Not there and (not) yet. The spatio-temporal politics of oil and gas development in the Canadian North. – University of Copenhagen

Not there and (not) yet. The spatio-temporal politics of oil and gas development in the Canadian North.

Pre-defence seminar by Valeria Guerrieri.

Examiner: Andreas Bandak, ToRS

The research project – Not there and (not) yet. The spatio-temporal politics of oil and gas development in the Canadian North - aims at analyzing the impact of fossil fuel development on the negotiation of places, identities and narratives in Northern Canada (and more generally in the Arctic) over the last fifty years. By combining insights from human geography, theories of nationalism and resource affect, the project investigates the spatial and temporal dynamics of energy development and attempts to unravel the web of power relations guiding space and time productions.

Through literature, art and politics, multiple and often contrasting ideas of “nordicity” have informed the way Canadians have defined and understood their Northern regions. For centuries, the North has been both represented as a remote, cold and hostile frontier, where only few brave men would venture and, at the same time, as an essential and integral part of Canada’s national space, making it thus subject to being mapped, demarcated, named and controlled. Although most likely appearing so, these two narratives of the North – frontier and national space - are far from contradictory and can instead be linked to a common nation-building project committed to forging a particular “space-bound” national identity.

Informed by previous studies on the relationship between Canada and its Northern territories (Coates, 1994; Grace, 2002; Nuttall, 2010), I suggest that binary representations of the North -  e.g. wilderness/civilization, Aboriginal/Canadian, tradition/progress - and related attempts to reinforce or overcome such dichotomies acquire new meanings when connected to the ongoing process of hydrocarbon exploration and extraction. Considering that many of the transformations taking place in Canada (and more generally in the Arctic) over the last decades are linked to processes of energy development, I argue that these can be analyzed by exploring not only their economic and technical dimensions, but especially their spatio-temporal ones. Drawing upon Doreen Massey’s relational geography (1994, 2001), space and time are in fact addressed in non-oppositional terms in the thesis and considered two different, yet strictly interrelated analytical categories.

The failed construction of a natural gas pipeline in the North of Canada, the Mackenzie Gas Project (1974-2017), is chosen as the main study case in order to show how, although eventually unbuilt, this kind of megaprojects manages to trigger a long series of transformations, by deeply affecting the way people construct, envision and talk about space and time.

The thesis is divided into six chapters. However, the pre-defence will focus mainly on two of them: chapter three and five. Chapter three explores the process of Canadian nation-building through the lens of oil and gas development, emphasizing the link between technology, nationalism and space. The first half of the chapter is dedicated to more theoretical considerations, while the second half focuses on how the spatiality of the “energy frontier” has been discursively produced and maintained through cartography.

Chapter five, instead, is the first analytical chapter, where I analyze the first round of community hearings (the Berger Inquiry) conducted during the negotiations of the Mackenzie Gas Pipeline in the early 1970s. Through the main analytical category of space-time/spatiality, I look here at the production of three concepts, which share a fundamental spatial dimension namely a) the land, b) the nation and c) the indigenous space. Far from taking these as fixed and immutable entities, I am interested in investigating how these different spatialities are discursively produced by the participants at the hearings and how they are continuously evoking multiple and interlocking temporalities. Past, present and future are in fact often overlapping in the testimonies and built as both separate moments and as a continuum linking together memory, experience and imagination.