Building links and fighting isolation
Rural and regional work is critical to understanding people’s lives, according to Dr. Vicki Hallett of the Department of Gender Studies.
“We need to know what people on the ground are experiencing and the only way of doing that is to get out into the community and ask people what’s happening in their lives.”
Over the last year, Dr. Hallett has been part of a team focused on raising awareness about the impact of resource development on women and their communities, most specifically the Muskrat Falls-Maritime Link Hydro-electric development. Building Links Among Women: An Alliance to Address Resource Development in Atlantic Canada was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), through FemNorthNet. FemNorthNet works in three northern communities to understand and address the ways in which economic development shapes the lives and communities of women in northern Canada.
According to Dr. Hallett, great alliances have been made between groups such as the Regional Inuit Women’s Association, the Grand River Keepers in Labrador, NunatuKavut, Nunasiavut, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and groups of indigenous women from Nova Scotia, including the Pictou Landing First Nation.
“These groups came together to talk about how different groups of women are dealing with or being affected by this resource development,” said Dr. Hallett. “It was interesting to see the different ways women were being affected and excluded. They had things in common and other things not in common.”
She doesn’t discount the economic benefits of the development, acknowledging that there will be benefits for some but maintains that many groups continue to be excluded.
“From CUPE’s perspective, these could be good jobs for women but from a First Nation’s standpoint, for example Nunatukavut was saying they hadn’t been consulted about this.” Nunatukavut’s land claim has not yet been addressed or recognized by the provincial or federal government.
Dr. Hallett was teaching gender studies and folklore at the Labrador Institute in 2009 when she was first approached by representatives of FemNorthNet to prepare research for the 2011 Muskrat Falls environmental assessment hearing in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on behalf of the Mokami Status of Women Council.
“What a learning experience that was! What we didn’t hear happening was how the social environment would be affected by this development. There’s talk about water levels rising, and animals being affected. All very important aspects. But we were saying you are leaving out the people who live in this environment and how the development will affect people who live in this town,” said Dr. Hallett.
Dr. Hallett explains that developments such as Muskrat Falls often result in increased rates of domestic violence, rental and housing rates and drug and alcohol abuse. This data comes from previous work completed by FemNorthNet in areas such as northern Saskatchewan and western Labrador and Thompson, Manitoba. Ultimately women and families tend to bear the brunt of these negative impacts.
“We asked Nalcor how they were prepared to mitigate and deal with social aspects of this project,” said Dr. Hallett, who acknowledges that the company did later donate funds to a local women’s shelter. “The overarching question is what’s going to happen when this all goes bust, because when it goes bust, it’s going to be hard.”
Building Links focuses on a more holistic definition of environment including the social, cultural and natural aspects that all combine to constitute the environment. In June 2015 the group organized a knowledge sharing tour in Labrador and Nova Scotia that allowed women from the affected communities to come together to share their thoughts, and feelings and to inform participants about the processes happening around the Muskrat Falls project and how they might be able to impact them.
“They discussed their relationship to the land and water, their housing situations, their cultural traditions, their jobs and their kids. The tour was as much an opportunity to listen to the women as it was ‘informing’ them,” said Dr. Hallett. “Ultimately the project was a way of fighting isolation and establishing connections between communities.”