November 6, 2017: Unsettling the Staples Economy
Today, I spent some time thinking about how the exploitation of land and resources that has contributed to climate change is part of a more complicated set of problems informed by an extractivist world-view. This isn’t a new idea for me. But what I was newly thinking about today is how this approach to life and the world is deeply engrained in the Canadian psyche and tied explicitly to Canada’s identity as a staples economy (whether it’s the fur trade or the oil industry). The project of settler-colonialism is founded on these practices: reaping the wealth of the colonies to enrich the empire. Isn’t it unnerving that ‘reaping’ is a word only one-letter away from ‘raping’?
The idea that Canada’s worth and raison-d’être relies on extracting value from nature — also referred to in business terms as resources — is central to understanding the relationship that many Canadians have to the land and also to one another. Because the same extractivist world-view that has contributed to climate change through the exploitation of resources, likewise allows for the exploitation of gendered, classed and racialized bodies, and importantly the erasure of knowledges held by those bodies. Knowledges, I’d argue, we need to in order to imagine other futures.
If we accept the staples thesis that social-cultural, economic and political institutions of Canada have all been shaped by its exploitation of natural resources, then a shift away from extractive practices is going to be radically unsettling. It makes me wonder a few things: Is this why people are so emotionally invested in oil, for example? I know many people imagine Alberta to be ‘oil country.’ By proxy, are Albertans oil people? In Edmonton, we cheer for the Oilers hockey team.
In Lisa Moore’s February, we learn through the character of John that “oil was like the military — they trained their own, and they wanted you to learn their way”(137). Perhaps, as Moore suggests, our identities as Canadians are intrinsically tied to these staples industries–especially oil–in ways that are much deeper and more complex than simple loyalty to an employer. These staples industries, it seems, don’t simply define what we do, but who we are. Is this why an energy transition is so hard to fathom for so many?
What is possible for a decolonized Canada, beyond extraction? Who are we when we’re unsettled?
(Image: Photograph of the refineries by Sherwood Park and Edmonton, AB, at night.)