In March 2014 the Fraser Institute, a conservative (or, more precisely, right-libertarian), Canadian public policy think tank published its annual worldwide report on mining companies. Built on the estimations of mining industry officials and administrators, the survey this year monitored the investment climates in 112 national and subnational “mining jurisdictions” (countries or provinces and states in the cases of Canada and the United States) in an “attempt to assess how mineral endowments and public policy factors such as taxation and regulatory uncertainty affect exploration investment.” The evaluation was conducted on the basis of the computation of three indicators: the Best Practices Index (BPI), the Policy Perception Index (PPI), and the Investment Attractiveness Index (IAI). The first considers the potential of mineral deposits and reserves and presupposes model situations or “best practices” in relation to legislation, taxation, and political conditions. The second rates environmental laws, legal system, taxation, claims in protected or disputed areas, political stability, freedom of trade, infrastructure and socioeconomic development. Finally, the third indicator averages the BPI and PPI, combining 60 percent mineral potential with 40 percent policy perception.
Following this rating system, the 2014 Fraser Institute report on global mining situates in the top ten mineral jurisdictions four Canadian provinces: Yukon, Newfoundland–Labrador, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Such a massive presence of Canadian mineral subjurisdictions at the top of the list is partially explained by Alain Deneault and William Sacher, the authors of a recent, alarming investigation about the status and role of the mining industry in Canada. Titled Imperial Canada Inc.: Legal Haven of Choice for the World’s Mining Industries (2012), the inquest profiles Canada in general, and the province of Quebec in particular, as “mineral states,” an unflattering and troubling definition inspired by the so-called narco-states
state of exception
, or in the words of the Deneault and Sacher, “areas that have been taken over and are controlled and corrupted by drug cartels and where law enforcement is effectively non-existent.”
According to the same authors, eight features typify mineral states: high geological potential; public institutions designed to favor the channeling of public nonrenewable resources and profits generated by their extraction to a minority of private corporations; state’s use of legislation to guarantee unlimited access to mineral deposits to private actors; presence of state-financed infrastructures to facilitate the mobility of human and material resources; banking systems favoring the easy transfer of profits to other countries and absence of rigorous tax appraisals; low standards applied to environmental laws and working conditions; inexpensive access to energy sources; massive influence of the mining industry on public officials and governing bodies.
Interestingly, the province of Quebec, investigated by Deneault and Sacher as the most egregious example of a mineral state in Canada, does not appear in the top ten mineral jurisdictions of the 2014 Fraser Institute report. In fact, while Quebec ranked first on the Fraser Institute’s list from 2007 to 2010, presumably the years examined by Deneault and Sacher, the province dropped to the fifth position in 2012 and hardly reached eleventh place in 2013.
Kenneth Green, Fraser Institute senior director of Energy and Natural Resources, in a statement released to the media before the official publication of the 2014 report, attributed the dramatic drop in Quebec’s ranking as a desirable investment area for the mining industry to the new provincial Mining Act and proposed increase in royalties. More specifically, investors appeared to be discouraged by the uncertainty surrounding the delimitation of wilderness zones, parks, and archaeological sites, and the pledges to protect 12 percent of Quebec’s northern territory, together with the introduction of drastic limits to areas for industrial use. Moreover, reinforced environmental regulations seemed to create the “perception that special interests—rather than sound science—guide policy decision,” while the increase in mining duty (from 4 percent to 16 percent) together with the calculation of profits on individual mines instead of the multiple exploitation sites of a single owner (the loss on one mine therefore cannot be deducted from the profit of another) multiply the deterrent effect on investment. Green concluded his remarks with a warning: “When a jurisdiction loses mining investment, it loses jobs for skilled workers, wealth that goes along with those jobs, and the subsequent government revenue.”
Such an assessment of the situation has been contradicted by a number of voices and in particular by the Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI), a conservation group, which is actively campaigning for the introduction of amendments to the new mining bill to accommodate aboriginal rights, promote best practices, and ensure both environmental protection and economic predictability while incorporating mining activities into a larger strategy of land use and planning. CBI has besides recently published poll results that uncover a growing hostility to mining in the province of Quebec, while other activists have been pointing out how the number of jobs created, like the revenues from the industry profits, are negligible. Besides, a recent survey conducted by Quebec’s provincial statistics agency attributes the effective drop in investment in the mining sector (from $5.13 billion in 2012 to $3.25 billion in 2013) to the abating of gold prices and the fluctuation in demand from China and other new markets. The same study also exposes how 96 percent of the 2013 investments was subdivided between three regions—Abitibi–Temiscamingue, Northern Quebec, and the North Shore—all of them characterized by remoteness and extreme climatic conditions.
In order to initiate a closer investigation of the mining industry’s extraordinary and debated impact on the economy of Quebec, the North Shore and the adjacent area of the Labrador Trough were selected among these three regions to test research tools and architecture’s agency in a research studio proposed to master students at the School of Architecture of the University of Montreal during the winter semester 2014. Led by Alessandra Ponte in collaboration with Stephan Kowal, Olivier Jacques and Son Nguyen, and titled Testing Ground: The Labrador Trough, the studio focused on a geological formation 1,600 kilometers long and 160 kilometers wide, spanning the Labrador–Quebec border. The Labrador Trough is a large iron ore belt developed on banded iron formations with lower levels of contaminants than other global deposits, which makes it a favorite of steel manufacturing. Mining operations in the region began in 1954 and continue to this day with investors and developers still projecting a substantial leap in production in the near future.
The Compagnie Minière Québec Cartier, founded in 1957, one of the major developers of the Labrador Trough, began mining at Lake Jeannine in 1959. The operation necessitated huge investments ($350 million), which included the building of a harbor (Port-Cartier), the construction of the city of Gagnon, of a concentrator, and of a railway line of 308 kilometers. In 1974, after the exhaustion of Lake Jeannine, mining activities moved to Mont-Wright. The move required the creation of 150 kilometers of railway track, of a new concentrator and of a new city, Fermont, which included the famous “wall,” a megastructure acting as a barrier from the north winds. Meanwhile other mining corporations kept alive the city of Gagnon (Sidbec-Normines through the exploitation of Like Fire), while the Iron Ore Company of Canada (created in 1949) developed, 500 kilometers North of Sept-Iles, the city of Schefferville (incorporated in 1955), and closer to Fermont, Labrador City (founded in the 1960s) together with the twin city of Wabush, to exploit and service surrounding mining sites. The opening of the IOC mines required the construction of a railway, which eventually connected Schefferville and Labrador City to the port town of Sept-Iles. The 1982 iron crisis profoundly affected the entire region, leading to the complete destruction
of the city of Gagnon and the abandonment of Schefferville. Mining activities continued near Fermont and Labrador City, keeping the cities alive while the First Nations inhabitants of nearby reservations slowly occupied the remains of Schefferville.
During the last decade, despite the global instability of markets and economies, the growing demand for iron ore for steel production of emerging actors, in particular China and India, has generated a new wave of mining investments in the Labrador Trough. Multinational corporations like New Millennium Iron Corp., Tata Steel, ArcelorMittal, Cliffs Natural Resources, and Rio Tinto are now prospecting and opening new exploitation sites in the region. However, in the current circumstances, corporations in most cases select to build temporary camp structures instead of permanent settlements to house the workers, while still heavily investing in transport infrastructure to facilitate the processing and transfer of iron ore and personnel. The model increasingly adopted, even if with some reluctance on the part of the mining companies, is the so-called “fly-in fly-out.” Employees work on a schedule of two or three weeks of twelve-hour days alternated to a corresponding period of rest in their hometowns and are flown in by company planes. The system appears better adapted to the investment boom that took place in 2005 and also to the life span of a mining site without requiring the colossal investment and social costs implied by the constructions of company towns of uncertain future. To this model corresponds the emergence of an industry specialized in the construction of rather comfortable prefabricated temporary housing and facilities adapted to extreme conditions.
The research studio focused on the various strategies of exploitation, settlement, and infrastructural support systems developed over the years in the region. Students, organized in teams, focused on specific topics and case studies. The first part of the exploration was completed in Montreal. To address the immensity of the territories under consideration, their remoteness and difficult access, a digital cartographic approach was favored. GIS
software and parametric design tools; bibliographical materials; federal, provincial, and corporate databases of geotagged information were employed to map in time and space processes of exploitations and inhabitations. Six teams were formed to study the geology and geography of Quebec and Labrador, natural resources, mining operation and iron ore processing, infrastructures, actors and networks, world iron and steel markets. In an endeavor to map the complexities inscribed in the region, an eighteen-plate atlas was thus constructed.
The research conducted in Montreal included seminars and presentations from two of the main mining companies operating in the area: ArcelorMittal (currently exploiting the mines of Fire Lake and Mont-Wright near the city of Fermont), and New Millennium, part of the giant Tata Steel (now in the process of opening a new mine in proximity to Schefferville). An independent surveyor under contract with Cliffs Natural Resources was also interviewed. The meetings with the representatives of the mining companies were quite informative and productive. Interestingly, both companies did not appear to follow the Fraser Institute’s criteria in describing the way they operate. The benchmark controlling their assessment of efficient investment is the relationship between the cost of exploitation and the market price of the iron and steel. For example, as was explained to us by the surveyor working for Cliffs, the unbalance between the two had just provoked (at the end of February 2014) the permanent suspension of operations of the mine in Wabush and the layoff of nearly 400 workers employed either in Wabush or Sept-Iles. The surveyor working for Cliffs and a geographer employed by New Millennium also elucidated how they don’t rely on available satellite images nor on the Geo-Mapping for Energy and Minerals (GEM), the federal program promoted with great fanfare in August 2013 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Surveys and mapping are completed in-house and on site. Other information contradicted more received opinions about mining companies practices: both ArcelorMittal and Tata Steel delegates explained how their companies found the fly-in fly-out model
real world laboratory
detrimental to production besides being a source of tensions within the established communities. These assertions were confirmed during the field trip that took place after the encounters. Corroboration was found even in the renaming of the personnel from FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) to PNR (permanent non-resident)
to indicate a more stable relationship with the mining company and the locals. Moreover, the senior director for government and stakeholder relations of Tata Steel Minerals Canada strongly underlined company investment in building fitting relationships with members of the First Nations inhabiting the reservations in and near Schefferville and Sept-Iles. The efforts to date included the restoration of the hockey arena in Schefferville and the commitment to train and employ 30 percent of aboriginals as part of the workforce engaged in the mining site near Schefferville and in the facilities of the harbor at Sept-Iles. What also emerged from these conversations were the tremendous difficulties of operating in extreme climatic conditions and remote sites. Challenges on humans, machines, and infrastructures were enhanced by the especially severe winter months of 2014: rigors and trials that we were soon going to experience ourselves during the fieldtrip that took place the first week of March.
The high cost of flying to the small and distant cluster of towns in the Labrador Trough, together with the desire to truly understand the scale of the territory and of the infrastructures servicing the mining industry, convinced us to charter a bus and cover with it more than 3,000 kilometers, most of them on icy and difficult roads. It was difficult to find a company and a driver willing to accompany us in what was considered by all a risky venture. The journey started in Montreal, and from Quebec City we followed the north shore of the Saint Lawrence River to the small port town of Baie-Comeau, an eleven-hour drive in the middle of a snowstorm. At Baie-Comeau begins the (in)famous Route 389, the only road linking the Labrador Trough mining region to the Saint Lawrence port towns. Construction began on the first part of the road in 1959 to serve the gigantic complex of dams and power plants of the Manicouagan–Outardes project culminating with the erection of the spectacular Manic-5, a concrete multiple-arch buttress dam. The rest of Route 389, still partially unpaved today, was completed much later. It now reaches Fermont and Labrador City, an eight-hour drive, and is used mainly by eighteen-wheelers servicing the towns and the mines. On the road there is no cellphone service, while emergency phone points are rare and far apart. Our driver assumed the responsibility for the trip under the condition of having a satellite phone. Luckily, he also knew the road, having driven years before a hockey team on a school bus to Fermont. In fact, our entrance in Fermont aboard a chartered bus astonished the inhabitants. Later, we learned that we were the first group of “tourists” to visit the town in three years. The perilous bus drive was nevertheless an intense and unforgettable way of experiencing the infinite, hypnotic landscape of the taiga intersected by a gigantic hydroelectric infrastructure and traversed by endless trains transporting heaps of iron or untreated ore to the far shores of the Saint Lawrence. It was watching the passage of these trains through the mud-spattered windows of our bus that we began to think of the region as the “land of the moving mountains.”
We spent four days visiting Fermont, Labrador City, and Wabush. Schefferville, farther north and reachable only by plane or by biweekly passenger train, remained inaccessible. The welcoming in Fermont was unexpected, and the same should be said for most of the towns we visited. Municipal officials and mining company personnel were surprised by our interest for their towns and mines and they opened offices and archives, organized seminars and talks with engineers and planners, and we even obtained permission to visit the Mont-Wright mining complex in winter, and miners’ accommodations in model semi-provisional prefabricated structures.
Given the working conditions and the costs, calculated in millions of dollars, of operating the mine day and night at temperatures that during our stay reached minus 52 Celsius (minus 61 Fahrenheit), it was definitely generous to slow production to accommodate our visit. A monster 400-ton truck (with engine running) ceased work for a couple of hours while two oversized pickup trucks flashing lights preceded and followed our bus to guide it amid fields of dynamites. As the public relations representative of the IOC/Rio Tinto in Labrador City succinctly put it, the mining process can be resumed with the sentence “We blow it up, we crush it, and we ship it.” She was possibly consciously echoing then Newfoundland and Labrador Premier J.R. Smallwood, who, in 1962, setting off the blast inaugurating the homonymous mine, famously said, “I have always wanted to move a mountain.” Dynamite, we learned to our surprise, represents the greatest expense in the running of an iron mine. And indeed the mining companies in the region are really in the business of moving mountains: from blasting mountains from top to bottom and beyond, to shipping the ore first to the ports on the Saint Lawrence and then to India and China, to building new mountains out of waste or displacing them according to necessity. The mayor of Fermont explained how ArcelorMittal complied with her request to remove a mound of residue encroaching on the city, while, at Labrador City, IOC is contemplating taking over the hill now serving as sky resort to open a new pit.
The visit to Mont-Wright’s mine and the “wall” of Fermont rightly represented the culmination of the field trip. Yet, the stop on the way back to look at the howling void that has taken the place of the disappeared city of Gagnon, still mourned on Facebook as a lost paradise by its ancient inhabitants, left a stark impression. It reminded us of the precarious and risky existence of the communities we just visited and of the troubling comment we heard in Labrador City about a plan to close down the town if mining was to cease. Labrador City, together with Wabush, has a population of about 10,000 inhabitants, their livelihood strictly dependent on one industry. The risks associated with the mono-economy dominating the region were clearly perceived in any of the towns, including Fermont, desperately trying to develop tourism, and Sept-Iles, which is also struggling to foster alternative solutions.
The trip produced an incredible wealth of photos, videos, sound recordings, cartographies, geotagged information, and images of historical documents and plans gathered in the national archives of Sept-Iles. Often collected in the most difficult conditions, with frigid temperatures interfering with the functioning of recording devices and human action, the documentation now composes an imposing database. More than 10,000 documents were assembled. Sorting and analyzing the collection is a challenge in itself. But even more testing are the memories of conversations heard in miner bars populated by strippers (themselves part of the fly-in fly-out system); or the image of a group of workers breakfasting very early in the morning already fully geared to cover, for recreation, the seven-hour snowmobile trek from Fermont to Schefferville at minus 38; or again the unbearable sadness of eating “Italian cuisine” served by Filipino waiters and of visiting the vaunted mall of Labrador City. All the things we cannot repeat or make use of and the overload of recorded and unrecorded information of the most incredible landscapes: the glaring lights at night and, during the day, the steam blowing out of the mines against mountains covered with snow and ice; the biting winds and frozen skies; and always, always, the cold burning and stinging, freezing engines, stopping machineries.
Cold, remote, isolated, a frozen solitude. Traveling to the Labrador Trough as reality test
. But who and what were tested? Subjects and objects of experimentation multiplied, became interchangeable: the stability of world markets, the resilience of the mining industry, of its personnel and infrastructure, the inhabitants and their policing, the researchers and their tools, actors human and nonhuman, urban planning and architecture’s agency or complicity. Have we been witnesses; should we produce the collected evidence for it to be tested; can the experiment be repeated; should its pressing ethical and political issues be addressed or reformulated?
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Alessandra Ponte, Full Professor at the School Architecture of the Université de Montréal, has recently completed a book on extreme North-American landscapes, The House of Light and Entropy (Architectural Association, London, 2014). Stephan Kowal, Ph.D. candidate at Université de Montréal, works on the relationship between architecture and new forms of cartography focusing on the creation of Canada Geographic Information System.