Hay River’s highrise forms the centrepiece of a new book to be published in May and an exhibition that opens this week at Toronto’s Pari Nadimi Gallery.
Anthropologist Dr Lindsay Bell once lived in the 17-story building that dominates the town’s skyline. She say the lives of people living in the building form a way to examine resource extraction in the North.
Under Pressure: Diamond Mining and Everyday Life in Northern Canada tells the story of mining’s impact on Hay River’s community through the eyes of highrise residents.
“Part of it is thinking about parts of the history of the community that aren’t often told,” Bell told Cabin Radio.
“Part of what I wanted to work on – which was really more for a southern audience – was: what is the North like? Who lives there and what do they do? And to try to make that a little bit less sensationalist, a little more true to the daily experience, which of course includes difficulties, inequalities.”
She collaborated on the project with Jesse Colin Jackson, whose photography and video work forms the exhibition Mackenzie Place that opens in the Toronto gallery on Thursday and runs until June 3.
“Mackenzie Place presents a unique tower apartment, located far from its usual urban context, making it a symbol of both the reach and the edge of global capital and settler colonization,” the gallery’s description of the exhibition states.
“Locals are quick to try to divert attention from the building, stating that the tower is not characteristic of Hay River. Yet the tower is omnipresent, both visually and in the narratives of residents and visitors alike; it is the hub of ‘the Hub of the North.'”
The highrise, built in 1975, had led a troubled existence in recent years.
Its balconies were ruled off-limits over structural integrity concerns, then a fire in 2019 forced all of the highrise’s residents to leave and, ultimately, led to the building’s sale.
Bell says those headline-grabbing moments aren’t the focus of her book.
“So much of what the book is about is just like, ‘You know what sucks? One of the elevators often doesn’t work. The linoleum is peeling and you kind-of trip in the same place.’ Those are the kinds of everyday obstacles. And then the way that people decorate their apartments and are proud of them,” she said.
“Many of them have never had their own home, or have dealt with housing insecurity. Those are actually the important stories, people trying to overcome, people coming from other places, people in the highrise leaving domestic abuse.
“All this other stuff is invisible because everyone’s like, ‘Oh, the highrise? Don’t talk about that. Look the other way.’ What is it like to have this thing that is so visually imposing that nobody wants to talk about it? And if they do, they really only have negative things to say.”
Bell said she and Jackson hope to bring the Mackenzie Place show to Hay River and Yellowknife in March next year.
Below, read a transcript of our interview with Lindsay Bell.
This interview was recorded on March 22, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: What drew you to Mackenzie Place?
I was a teacher in Hay River, at École Boréale, many moons ago. When I lived there as a teacher, I didn’t know Mackenzie Place very well. People talked about it, there was this sort of mythology and rumours around it. Then I left and started a PhD, and I returned to Hay River with the idea of working on a project about everyday experiences of resource extraction. In part because there’s no housing, I ended up in the highrise. Because those people were closest to me, I started interviewing them.
When I moved from a dissertation to a book, it became clear that the highrise could be this narrative anchor for telling this bigger story. And as I started doing that, I began collaborating with Jesse Jackson, who has this practice of taking these grand architectural photos of buildings that are usually not seen that way, even though they’re so common.
Tell me more about the book.
Under Pressure will be out in May. It centres around the highrise, the kinds of people that end up there and their stories – and then the history of the building itself figures centrally in the book. I use the history of the building and the reconfiguration of the town as a way to talk about the history of extraction in the area and the reshaping of the landscape, in particular.
Why is this important anthropologically? What is this telling us?
Anthropology has a long history in the Arctic and some of it is troubling. One of the most famous works, sometimes credited as the first documentary, is Nanook of the North. Robert Flaherty wasn’t an anthropologist but that film kind-of gets lumped in with us. I think it’s kind-of quintessential, this picturing of our Arctic that usually focuses on the High Arctic. Part of what I was interested in is the diversity of places like Yellowknife and Hay River, and what a kind of mini-globalization has meant for these northern hubs. Who are the kinds of people who end up there and how are their lives interwoven, also, with Indigenous lives and issues? How does that play out on the ground? I wanted a picture of the North, if you will, that was true to the complexity that I’d seen from having been there.
Anthropology historically focused on the culturally so-called exotic, the most unique, but there’s been a move toward a kind of post-colonial anthropology, which doesn’t ask those questions, but asks about a process. The book is about the process of extraction over the last 100 years, not about a particular population. But people are very central to the story.
And clearly the building is pretty central to the story as well. The building’s recent history ain’t great, Lindsay. It’s been on fire. The balconies couldn’t be used. People got turfed out of it. The building right now, if it was used as a proxy for life in the Northwest Territories, would not be telling the happiest tale. So where does the book go with that?
But that’s the problem, right? Those sensational moments are actually few and far between. Narratives about disorder – which sort-of centre around the highrise – I think are actually really wrong. So much of what the book is about is just like, ‘You know what sucks? One of the elevators often doesn’t work. The linoleum is peeling and you kind-of trip in the same place.’ Those are the kinds of everyday obstacles.
And then the way that people decorate their apartments and are proud of them. Many of them have never had their own home, or have dealt with housing insecurity. Those are actually the important stories, people trying to overcome, people coming from other places, people in the highrise leaving domestic abuse.
All this other stuff is invisible because everyone’s like, ‘Oh, the highrise? Don’t talk about that. Look the other way.’ What is it like to have this thing that is so visually imposing that nobody wants to talk about it? And if they do, they really only have negative things to say.
What was your own experience of the highrise?
It was varied. I got this basset hound given to me when I lived there. The basset hound just started all these conversations. People would go out of their way to help you with things, some people kept to themselves and were hard to access. There were people who were suspicious of me as being a social worker in a different life, middle class-looking.
And then there were hard things, too. A woman I was very close with essentially lost her apartment and she’s a central figure in the book. I overheard fights, thinking, ‘Should I call the RCMP?’ You know, I’m not here to say it’s a paradise. When you interview people, most would say they want to leave. A really important part of the highrise identity is to say you don’t want to be there, as a way to distance yourself from the ideas about it. But I think the other thing that really surprised me was that there’s this idea that people are really transient. That’s really not the case. People are not transient out of the community. They might be transient out of the building, but they’re not necessarily transient out of the community, which surprised me, because, I would have assumed they are people who aren’t from here or they don’t stay here. But it turns out that’s not true.
What lessons are you hoping that people in the North take from your work?
The North doesn’t need to learn anything from me. I have learned a ton from them, for which I am forever grateful. Part of it is thinking about parts of the history of the community that aren’t often told. Thinking about people who they don’t know necessarily that well, being more curious about them.
Those kinds of things I would hope people take away, but part of what I wanted to work on – which was really more for a southern audience – was: what is the North like? Who lives there and what do they do? And to try to make that a little bit less sensationalist, a little more true to the daily experience, which of course includes difficulties, inequalities.