Mining Towns and the New Hinterland Crisis

Article excerpt

Canadian mining towns have always been sharply affected by the periodic booms and busts of capitalism. They have also experienced closures from the depletion of ores and shifts to new regions of exploitation. Since the 1980s, mining towns, especially hard-rock mining towns, have been subjected to a new and more fundamental crisis: a long-term, absolute decline in mining employment.

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Compared to the peak employment of around 70,000 in 1974, there are fewer than 30,000 metal-mining jobs today. Overall employment in the mining industry is now under 46,000, less than half its historical peak.

This long-term decline in mine-industry employment occurs in the post-1970s historical context of globalization, in this way differing from the earlier generation of post-war hinterland crisis that devastated agricultural towns. The crisis is engulfing other resource-dependent towns, notably in forestry and fishing, as well as rail towns.

Boosting and Promoting

The declining social and economic condition of mining towns is not a priority for the federal government--apart, that is, from acting as booster and promoter of mining towns as sites for resource exploitation, a role encouraged specially by Natural Resources Canada (NRC).

Ottawa is not even clear about how many mining communities exist. One NRC study based on 1991 census data identified 128 "mining-reliant communities." In 2001, an NRC fact sheet proclaimed vaguely, "more than 100 communities ... depend on the minerals industry."

My observation is that industry and government estimates of mining-town populations reflect what is at stake. Numbers are inflated when the mining corporations or governments want to show how important mining is (promoting tax breaks or policy support) and diminished when the question is "social dumping" (like claims that the numbers are too small to warrant special programs).

The Life Cycles of Mining Towns ...

Mining towns vary a great deal in terms of their life cycles. Some die (classic ghost towns, like Sandon); some transform slowly (the Crow's Nest); some are superceded more or less dramatically by resorts, retirement housing, prisons, or other large-scale projects (Fernie, Grande Cache, Elliot Lake, or more dramatically in the U.S., Aspen, Telluride, Grants); and some decline to a lower scale while still mining or attempting to attract mining (Sudbury, Timmins, Kirkland Lake, Val-d'Or). Whichever kind, in recent decades mining towns in decline tend to carry a particular legacy in impoverished economic, cultural and environmental conditions, which continue long after mines close, and whether or not mining returns.

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The largest single set of mine closings during the 1990s occurred at Elliot Lake, Ontario, a city once touted as the "uranium mining capital of the world." Over six years of mass layoffs, from 1990 to 1996, four mines were closed and Elliot Lake, a city with a population of about 14,000, lost over 4,000 mining jobs.

... And Their Patterns of Decline

Research on the mass layoffs at Elliot Lake identified a pattern of decline common in many mining communities. While enjoying growing or stable employment, the town had lower-than-average levels of dependence on transfer payments and poverty. However, after closures, unemployment and poverty flooded the region.

Unemployment rose to over 50 per cent, a range often experienced in northern First Nations communities. Elliot Lake's employment income fell by more than half. The requirements for UI (now spin-doctored to EI), worker's-compensation (now spin-doctored to WSIB in Ontario) and social-assistance use increased rapidly. For women, social assistance became the single most important social program, indicative of federal downloading to the province. In addition to cash transfers, tax revenues plummeted and, after an initial flurry of activity, several federal, provincial and municipal services were closed or cut. …