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Mindful mining

Geographer strives to improve legacy of mining activity

By Chad Pelley

Mining provides economic benefits in the form of employment and profits.

D'arcelor mine
Dr. Arn Keeling is on the organizing and scientific committees for the international Mining the Connection conference in Quebec this month.
Photo: Submitted

However, it often impacts community cohesion, local politics, the environment and the authority of Indigenous Peoples over their lands.

Dr. Arn Keeling, Department of Geography, and his colleague, Dr. John Sandlos, Department of History, both of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, have been working to reform this legacy.

Multidisciplinary lens

The researchers are well-known in the mining research community for publishing books and appearing in media features about the legacies of resource extraction, particularly in Canada.

They have conducted considerable joint research on the encounters of northern Indigenous communities with large-scale mining developments.

“A lot of research and engagement on mining tends to be regionally or nationally focused.” — Dr. Arn Keeling

Later this month, Dr. Keeling is extending that knowledge at an international conference happening in Quebec, titled Mining the Connections. The conference will apply a multidisciplinary lens to a discussion of the impacts of mining.

Dr. Keeling came to be involved in the conference as a member of two international research networks co-hosting the event: Resource Extraction and Sustainable Arctic Communities, a Nordic-based network, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded Knowledge Network Mining Encounters and Indigenous Sustainable Livelihoods.

“Mining is a global industry, but a lot of research and engagement on mining tends to be regionally or nationally focused,” he said. “So, the main goal is to connect researchers, community members, stakeholders, industry actors and others around the social aspects of mineral development for mutual exchange and learning.”

Potential for conflict

Dr. Keeling says it is a fitting time for such an international-scale conference as there is a forthcoming spike in mining activity.

Headhot of Arn Keeling with map of the world in the background
Dr. Arn Keeling hopes this month’s international conference will centre Indigenous experiences and insights in discussions of mine closure and post-mining futures.
Photo: Chris Hammond

While the growing global demand for “green minerals” will aid in our transition to new energy sources, it may also lead to conflict over access to mineral lands and the impacts of mining, he says.

“The mining industry has a checkered legacy around the world in terms of its social and environmental performance, so it is more important than ever that the needs and rights of mining-affected communities are placed at the forefront of discussions around mineral development and the “green” transition. Sadly, these issues often remain an afterthought in the international rush to promote so-called “critical minerals.”

Improving engagement

Last November, Dr. Keeling co-organized an initiative with the University of Queensland in Australia, home to the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining), that hosted a two-day virtual Indigenous Exchange Forum on Mine Closure.

The forum included community participants from eight mining sites in Canada, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, including a Yukon community where Memorial PhD student Caitlynn Beckett is working, and focused on the challenges of mine closure and reclamation, which he says is arguably the “most neglected” part of the mining cycle.

“The industry’s relationships and responsibilities don’t end once the ore is out of the ground.” — Dr. Arn Keeling

April’s Mining the Connections conference will build on findings from the forum.

“Mining is invariably a temporary land use, but the industry’s relationships and responsibilities don’t end once the ore is out of the ground. It’s important to ensure that mine-impacted lands and waters are reclaimed and protected,” Dr. Keeling said. “It’s equally important, but often overlooked, to ensure that the socio-economic impacts of mine closure — job and revenue losses, outmigration, community infrastructure and post-mining transitions — are also addressed in mine closure plans.”

He says that for Indigenous communities that host mining operations, these questions are especially critical, since the members of these communities don’t leave a site after the end of the mining operation.

“It’s their land and their communities. Our collaboration aims to centre Indigenous experiences and insights in discussions of mine closure and post-mining futures.”

Dr. Keeling is also co-editing a special issue of the journal The Extractive Industries and Society later in 2022.

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