Experiences of opportunity in the Northern resource frontier.

Author:Amati, Cynthia
Position::Northern Canada - Report

Abstract: Resource booms, including those currently occurring in northern Canada, are anchored in narratives of economic opportunity. As a consequence, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut are currently seeing an increase in immigration from some non-traditional source countries of the global South. Those who arrive in Yellowknife and Whitehorse have different expectations of experiences of the North. Relatively little literature has explored the ways in which place is being constructed by such new Canadians. Where do these notions of place and place identity in northern communities fit within broader and dichotomous discourses of the North as "hinterland or homeland"? This article examines how transnational labour migrants position their life experiences in relation to dominant discourses of neoliberalism and resource frontier values--historically sites of economic opportunity that have valorized characteristics such as masculinity and individualism that have come to ideologically define resource-based communities. Data for this article is drawn from thirty-five narrative interviews with new Canadians who had resided in Whitehorse or Yellowknife for between three and six years on average. The results suggest that transnational newcomers into the North negotiate multiple socio-economic challenges as they engage in place making within a rapidly changing northern economy.


The Circumpolar North is undergoing significant socio-economic, cultural and environmental change as a result of globalization (Southcott 2005:115). Global investment in large-scale oil, gas, and mineral industries is driving economic, social, and cultural changes at scales and speeds never before experienced (Heininen 2005; Young 2008). Such trends in globalization are visible in many parts of the Circumpolar North (Huskey 2005; Southcott 2005). There is an uneven understanding of who is benefiting and how from the wave of development currently visible in the Yukon and Northwest Territories (NWT). The perspectives of those newly arrived to the urban centres are among those not clearly understood. Guided by research in other regions going through rapid resource development (see e.g., Ryser and Halseth 2010; Dorow and Dogu 2011; Hayter and Barnes 2011; Yoshida and Ramos 2012), this article explores the expectations, experiences, and identities of a diverse group of immigrants, temporary workers, and refugees, referred henceforth as global citizens, currently living in Whitehorse, Yukon and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. By sharing their voices, the article seeks to build a greater understanding of the urban North as a place of dynamic social relations, processes, experiences, and identities of global meaning and significance (Massey 1994: 66). Second, the article aims to catalyze discussion and contribute to policy on the benefits and disadvantages of resource development in the Arctic. Specifically, we highlight the opportunities and challenges of northern livelihoods and well-being through the voices and stories of global citizens interviewed in the Yukon and Northwest Territories in 2012-13.

Context: Resource Development in the Arctic

With a history of non-renewable resource development, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon have been referred to as a "land of opportunity" by the Conference Board of Canada's Centre for the North (The Centre for the North 2011). The federal and territorial governments are promoting this identity to further encourage the development of a stable labour market to support growth in the resource sector as well as the derivative service sectors, i.e., retail, trade, tourism, fishing, construction, and manufacturing (Northwest Territories Industry, Tourism and Investment, 2011-12). When introducing the economic plan for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, for example, the Northwest Territories' Minister for Industry, Tourism, and Investment made direct reference to this hope by explaining:

The Northwest Territories is embarking on an era of opportunity and growth. Global economies are changing, new markets are growing, and international focus is shifting north--and we are poised to take full advantage of this incredible opportunity. Our vast natural resource base continues to provide the backbone to our territorial economy and provide opportunities to our residents. The NWT exports approximately $3 billion in diamonds and oil annually. However, significant potential remains. (Northwest Territories Industry, Tourism and Investment 2011-12: i)

In 2011, the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut led the country in economic activity, producing both the highest and lowest growth rates in real gross domestic product (GDP). Nunavut and the Yukon led the country with first and second GDP growth percentages respectively, while the Northwest Territories reported a negative real GDP growth of -5.5% (Statistics Canada 2012.). This is a reflection of high economic activity--both the peak and trough--symbolic of the economic volatility that characterizes the region because of its dependence on the resource industry.

In the future, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and Nunavut are projected to experience economic growth that will drive population growth. This growth is anticipated from increases in investment in the resource sector as well as in other sectors--i.e., tourism, film, construction, research--which are currently being encouraged in efforts to diversify the northern economy (Northwest Territories Industry, Tourism, and Investment 2011). Such growth is expected to create more employment opportunities (Northwest Territories Industry, Tourism, and Investment 2011-12). Migration from within and outside Canada into the region is thus projected to rise (City of Yellowknife, 2009). If built, the proposed Mackenzie Gas Pipeline alone is anticipated to bring in over 200,000 direct and indirect jobs to the territories. It is also anticipated to stimulate economic growth for twenty to thirty years in the future (Buell 2006; CBC News 2012; GNWT Health and Social Services 2005).

Along with other nations, the Canadian government is engaged in a $100 million hydrography project to map out its Arctic territory in order to extend and secure the underwater area claimable by Canada under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Smith 2011). This urgency to delineate territorial boundaries is driven, in part, by the discovery of valuable mineral and energy resources in the Arctic territories of Russia (Parente, Shiklomanov, and Streletskiy 2012).

Meanwhile, more transnational capital is being invested in the exploration of minerals, oil, and gas. Among other investments, the federal government is banking on exploration investments alone, justifying the $100 million geo-mapping program expenditure with an expected reimbursement of about $500 million to be obtained from private companies intending to do exploration work in the Arctic (CBC News 2008). To date, territorial governments have experienced steady growth in mineral exploration investments. The mineral exploration expenditure for 2012 was $600 million for the Yukon (Yukon Economic Development 2012); $432.6 million for Nunavut in 2010 (Nunavut Economic Forum 2010); and over $500 million for the 2011-2012 year for the Northwest Territories (Northwest Territories Industry, Tourism, and Investment 2011-12). In summary, the Canadian North is considered "open for business" (GNWT 2013:17) as defined by the premier of the Northwest Territories.

Labour Shortages and Resource Development--Global Migration to the Arctic Yellowknife

With large investments in mineral exploration as outlined above, demand for labour has risen, leading to an influx of workers to the North, particularly to Yellowknife and Whitehorse. But it is important to note that the immigrant population in the northern territories, at 13.2%, is still much below the current (i.e., 2011 Census) national average of 21.7% (City of Yellowknife 2014).

As gold mines in Yellowknife closed in the early 2000s, threatening economic decline typical of a resource bust, the city resolved to proactively use remaining natural resources to diversify the economy in order to reduce dependence on resource development to the extent possible. Taking stock of its assets and risks to investment and growth, the city acknowledged its limited pool of surplus labour, the relatively small size of its domestic market compared to other Canadian centres, and the high cost of labour among the issues that hindered its investment potential (City of Yellowknife 2006; NWT Industry, Tourism, and Investment 2011-2012). Since this self-evaluation, Yellowknife has renewed its efforts to attract in-migration, tourism, scientific research, and other activities to enhance a diverse economy and advance a favourable view of the quality of life, career opportunities, and cultural and natural uniqueness of the city to the rest of Canada and the world (City of Yellowknife 2006).

Over the past ten years, Yellowknife has acquired a number of transnational skilled workers and entrepreneurs through the Northwest Territories Nominee Program. In 2006, almost twice as many new immigrants in Yellowknife were women (64%) compared to men (36%) (NTNUPHA 2010). The increase in immigration since 2001 has been attributed to the demand for workers in the local service and retail sectors (e.g., nursing, dental, social work, childcare), and the demand for workers in secondary diamond sorting and polishing businesses (NTNUPHA 2010). In 2006, the City of Yellowknife had a total of 2,080 immigrants, comprising 76% of all immigrants residing in the territories (Statistics Canada Census 2006). This represented a ten-year increase of 17% from 1996. Therefore, the city's immigrant population comprised 11.6%. The ethnic composition of these immigrants is diverse, including 36% from the Philippines, 18% from Ghana, 9% from Vietnam, 7% from the United States, and 5%...

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