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Why Canadian Forestry and Mining Towns are Organized Differently: The Role of Staples in Shaping Community, Class, and Consciousness

By Louise Dignard

Review By Roger Hayter

October 28, 2013

BC Studies no. 178 Summer 2013  | p. 124-125

Canada’s single industry towns (SITs), especially resource towns, continue to be the focus of considerable academic and policy attention. Canada’s population may be highly urbanized, indeed urbane, with the major metropolitan and even medium-sized urban regions increasingly self-identifying with creative city mantras that emphasize jobs that research, develop, engineer, entertain, design, and communicate, rather than process. Yet staple commodities (resources and primary manufacturing) continue to dominate Canada’s visible exports and perceptions of the country’s global role. Indeed, as revealed by recent debates over the economic and environmental (local, national, and global) impacts of Athabasca’s oil/tar sands, resource exploitation has become highly controversial and a priority of public policy. As the focal points of resource extraction, these debates are grounded in resource towns. Moreover, resource town Canada is a highly varied space, differentiated by evolutionary dynamics, geographical realities, staple type, forms of business organization, different policy contexts at the provincial level, and by the human resources and skills they foster. Further, resource towns are not simply nodes to facilitate broader goals of development and geopolitics, but the homes of workers and their families as they develop routines, identities, and shared communities.  Louise Dignard’s book focuses on these latter differences in Canada’s resource towns, or SITs, to use her preferred acronym.

In general terms, Harold Innis’s panoramic view of Canadian staple history across space and time provides the foundation for Dignard’s analysis. For Innis, resource town experience was always problematical. Resource towns were often dependent on distant decision-makers and boomed and busted in response to the vagaries of  “metropolitan” demands, first by the UK, then by the US, and now by Asia, especially China and Japan. Innis emphasized both the distinctive nature of Canadian staple development and the variation in the evolutionary geographies among staples. Dignard’s contribution is to elaborate how staple type is vital for understanding SITs. She particularly compares Canadian forestry and mining SITs that exploit, respectively, extensive renewable resources and point-based nonrenewable resources. Her approach is entirely based on comprehensive interdisciplinary literature reviews, particularly those that focus on the business organization, power and social structure, and consciousness of SITs.

Dignard begins with an insightful, if overlapping, classification of different approaches towards evaluating SITs, namely as institutions, collectivities, gendered labour processes, and networks. While she briefly reviews SITs in terms of institutions and collectivities in separate chapters, as a sociologist interested in daily routines Dinard is primarily interested in comparing how the specifics of forest and mining staples shape or “staple-ize” labour processes and the role of women in SITs. She reveals that labour processes in general and women’s experiences in particular have developed in distinctive ways, featuring different class relations, attitudes, and experiences in the two types of towns. For example, mining SITs are more hierarchical and company dependent, with workers more inclined to be unionized, socially connected, and to have a stronger sense of rights, etc. (see summary, 143-45).

While Dignard recognizes that her findings are not new, students of SITs will benefit from her critical reading, the synthetic scope of her comments, and from her appreciation of the community impacts of staple-izing processes. Admittedly, dependence on published studies conducted in various ways in different times and places inevitably constrains interpretation. In practice, time and place tend to be incorporated in an implicit, ad hoc manner, with the discussion rooted largely in central and eastern Canadian experience. In this regard, brief descriptions (e.g. staple type, community location, time period, data sources) of the SITs examined by Dignard would have provided useful context along with elaboration of forestry and mining town structures.  The presence of significant processing activities in forestry towns, for example, can bring them closer to the mining model of social life.

Further, the “datedness” of the discussion and the overwhelming focus on studies published before the early 1980s is disappointing. Even reference to “new” gender issues focusing on women’s experiences relies largely on discussions of older studies. Since the 1980s, however, resource town Canada has become increasingly differentiated, driven by highly volatile markets and multi-faceted processes of restructuring that have variously involved searches for employment, technological and organizational flexibilities, downsizing, fly-in workforces, the decline of industrial unions, environmental and cultural conflicts, and the rise of ideas related to local and community economic development, sustainability, and resilience. These days, Canada’s resource towns are not only sites of boom and bust but conflicted spaces that move in different directions beyond staple confines. In British Columbia, for example, resource towns cannot be properly discussed without reference to aboriginal and environmental imperatives. Notwithstanding these limitations and silences, Dignard’s book provides an informative starting point to support her plea for more research into Canada’s increasingly diverse SITs that are the locus of important multi-scalar policy challenges. Such research would especially benefit from a British Columbian focus.

Why Canadian Forestry and Mining Towns are Organized Differently: The Role of Staples in Shaping Community, Class, and Consciousness
By Louise Dignard
Lampeter, Wales: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2011. 284 pp, $139.95 cloth

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.