Our paper on the remote uranium mine in Saskatchewan, Canada, has just been accepted to the Journal of Rural Studies (JRS). It’s a relief, since we’ve worked a long time with this paper and worked hard to improve it after every setback (see the posts from April 2018 or December 2018). JRS got the best version! As soon as the paper comes on-line first we’ll make another post to notify you. Meanwhile, here’s the abstract:
The article presents a case analysis of the work regime at a uranium mine, located on indigenous land in northern Saskatchewan, Canada. All the miners are flown in and out (FIFO), and with nearly half the workforce coming from different indigenous communities. We ask how the miners participate in and experience life as FIFO workers, and enrol the community concept in the analysis. Defining community as not merely a group of people or a place but also, in the wake of Tönnies’ classic work, as a matter of attitude, the case analysis reveals a community at work but fragmentation of indigenous communities off work.
Next storyteller from Canada, a woman, working above ground, 7/7, here on the social life on- and off-site, and on why she couldn’t see herself returning to a normal 9-5 job:
Well here is very social, you are always around people, you are always interacting with people. […] At home it’s a little bit more quiet. You usually just see you family, your immediate family and then go back to work again. A lot of times too, the people you work with here are often the people you go out with for a beer or something in the city back home. So they become your friends here at work and back in the city because you’re on the same schedule even with no work. […]
Could you imagine having a normal 9-5 job?
No, not anymore. It’s hard to think about going back to the city and having to deal with rush hour and packing meals and, you come up here and you are fully taken cared of. You got your meals cooked for you and your rooms cleaned for you. You just have to work, and socialise.
After Johan’s first visit to Saskatchewan in June 2015, he wrote a lyrics and a basic chords structure for a song. The song was more or less a way to digest some of his impressions from walking and meeting people along 20th street in Saskatoon. For some reason, however, the lyrics came to him in Swedish… He sent the stuff to Tommy, who arranged the song and we recorded the bulk of it in a hotel room in Kiruna (while doing field work). We didn’t publish it, thinking a song in Swedish wouldn’t fit the international twist to the project. But, when the news of the tragedy in northern Saskatchewan reached us here in northern Sweden (the shooting in the community of La Loche, four dead, seven injuried, click here), our thoughts immediately went back to the song. So, we send our deepest regrets to the families affected and to the La Loche community with a Swedish song called “Fyrtorns blues” (“The Lighthouse blues”). Click (you might have to reload the page for the soundfile to show):
En fyrtorns blues
Lyrics and music: Johan Sandström
Instruments and lead vocals: Tommy Jensen
Backing vocals: Molly Jensen
One issue related to the labour process at MCA and to life in northern Saskatchewan that has received a lot of attention is health and well-being.
In a CVMPP report from December 2014, the effects of the uranium industry’s health and wellness programs on direct employees of AREVA and Cameco are studied (predominantly based on surveys; gaining generalizability but losing context). Reading the report with my visit to MCA as a sounding board, there are three spaces in which health and wellness are dealt with: (i) on site, at work, (ii) off site, off work, and (iii) in-between.
On site, at work, it is about the actual workplace and life on site, and what stands out are automation, good food and the risk of cancer. The report says that: “Modern mining operations are less physically demanding than in the past and this decrease in physical exertion, along with living at an industrial site where there is a good variety and supply of prepared foods, can result in weight gain and associated increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers. […] …a shift to mechanized and computerized processes.” (2014: 2-7) Further: “Most RSN workers in the uranium industry, though active, feel that the physical demands of their jobs are only ‘intensive sometimes'” (2014: 7-1).
Modern mining, that is, is becoming more automated and less physically demanding, combined with an on site life with extensive and inviting choices of food. The image of the miner, hollow-eyed, down-to-the-bones marked by the mine, withers and an image of a sligthly overweight office worker emerges. During my days at MCA, there were a lot of physical, after-work activities (weight-lifting, raquetball, basketball etc.) to in some extent compensate for this. The food is an issue, however. Although there’s no pop (läsk in Swedish) in the cafeteria, my experience is that it was quite easy to put together rather fat, sugar-intensive and fine-tasting plates during (and between) meals. Diabetes is also a problem in the north. Besides offering a lot of physical activities on site, one of Cameco’s responses was to market a so-called “Heart Smart plate”, but from what I could pick ut on it seemed to be a difficult sell. Many workers on site joked about gaining weight at work. I can understand them.
Also related to work in the uranium mine is the risk of cancer due to exposure to radiation. In the report it is early on stated that “current exposures are so low that it would be practically impossible to correct for the effects of smoking and residential radon exposure” (2014: 2-4). The rate of cancer is lower for men and similar for women in northern Saskatchewan compared to in southern Saskatchewan. Tied to the healteffects of automation, some of the work tasks being automated also had the effect of minimizing the risks with workers’ contact with the uranium mined. One example is the loading, where the driver steps out of the vehicle and uses a joystick to control the vehicle by distance when scooping the uranium.
Off site, off work, it is about life in the communities. The report says that: “The proportion of residents in northern Saskatchewan indicating “very good” or “excellent” mental well-being is the lowest among northern health regions/census divisions in Canada” (2014: 2-16). It also states that injuries (off site, off work) are the leading cause of death in northern Saskatchewan and that suicide is the leading cause in that category (the highest rate is among men in their twenties). The rates of heavy drinking is also higher in northern compared to southern Saskatchewan. In CVMPP’s socio-economic report from 2013 it is also stated that: “The community well-being index (an indicator of overall community well-being, including income, education and housing) indicated, overall, that scores were higher in Saskatoon, Air Ronge and La Ronge than the other case study communities and the north as a whole. This disparity in community well-being, as evidenced by this indicator, appears to be widening over time.” (2013: 15)
Off site, off work, there are real health and well-being challenges for many communities. Reading about this raises my curiosity for the in-between site/work and off site/off work.
In-between, it is about the connections between the health programs and life in the northern communities. The CVMPP is a testimony to the necessity of highlighting these connections, but to some extent this is weak in the reports. The 2014 report says that: “Although there is broad recognition and awareness of health programs offered at McArthur River and McClean Lake, the majority of respondents reported that they have not changed their personal attitudes or behaviours as a result of the programs” (2014: 3-6). But, it also states that there are some positive health and safety effects of the programs on their community life (c.f. 2014: 6-9, 6-10, 6-11, 7-4, 7-5).
In the report, the path forward is not clear and maybe that would have a been a task too grand for a single report. It might more be a way to facilitate a further discussion, but there seems to be a basic (and very common) assumption in that increasing participation in capitalistic life enhances health and well-being. Citing statistics from the government of Canada, the report states that: “There is a growing body of evidence to support the idea that income and social status are the most important social determinants of health” (2014: 2-4). To some extent this is debatable, but to a large extent this is more complex.
The way the labour process at MCA is organized spills right into the homes and the communities. The impact seems especially strong in northern, aboriginal communities.
The report by the CVMPP from 2006 explicitly deals with the theme “How FIFO [fly-in/fly-out] impact the workers’ family or community”. It says that: “Given that the effects of the rotation system had a limited impact on communities, there were very few recommendations as to how appropriate sources of support could be provided to the community as a whole” (2006: 41; emphasis added). It also states that: “Workers are generally satisfied with the current rotation system and there is limited room for improvements. While various problems associated with the work rotation system did come to light through the research process, people were generally content with things the way they were.” (2006: 34)
That many were satisfied with the rotation system reflect my observations from MCA, but that the labour process only has limited impact on family and communities does not. This view can only be defended with a very limited view of the labour process, something that we seek to challenge in this research project. Using the same report to build the case, an observation that is gender-related comes to mind: “It seems clear that the espouse or partner left to deal with the household, generally the female, bears the brunt of the effects of the work rotation system. They are essentially a single parent part-time and have to assume all of the household responsibilities while their partner is on site.” (2006: 15)
Several workers (all but a few were men) whom I talked to at MCA praised their partner for being strong and supportive, but their partner was usually at least partly dependent on extended family and/or neighbors when the espouse was on site. Something that I didn’t hear about in the interviews (not surprising perhaps), but that was outspoken in the 2006 report was that the older kids often had to assume a parental role early on and that “Many saw the absence of a parent as an opportunity for children to act out or to get into trouble” (2006: 18). This is not a case of limited impact. The labour process at MCA, that is, has significant effects on family and community life.
Something that also echoed in my interviews on site at MCA, was also mentioned in the same report:
“While responses varied to some extent, most people felt that the rotation system had an impact on their ability to partake in community life, especially in ongoing activities (e.g., sports teams) or special events (which were often missed due to the rotation schedule). On the other hand, the rotation system seemed conducive to traditional activities such as hunting and fishing, and people generally felt it enabled them to spend time on the land.” (2006: iii)
Again, impact of the labour process on family and community cannot be said to be limited. It disables participation in community life, it also enables participation in maintaining traditional life, although I experienced this as more complex on site than stated in the report. Being able to work for Cameco at MCA enabled many to stay in their communities and during their week off they could really be engaged with family and community life, and spend time trapping, fishing, hunting etc. But, there were also stories of how working the rotation system at MCA over time made the workers more attuned to a more capitalistic (some would say modern) way of life, which did not go hand-in-hand with life in the community (where sharing is more common) and a more traditional way of life. Hence, I heard several stories of aboriginal workers eventually moving their families to urban life in the towns of Prince Albert or Saskatoon.
The integration of aboriginals/RSN in the labour process, that is, is not free from tensions. On the whole, some would argue that it is a way for the national and provicincial governments and the mining companies to co-opt indigenous people (making sure their land can be used for mining) whereas others see it as empowerment of communities that face many social challenges.
On his trip to Canada, Johan took the chance of placing professor Greg Poelzer in front of the camera (arranged and managed by Max Poelzer) to talk about the challenges to the mining industry in northern Saskatchewan. The emphasis on capacity building in the north, particularly in aboriginal communities, is strong and not something that we experience back home in the north of Sweden.
Hosted by Cameco Corporation, Johan spent four days in November at the McArthur River mine site. Below, a short text about his first impressions.
At noon I arrive at Westwind Aviation hangar 3A in Saskatoon. It’s a good day. The air is high, not too cold. The bag is checked and together with three other workers, I board the plane. After a short stop in Prince Albert (“there is no paradise without PA”) to pick up a group of workers, we land at McArthur River (MCA), two hours after leaving Saskatoon.
Everybody on site are FIFOs (fly-in/fly-out). I count to 14 different pick-up spots, all in Saskatchewan (although Flin Flon is a bordertown to Manitoba), all but two in small communities in northern Saskatchewan.
My host, Ryan from HR, picks me and another person up by car. The others go by bus. The camp, where all stay, is less than five minutes away, towards the mine. From camp to the mine and the administration building is a 15 minutes walk, but buses run when shifts start and end, as well as for lunch. It is advised not to walk alone, particularly as a wolfpack has been seen nearby. Wintertime, particularly in January and February, also provides a reason not to walk. It is not unusual with temperatures well below 40 degrees. Add wind to this and it is better to stay inside or use the vehicles.
I check in at the McArthur River Lodge (well, we all do), managed by Athabasca Catering, a company owned by five first nation (aboriginal) partners. My room has a large bed, a TV and two closets. Toilet and shower are found in the corridor. Some rooms have their own bathrooms or is shared with one other room. All Camecopeople stay at the main building, whereas the contractors stay in buildings just outside the main one. Everybody shares all the other facilities in the main building, however. The restaurant, the gym, the indoor arena, the lounge etc. In a building close to the main one, there is a golf simulator and a room to practice archery (used to be a curling hall).
MCA is a dry facility. You cannot even possess alcohol. Want to make a noise? Between 5 and 9 in the morning and 5 and 11 in the evening are your windows of opportunity. Other times, schhhhh. Yes, there is wi-fi, although a slow one. The cafeteria/restaurant is always open and you can help yourself to whatever you need, whenever you need it. Hot meals are served for lunch and dinner.
Driving from the airport to camp and then to the admin building, my impression is that at MCA, everything is close. The uranium mine site is much more compact compared the Kiruna mine. Less rocks, less people, less movement, less noise. In lack of a better way of describing it, I felt like: “Is this it?”.
Arriving at the admin building, Ryan takes me through the “Safety first” rules and asks me about the project. Time flies and we go back to camp for dinner. I meet some of the other staff, have a meal, check out the lounge (icehockey game on the big TV, some watch, others just socialize), then off to bed. First day out of four starts softly. Next day takes me underground.
We wrote briefly about the first trip to Saskatchewan, Canada, in a post from July 5, mainly focusing on the differences in how aboriginal people were treated by mining companies. This post is a bit more “social” perhaps! The trip predominantly served to develop the relations with the people at the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development (ICNGD) at the University of Saskatchewan and the mining company Cameco. The forum for these meetings was the Walleye seminar, arranged by the ICNGD, and with participants both from corporations and academics from Sweden, Norway and Canada. The seminar started and ended on campus, but the four days in the middle were spent in Missinipe, a five hours drive north from Saskatoon. The seminar proved very valuable, both from a professional and a social viewpoint. Below is a video, remembering the Walleye:
During the first trip to Canada (more info, click here), Johan participated at a four-day workshop on governance and development issues related to the north of Canada, Norway and Sweden.
The discussions were very fruitful and although none of the other participants focused on labour processes in the mining sector, a lot of relevant matters related to it were discussed. One key matter was the relation large companies in the mining and energy sector have with aboriginal people. In Canada, aboriginal people have stronger legal rights and recognitions, but they also face tougher social challenges with poverty, alcoholism etc. It was mentioned that those aboriginal communities that develop their capabilities to act as contractors/suppliers to the mine or power plant and that demand such opportunities as part of their agreement with the companies seem to be better off. This does not seem as common in Sweden, perhaps to some extent because the Samis are not recognized in the same way as aboriginals in Canada. Samis do, however, face less of the social challenges that aboriginals do in Canada. So, in Canada, many contractors are owned by First Nation bands as a direct effect of the agreement regarding the use of their land. This makes them directly involved in the labour process and highly relevant to our project!