Representing the rural

Apr 28th, 2015

Janet Harron

Representing the rural

If a thesis had a theme song, Jillian Smith’s would be “I’ll Be Your Mirror” from the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album.

The second year sociology MA student is investigating the response of the west coast community of Sally’s Cove to the fracking project proposed by Black Spruce Energy and Shoal Point Energy. Physically within Gros Morne National Park but not part of the protected area, the community is particularly vulnerable to potential development and industrialization.

“One of the participants said that I was holding a mirror up to the communities,” said Ms. Smith who grew up in a rural area in the Niagara region of Ontario. She acknowledges however that not everyone she spoke with is against fracking and was surprised to learn while data collecting that there was resentment from the community when the park was developed decades ago.

She is quick to clarify that she didn’t hear that from anyone personally – but that it was common knowledge that the sentiment existed. Ms. Smith points out that this complicates an already complicated issue, highlighting tensions between development, jobs, the environment, tourism and access to clean water, even where the park begins and ends.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has recommended that there should be a buffer zone around Gros Morne.

The sociologist is using an environmental justice theory to frame her thesis. This concept targets the intersection of the environment and inequity and how risk and benefits are not evenly distributed. 

“All environmental justice issues are social issues. We can see that environmental risks – air pollution, potential contamination of water – all these are disproportionally concentrated depending on sex, age, race, class, etc.”

Both Black Spruce Energy and Shoal Point Energy are headquartered in Toronto (with satellite offices in St. John’s).

“My point is the potential or perceived risks (if fracking were to happen) would be concentrated in the rural communities and the majority of the economic benefits would be incurred farther away.”

As of January 2014, the license to explore for shale oil at the Sally’s Cove site has expired so it is no longer an imminent threat. In addition there has been a fracking moratorium in the province since November 2013 which has put any proposed projects on hold. An independent review panel is in the process of generating a report on the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of fracking, which is due out in October 2015.

As an activist herself, the discipline of sociology is dear to Ms. Smith’s heart.

“It’s really about trying to imagine other possibilities and comes down to thinking about how the world and our cities could be designed differently and be more just.”