Why Scott Gilmore’s Latest Claims About the North Are Bullshit

The Maclean's columnist writes that Canada's North is "empty" and in need of "development," so we talked to people who actually live or work there about why this is so misguided.

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Sep 16 2016, 7:01pm


Photo via Flickr user Mike Beauregard

For some inexplicable reason, Maclean's has published yet another reactionary column by Scott Gilmore on the subject of remote Indigenous communities. This happened despite near-universal opposition to his archaic opinions—which are, in short, that the problem is location and lack of "development," not ongoing colonialism—by Indigenous and Northern peoples.

Gilmore is a self-described "social entrepreneur" and spouse of Catherine McKenna, the federal environment and climate change minister. One would think this would grant this middle-aged white man with a disturbingly dead stare a degree of self-awareness or willingness to listen to other opinions. But nope, here we are again. (In classic form, Gilmore has accused critics of simply not reading his column).

In Gilmore's latest screed, he asserted that the North of Canada is "empty" and in desperate need of hyper-capitalist "development" in the form of resource extraction. He definitively states, referencing no sources, that "this lack of development has created serious social problems."

About the only thing that can be clearly extracted from his column is that he wants mining, and lots of it.

Given his relationship with a senior minister in a cabinet that's at least rhetorically committed to notions of "reconciliation" and establishing "nation-to-nation relationships," such attitudes matter. Especially given the environment and climate change is of critical concern to many Indigenous communities.

As with previous columns of this nature, Gilmore didn't bother to quote anyone who knows about the North. So, VICE Canada talked to people who live in and/or have spent a great deal of time there. It's remarkable what a difference that can make.

Photo via Flickr user Chris Fournier

Melissa Daniels, lawyer and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN)

VICE: What was your immediate response to this latest piece in which Gilmore declares the North as "empty" and in need of development?
Daniels: Our experiences in the North are so completely different than down South that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed a report that focused solely on the Northern experience because that's how different it is.

This is a report that Scott Gilmore has clearly never meaningfully engaged with prior to his writing. Thomas Berger, with the Berger Inquiry, learned almost 40 years ago there is no way to really know the North and our issues without coming into our communities and engaging with us. And then, once you are invited to our communities you would be able to see that contrary to Gilmore's suggestions, the North is not empty: it is vibrant, it is full of life.

The North is arguably one of the most important ecologically vulnerable places on earth... It is inhabited by primarily Indigenous people, unlike the southern portions of the country. When Gilmore decides anything on the North and publishes it, it does have implications, especially when he's published unsustainable, unfounded, racist conclusions on Northern Indigenous issues, sustainability and the environment.

If anything, I think Gilmore's article just shows how much we need to conduct another Berger-like inquiry in the North in order to attain our views for environmental reform.

Do you think this ties back to Gilmore not being to conceptualize other ways of relating to society or economics?
I would believe so, considering this is a recurring event that's happened at least three times despite the overwhelming commentary from Indigenous people telling him it is not his place to be speaking on our issues. Especially in the manner that the does, so disrespectfully. The way he comes at Indigenous people and scholars on Twitter is not respectful. He's not receptive to critiques.

Are there communities or regions in the North that really defy what Gilmore's incorrect assessments are of that's happening?
Yes. Definitely. September 1, 2016: the Deline Got'ine Government became Canada's first combined Indigenous and public self-government. The official language is an Indigenous language, the focus is on Dene legal system. The idea of the whole self-government was born from one of our Dene prophecies on Waterheart and it centres on Great Bear Lake, which is one the last pristine sources of freshwater in the entire world. And that's where life ends and begins for the Dene is at Great Bear Lake. I think this is a great story of resilience, especially considering the uranium development that has occurred in Deline.

Erin Freeland Ballantyne, dean of Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning (located near Yellowknife, N.W.T.), first Rhodes Scholar from the Canadian North

VICE: What was your initial take on the Gilmore column?
Freeland Ballantyne: My initial response is what it typically is when we have people from the South trying to tell the rest of Canada what's wrong with the North. And it's that the North isn't underdeveloped, it's Gilmore's understanding of colonization and its impacts that's underdeveloped.

How does this relate to concepts of quality of life or development? It seems Gilmore really does promote the need for mining. Is that a political assumption about what the North needs?
Yeah, I think what we're challenged with all the time is people in the South thinking that what hasn't worked in the North for the last hundred years is suddenly going to start working and create a population that accepts that assimilation under Canadian values is the best thing for us. I think that what we know to be true is that the greatest resource in the North and the Arctic is not what's under the ground, it's what on the shoulders of all of the people that live here, and how incredibly resilient and innovative our communities are.

Is it fair to say that Gilmore's approach to these things is also indicative of the way the federal Liberals may be approaching them?
I think the challenge we have, no matter what government it is, is we're still operating under the auspices of the state that assumes sovereignty over nations that it doesn't have sovereignty over. The new government is saying "we want a nation-to-nation relationship." Well a "nation-to-nation relationship" is about recognizing who are the stewards, and if we want to use the language of the state, who are the owners of the land? And that's the Indigenous people that have been on them.

Until we start seeing those powers being taken back, or the Canadian state recognizing that if you want a "nation-to-nation relationship" that means things like Indigenous and Northern Affairs should be probably dissolved and that funding distributed across the North so that Indigenous Northern affairs can be part of the government that's governed by Indigenous and Northern people.

Canada desperately needs the North because the North has so much to give Canada to grow into the country that it says it is. Because we very much embody a lot of those values and those are really strong in our communities. There's a missed opportunity because it's really easy to look at the North and cite all of those statistics. But he does that without mentioning "how did we get here?" And how we got here was Canada dumping a bunch of money into destroying everything that was healthy and sustainable about the North.

Photo via Flickr user Pat O'Malley

Peter Kulchyski, professor in Department of Native Studies at University of Manitoba and author of Like the Sound of a Drum: Aboriginal Cultural Politics in Denendeh and Nunavut

What's your take on Gilmore's piece?
For Gilmore, paying attention to the North almost exclusively means industrial development. It's fully a colonial model. Absolutely. For him, it's all about putting in more infrastructure and more support for mining and energy companies and going down that path with maybe some training programs. That's kind of an extension of what the government does half-heartedly and largely supports.

I think part of the reason why we've seen less of it in the Canadian North than maybe other jurisdictions is because Canadian Indigenous people have successfully fought back. The turning point there is the Mackenzie Valley Gas Pipeline struggle in the 70s, which was the huge Northern industrial project that got turned back. But similarly the uranium mine in Baker Lake in the late 80s, and reappearing again more recently.

Does Gilmore have a point about the lack of investment in infrastructure?
I would say the investment we need to make is around land-based programming. That's the one thing that's not on anybody's agenda. I would say health problems, education problems, social issues can best be dealt with if we actually provided the resources for people to do much more land-based programming.

For me, the whole Northern policy trajectory is always about preparing people for jobs that aren't there, basically, and/or throwing in mines so they'll be there jobs where they can be at the bottom of a racially stratified workforce.

The whole presumption behind Gilmore's thing is that it's extraction that has to happen, and we have to prepare the preconditions for extraction. And it's definitely not a "let's look at the North for what it is: an Indigenous homeland" and think about how we can improve that.

On that point, is it fair to say that Gilmore and even the Canadian state at large simply can't imagine there are alternative ways of life?
It's about structural preconditions. Capitalism is based on accumulation. The Canadian state's job is to make sure that prior conditions are established so that accumulation can take place. And so it's in the very fibre of its organizational structure that what it wants to see is a workforce trained for capital development and infrastructure there for capital development, and therefore mining and energy companies moving in. That is what it does. That's it's purpose.


Photo via Flickr user Ian Mackenzie

Roger Epp, Director of UAlberta North, political science professor and author of We Are All Treaty People: Prairie Essays

VICE: What's wrong with how Gilmore approaches the North?
Epp: First, Gilmore's North is a slippery one. Sometimes it is strictly the territorial north, when he is counting people; and then, when he is counting ports, it slips down to Churchill. The question of where North begins is the subject of endless debate. Is Fort McMurray north? Labrador? Prince George? Sudbury? Chicoutimi? Or only those places where Indigenous peoples predominate?

Second, the "North" is judged entirely in terms of whether it is the site of effective sovereignty and economic development, especially of its "mineral wealth." Those are not necessarily the only criteria that Northerners would apply, though the assumption is that their perspectives are irrelevant. What matters is whether the North is genuinely "ours," meaning Southern Canadians'. As if it is up to people in Toronto and Ottawa to decide if "we" are a northern nation. People live there, and have been living there a long time.

Is this a symptom of Gilmore simply not being able to conceptualize that distinct cultural interpretations of lands/waters, economies, and societies exist? Or what's going on here?
Especially outside the territorial capitals, and in parts of the provincial norths as well, there is a complex relationship between what we might call traditional and wage economies. The latter presumably is a mark of "development." But it is not one or the other for people. Traditional land-based, water-based skills still compensate for the ridiculous price of food, for example, and the relationship between those skills and real self-determination and also the character traits required to live it out should not be discounted.

I was in the community of Deline on Great Bear Lake in late August, just before the effective date and the celebration of a self-government agreement that was almost two decades in the making. While Deline is not without its challenges, those negotiations were an incredible test of community leadership and cohesion, as well as a grounding in traditional stories and spirituality. Deline was rightly celebrated. Where was Gilmore?

At the same time, some of the biggest players in the conventional economy in the North, and increasingly southward, are Indigenous development corporations, usually the result of land claims settlements. With their own communities, they face the kind of questions that used to be asked of provincial crown corporations in places like Saskatchewan: are they to operate in profit mode to generate funds to be used for other collective purposes, or are they to fulfill social/employment goals in their operations?

Again, more complexity than you'd get from Gilmore's drive-by analysis.

Follow James Wilt on Twitter.

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