“To have felt snow and ice forever, and nothing forever but ice and snow…” – Elizabeth Hay

For the core seminar in the PhD program in Canadian Studies, we composed brief discussion papers based on the course readings for the month.  This the first part of two from my December 2010 paper on environmental assessment, Indigenous Knowledge, Aboriginal rights, and the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, aka the Berger Commission.

“Now the North, which is common to both East and West is a natural bridge to unite the two divisions.  I look to the North as one of the great unifying factors in the future of the Dominion.” – Lord Tweedsmiur, 1937

Fumoleau, Page (who provides limited citations), and Abel use available source material (which is typically written in the form of government memoranda) to provide an illuminating glimpse into a situation that requires multiple perspectives to achieve nuanced understanding of the context leading up to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry (1974-1977).  [Not unlike Jim O’Brien’s “The History of North America from the Standpoint of the Beaver” (1982), Abel, Page, and Fumoleau make use of available sources to give an account of otherwise marginalized events.]

Abel and Fumoleau explain how early Indigenous communities and leaders sent letters to the Governor General, boycotted unfair trade practices (Abel, 210), protested to the federal government, and had uncooperative Indian agents replaced.  This activism set the stage to successfully halt the Mackenzie Valley pipeline project in the 1970s.  Coupled with growing social activism and increased disillusionment and cynicism toward political bureaucratization in Canadian society more broadly (Page, 23), it seems inevitable to us today that Berger would delay the pipeline and encourage land claims settlements.  [This trend of bureaucratization is remarked upon by Ludwig von Mises in Bureaucracy (1944).  Disillusionment with such practices is perhaps reflected in contemporary voter apathy.]

Prior to the pipeline proposals, business interests took advantage of Northern resources and exploited Indigenous communities residing in the area.  For example, in 1930,

Gilbert Labine [allegedly] discovered a vein containing silver and [uranium] near [Great Bear Lake]… The mine was the only source of radium outside of the Belgian Congo. Because of the high demand for radium for use in medical treatment, this source was of world significance… The Eldorado Mine was closed in 1940 [and] re-opened in 1942 by Eldorado Mining and Refining Ltd… a federal crown company, to supply uranium for the Manhattan Project.

It seems that, originally, an unnamed Dené man found the site, but Labine took the credit and profits in exchange for two payments of bannock. Local Dené transported the uranium in porous burlap sacks along the 1,200-mile “Highway of the Atom.”  When the bags ripped apart, the Dené apparently used the burlap for tents. Many have since died from cancer and complications linked to radiation exposure, although some argue that cancer rates in the community are not a reflection of the hazards of mining uranium.

Financial, economic, social, historical, and political pressures often combined with cross-cultural miscommunication (Abel, 215) in the North.  Because of their traditional hunting practices and their resistance to nonsensical game management strictures, the Dene were considered ‘superstitious’ by government officials (Abel, 222).  This echoes Julie Cruikshank, who noted that “the alleged universality of one set of concepts [can] squeeze out alternatives that [can] then be disparaged as ‘belief’ or ‘superstition’” (18). She adds that it is “remarkable is how speedily such new stories take root, displace local knowledge, and gain authority as official ‘common sense’” (20).

Some early Indian agents, such as Conroy (c. 1920), promoted the notion of protecting Indigenous lands in the face of such White encroachment (Fumoleau, 203).  In a paternalistic tone, Conroy promoted treaty-making to avoid injustices to the Indigenous communities and to bring them under federal jurisdiction (Fumoleau, 204).  Political interests in the North are mirrored in a cultural fixation on the North.

This fixation on the North arguably dates back to Greek stories of the Hyperboreans in the sixth century BCE, through European expeditions seeking the Northwest Passage, the race to the North Pole, and in stories such as Frankenstein (1818).  Films like Nanook of the North (1922) and The Yukon Patrol (1942) about Nazis and Mounties display and reinforce stereotypical Northern features, and the creators of comic book characters Nelvana of the Northern Lights (1941-1947), and Brok Windsor (1944)—adventurer in the Canadian north—took advantage of such Nordic tropes.

Post-WWII optimism (Abel, 228) coupled with a mindset of progress inspired by the Industrial Revolution (Page, 34) contributed to a difficult situation for the Dene, who voiced their concerns to the Berger Commission.  The fact that fish grow more slowly in cold climates was ignored in government quotas for the commercial fisheries (Abel, 227).  [This is noted in passing by Elizabeth Hay in Late Nights on Air: “In some parts of the North an arctic char didn’t produce ripe eggs until it was twelve years old, and even after that it spawned only every second or third year” (162).]

Today, with Indigenous populations increasing, and opportunities for education opening up (contra Fumoleau, 191-2), is the future for nationalists and environmentalists one that potentially relies on Indigenous support for the survival of Canada and humanity, rather than the other way around (Page, 53)?  What would this type of collaborative process look like, and what would the role be for interdisciplinary scholarly practices in such a process?

Based on Page’s discussion of transportation infrastructure, defense initiatives, communication technologies, materialism, and idealism, how could the combination of wildlife protection, pollution control, economic sovereignty, and Indigenous rights (22) work to protect biological heritage (29) in the context of contemporary Canada?


Nadine Fabbi, “Village of Widows: the Sad Story at Great Bear Lake,” Teaching Canada, 2003.

Robert Page, Northern Development: the Canadian Dilemma, 1986.

Kerry Abel, Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History, 2005.

Rene Fumoleau,  As Long as This Land Shall Last: a History of Treaty 8 and Treaty 11, 1870-1939, 2004.

Elizabeth Hay, Late Nights on Air, 2007.

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4 Responses to “To have felt snow and ice forever, and nothing forever but ice and snow…” – Elizabeth Hay

  1. Pingback: Writing & Reading | There is a comic character who this August will… | World of author Tim Holtorf

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