the cul-de-sacs bulb into dead ends - (Published: Summer 2017)
In this article, artist Nicole Kelly Westman chronicles her visit to Pine Point, Northwest Territories, and its accompanying mine site which, though once a thriving source of lead and zinc, is now scarcely inhabited. Through conversations with former mineworkers and locals, as well as archival research, Westman pieces together a town’s blue-collar history while also recalling her own childhood memories and connecting her history to the nostalgic surroundings of Pine Point.
PUBLISHED: C Issue 134 - LAND
Pine Point, Northwest Territories – the town and its accompanying mine site – is named after the tamarack tree, a pine tree masquerading as coniferous. In late September, the tamarack’s needles fade to an autumnal hue, creating a jarring visual as vast fields of short, stocky pines appear to be wilting or dying rather than hibernating. Before the first snowfall, these tamaracks stand as bare as the skeletal remains of a carcass. Another mark of another summer past.
I fell gracelessly for the abandoned terrain surrounding Pine Point. Scattered rubble and condensed crushed rock litter the earth like a floppy area rug disguising something subtly conspicuous. It was nearly three years ago that I ventured north alone, and my strongest memories pertain to my sonic relation to that place. There is a staticness in the sound, as though the organic compositions of noise were also abandoned with time. An echoing resonance, eerily comparable to the suffocated sounds of an underground parkade or the muffled dissonance of winter when the landscape is blanketed with fresh snow. Yet, it is also easy to imagine Pine Point encompassed by the hum of industry – heavy machinery moving earth, compacting piles of ore and excavating the next series of open pit mines; train cars hauling loads of minerals and the ambient rhythmics behind a blue-collar work force.
Pine Point Mine Ltd. once boasted of extracting lead and zinc from the most plentiful deposit in Canada. The mine, however, was less transparent about its extraction of financial resources. Then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, a Progressive Conservative who held office from 1957–63, believed that investment in corporations such as Cominco would open up exploration of Canada’s last frontier, the North.1 One could interpret such actions as an industrial form of colonization through socio-political gestures and financial agendas. Diefenbaker’s assertion of proprietary ownership over the North was supported by a settler ideology assuming rights to unclaimed recourses with expectations of foreseeable wealth. Diefenbaker claimed that Canada’s north was the gateway to economic stimulus through job creation. Although the careers he promised were targeted for the benefit of southern prosperity, he still proposed that this act would unify the nation. This repetition of history and its assumptions, although flawed, was reflective of the expansion of settlers West across North America.
Surrounded by vast and rugged wilderness, Pine Point’s large deposits of lead and zinc was relatively unattractive to investors. However, in 1961, the Canadian government committed to funding The Great Slave Lake Railway.2 The railway was never meant to service the people or communities of the North, but contrarily intended to secure prosperity for industrial economies of the South. It was eventually decommissioned in 1993, five years after the lead-zinc mine in Pine Point was permanently closed.
A bare mound where the railway once laid runs parallel to the Fort Resolution Highway. The utilitarian relevance of this amassed body of sediment is slowly eroding as its intended function is forgotten. As Pine Point shuttered its doors and turned off its lights, it marked the end of an era of company towns in Canada. As the deposits were depleted, and the expense of production and extraction began to outweigh the revenues, Pine Point’s residents lost their jobs and were forced to relocate. This progression also marked the initial stages of Canada’s first experiments with reclamation of industrial sites.
Today, the obvious demise of those early initiations of restoration is apparent on the low-lying horizon 92 kilometres east of Hay River, Northwest Territories. The choice of partitioning materials was shortsighted and many of the barricades have failed to withstand the elements. Barren horizons are partially blockaded by crumbling boundaries of piled ore and accumulated debris. These mounds once acted as temporary deterrents to persuade trespassers from exploring open pits or wandering onto mining roads. Collapsed chainlink fence clings pathetically to concave pillars, another signifier of the severity of nearly three decades of disregard. Yet the land retains the memories of those who attempted to conquer it. The cul-de-sacs bulb into dead ends, painted pedestrian crossways, infrastructure for parking lots that once circumnavigated the shopping centre and doctor’s office, invasive plants introduced to gardens, memorial sites and one well-maintained graveyard signify the space taken by former inhabitants.
Through conversations and archival research, I came to realize that this company town’s blueprints mirrored the infrastructure of the industrial institution it supported. A segregation between single union workers, single upper management, union workers with families and senior management with families existed in the form of provided accommodations. The presumed hierarchies of your employment were reflected in your home life and the social spheres of the community. The town itself was branded as the most sophisticated of the Northwest Territories with a golf course, hockey and curling arena, exceptional schools and other expected southern amenities. You can still imagine the existence of each of these sites beyond the cemented sidewalks and decaying asphalt roads.
Halfway through my self-initiated Pine Point residency, my father met me in Yellowknife; my uncle had fallen ill and we decided to drive back south together. At this point, I had been spending most of my time in Yellowknife’s Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre scouring through the archives for a newspaper article related to Dolly Mercredi, who was the first resident of Pine Point. He was also the only resident allowed to stay after retirement, and the cousin of my maternal grandfather. On our return to the South, my father toured me through Pine Point and provided narration pertaining to his teenage memories of the town. His first job was at the mine, changing oil and performing maintenance on small equipment. He probably lied about his age to get the job. We found the street that once housed my grandfather’s temporary company home. It stood out with its gangly raspberry bushes growing around the property’s perimeter. In this region, berries tend to crawl close to the tundra rather than grow on shrubs or bushes, so this stood out. Half of the histories surrounding this community are stored between acid-free sheets of archival paper accessible only in low-light rooms while wearing white gloves. The rest of the histories are passed down through stories, rumours or shared knowledge.
Perhaps, the emphasis on oral histories only amplifies my fixation on the soundscape of this place. Or maybe subconsciously this attachment is due to some advice I received at the Hay River print shop. Engaged in a conversation with a retired mine worker, through either circumstance or happenstance, I mentioned my timidness around exploration, how I was fearful of being lost on the tangled back roads of the mine. In the landscape surrounding the mine, most visual cues or landmarks are camouflaged by their sameness or insignificance. The sales associate described how best to avoid losing myself in the maze of roads navigating the former mine site. She reminded me that the Great Slave Lake will always be to the north of the town, even though the town no longer exists. And that if I stop everything, and remain quiet, I will eventually hear a car travelling along the Fort Resolution Highway. Head in the direction of the highway, she advised, because at the very least, if you miss the town you’ll find the road. I received her advice as she sized up my urban-ness and questioned whether I could differentiate between an all-terrain vehicle and an automobile, although she probably said between a quad and a car. I retorted that I could. From the time I was two, I grew up in a motorsports shop; I have a fondness for two-stroke smoke and had my own snowmobile before attending grade school. Before my parents ventured into business together along the Yellowhead Highway, my father held a position as a journeyman mechanic at the Luscar Sterco Mine in Edson, Alberta. Perhaps there have been some intergenerational interests in laborious trades on my dad’s side.
While we lived in Edson, most of my mother’s family still resided in Calgary, and together with my brother, we would drive the five-hour journey in a 1969 Cutlass Supreme. We would take the forestry trunk road that ran from Cochrane north to Nordegg. It was an unpredictable stretch of gravel highway that crossed an interior mountain pass. I would pester my mother along the way with adult concerns framed as childlike queries, “Do you know where we are going?”… “Do you have enough gas?”… “Are you sure this is the right direction?”
Travelling on these forsaken mining roads from one gleaming turquoise open-pit mine to the next, I could hear myself reiterating these childish questions, only now they were rhetorical. My insecurities grew in these unpredicted spaces as my anxieties accumulated from a wandering mind confined alone. I recognized my gender in a way I hadn’t considered since moving away from small towns – I was beginning to question my safety and to recognize my dependence on my own sovereign sensibilities and capabilities. As a woman in unfamiliar territory, you recognize the dangers of your circumstances, considering each rational and simultaneously irrational scenario. Wandering while considering the coalescence of mineral extraction and non-consensual advancement. Did this place want to be consumed so quickly or abandoned so haphazardly? Was there ever a consideration of what this land might need?
Auditory stimuli stored as echoic memories may be flawed by the same tropes that affect visual forms of nostalgia – a societal adherence to objective truths. We interrupt our inherent responses to create our own iteration of events and reflect with a chosen demeanour. A way of succumbing to an emphatic tone, or indulging in the past to overcome what is now. Finding another way to reconsider a fading emotion or contextualizing a dissipating memory. I ignore my tepid impositions, and choose to remember the solace of that summer’s independence.