframe at Giant Mine, Yellowknife, NWT. Photo by Arn Keeling.

Because so many in our mining research group conducted ethnohistorical and oral history research in indigenous communities across northern Canada, Mining and Communities has also provided a unique forum for northern voices to be heard. Due to the limits of budgets and time, it likely would have been impossible for one author to capture the geographical breadth of the case studies represented in the book. We were able to conduct a large number of community-based mining history projects within a relatively short amount of time, drawing out diverse local perspectives on mining history from Schefferville, Quebec to Mayo in the Yukon. We also obtained chapters from colleagues outside of our group who we knew were working on northern mining issues. In two cases (Hogan and O’Reilly) authors from case study communities contributed to the book, a reflection of the close relationships we developed locally as the project proceeded.

The result is a book that reflects the complex responses of northern communities (especially indigenous communities) to the sudden introduction of mining activity in their region. Responses varied from fond memories of the camaraderie and good pay that comes with living in a thriving mining community (at least after World War II, when good pay and the construction of well-planned mining communities greatly improved the lives of northern miners), to outright anger at the limited economic benefits and long term environmental costs that came with mining. Mining and Communities reveals communities who were hardly passive victims of mining development, but still not fully in control of the massive changes that were taking place around them. More than just a research project, we also hope that Mining and Communities is a testament to what we can learn when north and south talk to one another.

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