Don’t Call Me Resilient

Diamond mines are not a girl’s best friend

Episode Summary

In today’s episode, we hear from two women who talk about how diamond mines in the Northwest Territories have negatively impacted and perpetuated gender violence.

Episode Notes

When you think diamonds, you probably think of romance, weddings and Valentine’s Day. And it’s no accident we think this way: A century of marketing has convinced us that diamonds symbolize love.

In Canada, magazine ads celebrate the “purity” of Northern Canadian diamonds as an ethical alternative to conflict diamonds.

But this marketing strategy actually hides enormous social problems that people living near the mines say they’ve experienced. This includes some of Canada’s highest rates of violence against women.

The story our guests tell today is not one of numbers. Instead, they’re sharing narratives gathered and collected through interviews and sharing circles about how lives have changed after the mines opened.

Our guests today are: Rebecca Hall, assistant professor of Global Development Studies at Queen's University and the author of Refracted Economies: Diamond Mining and Social Reproduction in the North and Della Green, former Victim Services Coordinator, at The Native Women's Association of the Northwest Territories.

Show notes:

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Episode Transcription

Vinita: From The Conversation. This is Don’t Call me Resilient. I'm Vinita Srivastava. 

Rebecca: Mine comes to town and all of a sudden it has this huge presence and you see flyers everywhere trying to recruit workers. But then just as quickly as it comes, it can go. So once again, you got disruption upon disruption. All of these things taken together can create the conditions for gender violence. 

Vinita: When you think of diamonds, you probably think of romance and weddings and Valentine's Day. And it's not by accident that we think this way. A century of marketing has convinced us that diamonds symbolize love. In Canada, glossy magazine ads celebrate the purity of northern Canadian diamonds as an ethical alternative to conflict diamonds. But this marketing strategy actually hides enormous social problems that people living near the diamond mine say they've experienced. This includes some of Canada's highest rates of violence against women. Today, I'm speaking with Della Green. Della is the former victim services coordinator at the Native Women's Association of the Northwest Territories. She is originally from Namgis First Nations in Alert Bay. Also joining me is Rebecca Hall. She is an assistant professor at Queen's University in Global Development Studies and the author of Refracted Economies Diamond Mining and Social Reproduction in the North. The story your guests tell today is not one of numbers. They say getting stats on gender violence is particularly challenging. Instead, they're sharing narratives gathered and collected through interviews and stories circles about how lives have changed after the mines opened in 1998. One of the people Rebecca interviewed for her book told her Diamonds are said to be a girl's best friend. I'm not sure which girls, she said, because it's certainly not anyone in here. Way, way, way, way, way. Thank you both very much for being here today. Rebecca, in your book, you talk about this idea of how the glossy women's magazines celebrate the purity of Canada's northern diamonds by depicting these vast, beautiful and empty landscapes. But of course, they're not empty landscapes. They've been occupied and lived on for thousands of years, and they're full of complex relationships. And the diamond mines have generated a host of associated social problems. And these social problems include some of the highest rates of violence against women. Can you tell me about the relationship between diamond mining and violence against women? 

Rebecca: First of all, I guess you're right, the branding of diamonds is particularly interesting because they're known as one of the great branding stories of the 20th century. They became the symbol of love, romantic, heterosexual love for the most part. The Canadian diamond industry was established right when there was this international concern with conflict diamonds, popularly called blood diamonds. And so Canada was seen as this ethical alternative. And the Canadian diamond industry is very much marketed itself as that. And of course, the labour relations and the regulations in Canada are different than in other countries in the world. But it doesn't change the fact that any sort of mining and certainly diamond mining has major social and ecological impacts. So when I was speaking to Northern women, I was interested in the relationship between gender violence and diamond mining. And for me, it wasn't this sort of causal thing that, you know, rates of violence had necessarily gone up in the north because of the diamond mines, because the north is a place that's ever shifting for a whole lot of reasons. But I was interested in looking at gender violence through the stories of women to get a better sense of how they had noticed their gender relations changing. And what I heard was that the fly in, fly out structure of the diamond mines. And what I mean by fly in fly out is that workers tended to go for two week shifts where they would work really long days, you know, 12 hour days for 14 days at a time, and then come back home to their community for 14 days. That structure really changed gender relations both at the household level and then also at the community level. And it put a huge burden of work on the women. It also created some new inequalities in the household. All of these, put together, tend to exacerbate experiences of gender violence or maybe create them anew. 

Vinita: And maybe we can turn to Della. Della, you were the victim services coordinator at the Native Women's Association of the Northwest Territories, and you also led a talking circle to talk about some of these issues around the impact of the mines. And I'm wondering, what sort of burdens did you hear about? What sort of things did women tell you? 

Della: I worked with a lot of women that had partners that work there and not the women that actually worked in the mines. And their experience for their men to be working in there is sometimes it would be for more than two weeks, it would be three or four weeks and one week out of one and four weeks back end. And that really did a large impact on the family. We were not permitted to reach out and help those women. We were to wait for them to come to us. And I can remember at least four cases in my work relationship with those women where they didn't want to do anything because they're a man with a breadwinners. They didn't want to go without. The housing was expensive. The food was expensive. You know, the transportation, they were provided for herself and the kids. There was no pressing charges. There was just. Accept it and take the abuse. And it was really hard for me to watch because I don't come from a place like that. The man always protected the women and always provide it. My co-worker, Maria Speakman, bless her heart, she always brief towards me in the morning and then we would debrief at the end of the day. She had told me at one point when we were going hard at these things, she would say, Della. Don't you ever get cold? Don't get angry. Don't get defensive. You know, it was a repetitive one. Women that kept coming back. Don't tell her that. We've been down here before. We have to treat these women like they came to us for the first time. And she was really wise. She had been there 17 years prior to when I stepped in. She was a really big asset for the victims services. And I'm so grateful for her to have her as a partner. And it was just her and I. There was only two workers for victim services for 20,000 population in Yellowknife and some of the communities outside Yellowknife. They didn't want to go to their victim services because the community was so small. So they would come to us. So we looked after additional communities and there's 33 communities in Northwest Territories. Debriefing with Marie was a blessing for me because it was very harmful for me to watch these women go through what they went through. I had no idea what I was getting into when I took that job. And I really believe there were things going on there already before the diamond mines went up. But I believe that drugs and alcohol played a big impact on those women as well. 

Vinita: Can I also ask you how you got into that position? Like what took you to Northwest Territories? 

Della: I lived in Victoria for 28 years and that's where Dean and I met and we got married in 2003. He completed his degree in science of geology. There was no work in Victoria and there was a friend that was working in the mines and he came down to visit. I left a whole pile of pamphlets of booklets on a coffee table and said, You should come up. There's lots of work. And I slept over and I said, All right, okay, that's it. We're moving. And we had our two caps and our 99 Malibu and we drove up to Galilee and we had no place to live. And we ended up staying with a friend of ours. 

Vinita: How was it for Dean, for your husband, and for you for him to be working in the in the mine? 

Della: We finally got our own place. It was one bedroom and we had nothing. He went and bought me a 1999 little cassette player with a radio on it, and someone gave us a futon mattress. We had no TV. We had nothing. I was laying in the middle of the living room listening to the radio, and my cats were with me. And Dean had been in Snap lake, which is one of the newer mines, and he was gone. And I was looking up at the ceiling and I was thinking, What am I doing here? I was so isolated and I couldn't find anything that could support women. There was no programmes. There was no get together. I was lost for the first little bit when I moved up there and I don't know what it was like for other women, probably the same. 

Vinita: Rebecca Since this is your area of study now, what is it about extractive projects like diamond mining that creates these kind of conditions for violence against women, for gender violence? 

Rebecca: We've seen in stories that people tell and in research really around the world, that mining's often been associated with gender violence. But I think there's something distinct about this drive in, drive out or fly in, fly out model where the camp is away from the community. It creates this sort of space. Some people have called it a hyper masculine space in the enquiry for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. They talk about mine camps. It's the sort of space of exception where you're away from your normal community and family relations. And so there's this possibility things can shift and you feel that maybe you travel and you know what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, like that sort of mentality. But what's specific about resource extraction and mining is that it has a real history of attracting men. It does tend to be a very masculine workforce, and this is just amplified when it comes to fly in, fly out or drive in, drive out because you need to be away from your home for a long stretch of time. And women tend to be more responsible for caring labours like child care, elder care, community work. So it's often harder for women to take those jobs and to retain those jobs. So you've got a lot of men, often a lot of young men away from their homes. And it's nothing to do with the men themselves. It has to do with the structure and the space. It can create its own sort of culture that is different than the culture of the place. That's one of the things that can create gender violence. Then on top of that, you have the relationship between the camp itself and the home. And what I mean by that is you've got these people working really, really hard for these bouts of time. And like I said, sometimes it's two weeks, but often it's a lot longer. Coming home depleted, exhausted, and life has continued while they've been away. And so things have changed. And there might be exhaustion on both sides, loneliness, alienation on both sides. And there can also be feelings of distance, like what's been going on while I've been gone. So I think you take all those really quite profound social challenges, and you add to that the fact that mining is often really temporary and really intense. So, you know, a mine comes to town and all of a sudden it has this huge presence and you see flyers everywhere trying to recruit workers. But then just as quickly as it comes, it can go. So once again, you sort of got disruption upon disruption. 

Vinita: So maybe you could tell us a little bit about the women that do get jobs in the mine. I'm sure there are women that feel excited at the possibility of a job and a good income. 

Rebecca: There's a range of women who end up working at the mine. I spoke with women from other parts of Canada who had experiences in mining, who had come up specifically for this jobs. They were new to the north. And then I also spoke to Northerners who were working in mining for the first time. A number of women said, this is exciting. This is a totally different industry for me and I appreciate the experience. I appreciate the salary. Even the women who really liked their work and were happy to have it certainly noted the extreme visibility that they had when they were at camp. It's a pretty masculine space, so a lot of them perhaps got along well with their co-workers, but felt some discomfort. They noted that they felt like they were living in a space that wasn't really built for them. One woman I spoke to, who for the most part quite enjoyed her job, noted that there are no women's washrooms in the underground pit and that when she had a fairly personal health issue, she could only talk to a male nurse practitioner. She even said that the clothes she had to wear only came in male size for her. These experiences were uncomfortable, not terrible. But then I did also hear some more pernicious stories. I spoke to one woman who worked in an office up at camp and she said that she felt this feeling of hyper visibility and sometimes overt sexual harassment to the point where she started eating all of her meals in her room at camp. And she talked about getting up a few hours earlier than she would normally have to. So she'd go to the gym when there wouldn't be anyone else at the gym. I'd say the most troubling forms of gender discrimination that I heard about tended to be in women working in the more precarious jobs and especially in housekeeping. I spoke with a number of women who'd worked as housekeepers, and this is work that tends to be paid less. It's often subcontracted. So these people don't have the same labour protections as a lot of the other workers at camp. And mostly they noted that they felt very vulnerable to sexual harassment. It's quite intimate. Work, right? Housekeeping. So they're cleaning workers rooms and they're interacting with them and using different ways. And a lot of them talked about very uncomfortable comments that the mine workers would make to them. And what I noticed as well was that even in the interviews with people in communities who didn't work at the mine themselves, they talked about housekeeping as this form of work at the mine that had all these rumours associated with it. And I think those rumours as well shaped people's experiences of the work itself. 

Vinita One of the things that you said in your book was that the idea of violence against women or violence in domestic family life becomes normalised. I just want to ask you a little bit about that. Why do you think that it becomes so normalised? And also, how do we make sure that we challenge that. 

Rebecca: For people who are trying to maintain the status quo? It's helpful for violence to be normalised, or at least for us to think about violence as something that happens to individual people. When I first started doing this research, this was in the Harper era, when he said, Oh, no, we don't want to commit sociology. And at the time the Canadian response to violence was hyper individualised. It was all about We punished the criminal and we support the victim in these really, really limited ways. And that's changed in some ways because of the work of all the organizations that contributed to the enquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, for example. So there have been shifts in a positive direction, but I think that still holds that this notion that violence is committed by bad apples and there's absolutely a tendency, a racist tendency to assume that there's going to be higher rates of violence in particular communities and in particular racialized spaces. And certainly in Canada there are assumptions about violence in Indigenous communities that are certainly based in racism and that don't acknowledge both past and ongoing settler colonialism and the ways in which that shapes violence and that it shapes interpersonal violence to right it shapes the violence that people experience in their intimate lives. The diamond mining industry is a really concrete example of a structural shift of a social or cultural shift in a given space, and how these social shifts can impact people's intimate lives. 

Vinita: You guys basically met at the Native Women's Association of the Northwest Territories. Did your work start to become more and more involved with the mines? Is that what happened? You could start with Della. 

Della: I believe, right from the start. It was always connected to the mines. I'm trying to think back to the women that I worked with. Every one of them were connected to the mines. 

Vinita: And it was the same thing, I guess, for you, Rebecca. Sounds like the time at the centre really inspired and informed your research. Everything that I've read that you've done is that you've made sure to include the communities that your research involves throughout the process. Can you talk a little bit about why it's important for you to do that? 

Rebecca: I first moved up to Yellowknife to work for the Victim Services Programme at the Native Women's Association, the same programme that Della worked for a few years later. By the time Della was working for the programme, I had started a PhD doing this research that eventually became the book. So then I approached Della and our co-workers at the Native Women's Association and said, I'd really love to do this work. You know, can we collaborate? And we did. And Della was a wonderful leader in the research, as were many other folks at the Native Women's Association. And yes, that was really important to me, because this is sensitive work and it's work that asks a lot of its research participants. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to every single person who told us their story. When you're asking for something from the community, first of all, they need to want to do the research and you need to be giving something back. I certainly feel like still very much in the debt of the community and I still want to keep giving back because, you know, there's a long history of extractive research in Indigenous communities and in the north where community members don't feel like their input is meaningfully being taken into consideration. And so in designing this research, I really wanted to see it as a partnership and have done my best to make it a partnership. 

Vinita: So all the stories that you both have been hearing and listening to, you know, you've spoken to so many women. What do you think needs to happen? What do you think needs to change or what do you think needs to be done? Della, maybe we could start with you. And what do you think needs to happen to make things safer for women? 

Della: I'm just going to rephrase what I heard from Della here. I think they need to be aware. You know, I don't think half of those women don't really realise what they're into. They just know the hurt and the pain that they're going through at that moment. I don't think they realise it's coming from the minds. They're so detached. For what's going on. I think they need to be aware of what actually really happened and when it started shifting. And the man two Their first priority was to make money for the family, and it just started to go sideways, the violent start coming in and I think they just got lost in the whole thing. So I think they need to be more educated. That's the way I feel. 

Vinita: There is something to be said about the financial benefits. Would you say that there were some financial benefits to the mines and the presence of this industry? 

Della: I couldn't see any benefits. I just don't what what was happening to the women there? And then I had to deal with the court system. I had to deal with the RCMP. I didn't look at the benefits, what the mines were doing. 

Vinita: How about you, Rebecca? What do you think needs to be done after you've spent this time looking? And what do you think needs to happen to make things safer for women? 

Rebecca: I have two answers. The first is the more immediate, more practical answer. When we did these interviews, a lot of women spoke about the relationship between the gender discrimination they felt and what they saw as racism against Indigenous people. They talked about the need for better cultural awareness, training for mineworkers coming from other parts of Canada. There is quite a bit of engagement between communities in the mines, but more leadership when it comes to Indigenous communities in training the mines and how to engage respectfully with the communities. A lot of women also spoke about more child care supports and more supports for women in general. As Della mentioned, there's some great women's organizations in the North and hard, hard workers. But of course, as with these sorts of organizations around Canada, more resources are always needed. Another practical thing would be better support for mine workers who are also caregivers, who are also parents, who need that flexibility. And then when it comes to the more radical, like, what can this world be? Kind of answer to your question? The real commitments that I heard when we were doing these interviews were around community well-being and taking care of one another's relations, taking care of relations to the land. You know, mining as a form of economic development asks so much of communities and doesn't give a whole lot back when it comes to community caring relations with one another in relations to the land. So we're in this moment now where three of the four diamond mines are still in operation in the Northwest Territories, but one is beginning a planned closure this year, and the other two don't have a super long mine life projected. So I think it's this moment where we can listen again to these stories that people have told about their experiences of the mine and think, okay, well, what would Northern Development look like that put care at the centre that put land-based relations at the centre? And these are questions that people in northern communities have been asking and answering for generations. And so really what it is now for me as an outsider and I think for other outsiders, is to listen to the answers to those questions and make those answers the guiding principles when it comes to whatever comes after the diamond mines. 

Vinita: Thank you both so much for that interview. It was really wonderful to speak with you. 

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for having me.