Project 13: Language, Place and Governance in Deline, Northwest Territories: Monitoring Persistence and Change in the Social Economy

Research Team

Deborah Simmons, Project Coordinator, Department of Native Studies and Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba
Sarah Gordon, PhD Student, Institute of Folklore, Indiana University

Update from Sarah Gordon for Newsletter - November 2011

The social economy is bounded with blurry lines.  We define it, in part, in the negative:  it is the part of the economy that is not the profit-oriented private sector, nor the taxes-for-services oriented public sector.  We define it in part in terms of the qualities we attribute to it: an emphasis in building social capacity (which I understand to mean social capacity for economic activity), responding to under-met needs, creating new forms of work, meeting social needs, deploying the socially excluded.  With that in mind, we tend to focus on organizations that are run, in many respects, like businesses, but that are oriented toward their ideology of inclusion rather than toward a goal of profit-building: co-operatives, non-profits, volunteer-run projects.

In Déline, NWT, the goals that scholars attribute to the social economy are best fulfilled outside of the kinds of organizations to whom we normally attribute them.  Frances Abele has written at length about the importance of the mixed economy in Aboriginal communities like Déline: the economic system that entwines the wage economy with an economy based on traditional skills like hunting, trapping, and harvesting off the land.  It also includes the traditional system of knowledge exchange, through narratives or observational learning.  In the mixed economy, individuals who are unemployed can contribute to their families and to their community by hunting and trapping.  Relatives with financial income will offer money for equipment and gas in exchange for shares of harvested meat.  Commonly, in Déline, the exchange is not so obvious: hunters will readily give meat to friends and relatives, for example, in anticipation that those other community members will offer them some kind of support--in money, food, or (especially in the case of elders) knowledge-sharing--down the line.  Abele has pointed out the relative stability of the Northern social economy, in sharp contrast to the wage economy which follows the health of the non-renewable resource industry, which is the North's foremost private-sector employer.

In addition to offering avenues for the empowerment and social inclusion of people who are not employed in wage labour, the mixed economy is one of several avenues through which small Aboriginal communities can exercise a measure of control over their ongoing colonial context.  With the rise of capitalism in even the smallest and most remote communities, Aboriginal groups work consciously to ensure that the knowledge and traditions of their ancestors remain relevant.

My research in Déline focuses, broadly speaking, on the strategies that people use for ensuring the continued relevance of traditional knowledge and skills in globalizing social context that is increasingly capitalist. The final product will be an ethnographic account of the strategies used by people in Déline to ensure the ongoing relevance and application of traditional knowledge in different aspects of daily life.  I also contend that Déline's successes in actively integrating old and new traditions are central to the community's remarkable resistance to many of the social pathologies that plague northern communities, including rates of violent crime, youth crime, substance abuse, and suicide.  If the ultimate task of the social economy is to build strong, resilient communities, then the mixed economy is surely Déline's social economy: the foundation of the community's strength.

Research Update


The social economy of the over 100 small, predominantly Aboriginal communities of Canada’s north is distinctive. It is sustained in part by some of the same institutions that dominate the southern social economy (cooperatives, small and not-for-profit enterprises, volunteer and charitable organizations and practices). Underlying these organizational forms and far more important for the sustenance of the social economy of small communities is the northern mixed economy.

During the recent period of rapid industrialization in the Northwest Territories, the Dene community of Déline has maintained a remarkably vital mixed economy. Dene language and cultural practices embody the complex of traditional knowledge, social relationships and spirituality that structures and sustains Dene people’s ongoing land-based harvesting economy.

The dual objectives of capitalist economic development and maintenance of community well-being and sustainability through the traditional economy are the essence of the mixed economy. However, in this recent phase it is not clear how the two objectives can be appropriately balanced. As the Déline First Nation renews its role in resource management and self-governance, it is necessary to develop an understanding of the programs and processes that can support and enhance the less easily quantifiable traditional sector of the economy. The core of this collaborative research program is the exploration of Dene narratives, language and traditional harvesting practices as indicators of a healthy social economy. The past, present and potential impact of language, cultural, and on-the-land programming will be investigated as responsibility for these programs is devolved to the self-governing Déline First Nation.

Plan of Work

In 2009, the PhD student will spend 2.5 months in the community of Déline. The purpose is to understand and experience how the community wishes to work on narratives that can illuminate the nature of the social economy in Deline.  Activities in Deline First Nation territory have helped to clarify the research context, question and methodology including a four day Learning About Changes research workshop (and preparations for the workshop); a storytelling content in conjunction with the workshop; two trips on the land; volunteering  at various community events and celebrations; and participation in the annual Deline Gathering. The Gathering is the highlight of the Deline calendar and informs community perspectives on spirituality, healing and community relationships on the land. Sarah will develop a full dissertation proposal in consultation with the community over the winter of 2009-2010 and plans to live in Deline for a year in order to complete this research during 2010-2011.

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