As a Canadian who frequently travels, I often hear high praise for Canada and its wide open northern frontier.
Yet the north is under attack. Since the 1960s, the resource-rich and sparsely populated northern regions of Canada seem to have attracted large-scale industrial resource exploitation. While such ventures boast of economic stability, nagging doubts about past dismal performances of large scale companies in environmental protection suggest that Canada’s north had best beware.
Gilbert Parker, an early twentieth century Canadian writer living in the north in 1901, suggested that the pristine conditions under which he lived ended with the advent of the railroad in 1905. With the rise of towns and cities and an explosion in immigration, Parker lost much of the isolation and loneliness which marked his days. By the time he left in 1907, the north had been utterly transformed, and the first footprint in the north was planted.
One hundred years later, after mega-projects such as the James Bay Hydroelectric development in northern Quebec, uranium mining near Wallaston, Saskatchewan, recent ventures into the North West Territories by BHP Diamonds, and the Rupert River in the North, the footprints have become enormous.
No longer do I visualize rugged, rocky chunks of barren lands as it rises out of the cold waters of the Hudson Bay, or breathe in the tangy fruit scent rising from a field of northern Saskatchewan berries. The vast tract of trees that stretch in a broad, unbroken belt from coast to coast at one time conjured up images of spruce, fir and pine and tamarack, Aspen grass and sphagnum bogs; of clear bottom lakes and meandering streams and roaring waterfalls: all disappearing. Lost to me are the boyhood images of Aboriginal summer pilgrimages to historical meeting sites, where the spirits rise in response to drum dancing and storytelling and culminate with a feast of abundant fish, seals and whales.
I visualize instead dammed and diverted rivers, large drilling platforms poking deep holes into the ground and pipelines carelessly routed through important migration areas. Large man-made craters pockmark the earth; stagnant, flooded areas follow hydroelectric development; prefab projects house the displaced local populations, hunting and fishing practices are disrupted and garbage-filled pits replace rolling meadows and soft peat.
What strikes me is the number of lakes and boreal forests that are being killed in the name of the great resource rush. Canada is one of the world’s largest exporters of minerals and mineral products. In 2002, minerals and mineral products provided 12 per cent of Canada’s total exports and contributed to the Canadian trade surplus. Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Quebec dominate the industry, collectively accounting for 90 per cent of all mineral production. Only Prince Edward Island lacks any significant mining or oil drilling activities.
Canada is going to be highly mined in the next 50 – 100 years and there is no reason to be optimistic. Future mining operations will not be small scale, nor will the present day “scoop and haul” techniques be much different in the future.
Companies are hitting pay dirt in Canada and that is going to leave gargantuan footprints.
While it may be profitable, there are no clean diamonds or other ores. Exploring, digging them out of the ground and selling them requires sacrifices from the natural environment, from the wildlife that live in it and from the Aboriginal people who depend on it. So wear your diamond with pride. We are truly paying for it.