Executive summary

Canadians recognize the ability to collectively and sustainably access and benefit from natural resources and energy in the face of socio-economic, cultural and governance fluctuations, and the development of new technologies, as central to their future. Against the backdrop of international greenhouse gas reduction commitments, the renewed federal priority on transitioning from carbon-intensive industries to alternative energies and renewable goods and services is demanding urgent and transformative changes in Canadian policies, practices and value systems.

Diverse social sciences and humanities fields are addressing the onset of sustainable development principles and technologies for both conventional and renewable energies. In fact, some scholars have stated that research on resource-based communities has undergone an evolution over the past two decades. Practical and theoretical frameworks have brought to light the global energy and resource sectors’ multifaceted impacts on community livelihoods, traditions and well-being across Canada’s distinct regions, and particularly on Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples and rural and remote communities.

Drawing on the findings of knowledge synthesis projects, as well as insights from graduate students and cross-sectoral leaders, this report addresses the future challenge area under SSHRC’s Imagining Canada’s Future initiative: “What effects will the quest for energy and natural resources have on our society and our position on the world stage?

Knowledge Synthesis Grants: Selected Areas of Knowledge Strengths and Gaps

The knowledge synthesis projects highlighted in this report appear in the following list, alphabetized by principal investigator. Listings include researcher contact information and, where available, a link to the full report:

Building on the outcomes of the knowledge synthesis reports, the following six themes were identified as key areas of interest for stakeholder discussions on the state of the quest for energy and natural resources. Collectively, with cross-cutting issues, these themes illustrate the benefits of connecting social sciences and humanities researchers with potential users of their research, to exchange ideas and explore opportunities for future collaboration.

Here we outline some of the connecting ideas, preliminary policy and practice recommendations, knowledge strengths and future gaps drawn from the knowledge synthesis reports and dialogue with researchers, practitioners and policy-makers throughout 2015 and 2016.

To obtain more information on the findings included in the reports, and details on both current and proposed knowledge mobilization activities, please contact the lead investigators. You may also contact SSHRC directly, or consult our awards search engine, to identify and connect with other SSHRC-funded researchers for insights on these critical issues.

  • Transitioning to green economies will require greater focus on employment and social equity issues. In industrialized countries like Canada, the attention on the technology and financing of renewable energies exceeds the focus on widespread social and labour inequities. Progressive employment equity policies and changes in societal attitudes hold promise for reducing inequities women and marginalized peoples face in existing carbon and renewable-energy industries.

  • Global literature addressing wind power is expansive, but research on the majority of renewable sectors is scarce. More work is needed on biophysical research and, particularly, on the social, political and cultural impacts of solar, small-scale hydro, and small modular reactors or small-scale nuclear.

  • About five per cent of the literature focused on wind energy directly addresses the Canadian context. Within this amount, seventy-five per cent of Canada-specific publications address only onshore development. More international literature needs to be translated into the Canadian context, to enrich knowledge and present relevant experiences and, ultimately, enhance the viability of these emerging sectors.

    The transition to a system based overwhelmingly on alternative energy sources will entail environmental, social and economic impacts that can be very different than the recognized impacts of existing energy systems, and will require new information and knowledge. There is a well-established literature on the social and cultural impacts of fossil fuel development; but research on the impacts of alternatives can seem lacking, or thematically and geographically dispersed.Footnote 10

  • Studies on the function and outcomes of social media use in debates about energy transition are virtually non-existent. Social media is widely used by industry and activist groups to influence public perceptions about energy transition. Measuring social media’s ability to shift political action and behaviour is difficult but critical, given its potential uses in either supporting or inhibiting transformative shifts from oil and fossil fuel economies.

  • There is a significant knowledge gap in arts-based research on “energy impasse” and transition. Outside of film, there are less than 100 individual, curatorial and collective works related to the energy arts. Arts-based research, also known as research-creation, may serve to guide innovative knowledge and perspectives on energy as a force that underpins social, human and interspecies relations, and shapes institutions, beliefs, desires and expectations.

  • A life-cycle approach will increase understanding of the full community-level impacts of unconventional natural gas development. Sixty-five per cent of existing articles on community impacts focus on “upstream” communities immediately adjacent to unconventional natural gas drilling and extraction. Few focus on “midstream” pipeline transportation corridors (18 per cent); and fewer still on “downstream” processing, liquefaction and shipping (nine per cent). A more inclusive analysis of supply chain impacts, as well as of the local government capacities to address the impacts, is critical for resource-based communities across the globe.

    Figure: Distribution of scholarly literature on unconventional natural gas development, according to supply chain focus Footnote 16

  • Greater understanding is needed of corporate perspectives and practices related to social responsibility and conflict. There is currently a gap in case studies about this perspective. Providing diverse perspectives through multistakeholder approaches and analyses of cases would enrich the literature, and make findings relevant to a broader audience.

  • There is little scholarly focus on unconventional natural gas in the Canadian context. Journal articles on unconventional natural gas development are, geographically, predominantly on the United States, a focus that comprises 69 per cent of all such articles. Only seven per cent of such articles focus on Canada, and only two per cent focus explicitly on British Columbia, home to a significant number of proposed projects.

  • The impacts of industrial resource development on marginalized populations needs further analysis. Groups that experience marginalization are only covered specifically in a small number of the studies on community impacts of unconventional natural gas development (four per cent for Indigenous groups, two per cent for women, two per cent for children, and one per cent for the elderly). In addition to health research, more research is needed on socio-economic impacts, including whether the benefits of local economic booms are distributed across local populations.

  • Greater analysis of the extractives industries’ presence in both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities is needed. Comparative and cross-regional analyses could help identify best practices in Aboriginal-extractive industry relations around the world; more in-depth research on the gender and generational impacts of industry operations on or near Indigenous lands is particularly needed. The possibility of extending the principle of free, prior and informed consent under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to non-Aboriginal populations should also be further explored.

    There is now a growing literature and body of expertise seeking to explain and address resource-related conflicts, including the identification of structural factors, triggering events, framing perspectives, and sociopolitical processes influencing their occurrence, pathways, outcomes and modes of prevention/resolution, including the role played by extractive companies in governing security issues.Footnote 17

  • The social-ecological systems framework is an effective methodological framework for assessing community resilience. An interdisciplinary review of the framework uncovered the design’s promise, as well as useful variables that can be applied to improve environmental governance and community resilience.

  • Community resilience studies would benefit from increased focus on the experiences of resource-based communities. A number of scholars note these communities are important test sites for resilience theory, given their cycles of instability and their need for solutions to diversify their economies. Such work would also provide important lessons for resource governance in Canadian communities.

  • Quantitative accounts of vulnerability can inform resilience strategies. Toronto is estimated to have six days of transportation fuel, 20 days of food, and 49 days’ worth of biomass for home heating.Footnote 23 This type of work is beneficial for municipalities to inform the public about the degree to which they are vulnerable to environmental threats, and what adaptation measures can be taken to reduce risks.

  • Interdisciplinary research can enrich transformations in regulatory frameworks. For example, there is little cross-disciplinary research between law and political or social science fields with regards to mining and renewable energies. Research of this nature would allow better understanding of the relationships between social science observations and legal issues and their shortcomings, and vice versa.

  • Established social licence and environmental assessment processes would benefit from recognizing and monitoring the cumulative social and cultural impacts. To support processes and agreements that are driven by the private sector to obtain and maintain consent from Indigenous communities, cumulative and long-term sociocultural impacts of resource development projects should be researched, accounted for and monitored.

  • Canadians would benefit from greater comparative analyses of laws governing natural resource development. In the case of forest law, this can be a challenge, as few Canadian lawyers publish within this sector. Synthesizing information on both diverse and similar integrations of sustainable development principles into forest law across Canada underlines the great opportunity available to draw on a multitude of lessons and best practices. For example, widespread access to reports on Quebec’s innovative regulatory approaches should be facilitated.

  • Critical knowledge gaps are impeding decision-making related to hydraulic fracturing. These gaps include a lack of baseline data; insufficient information on long-term, cumulative effects; and a lack of regional specifics. Socio-economic research on the sector has not progressed. Assessing costs and benefits associated with fracking goes outside the niche research areas of most individual academics. The knowledge gaps could be best addressed by a government-led, comprehensive cost-benefit analysis.

Figure: Primary partners in Aboriginal natural resource development initiatives Footnote 31

  • The impacts of renewable energy on Indigenous communities need to be further explored. There are emerging bodies of research addressing the effects of industrial development on Indigenous peoples, and their role in environmental assessments. However, knowledge of both the positive and negative environmental, economic, political and social impacts of alternative energy sources on Indigenous communities is largely lacking.

  • The number of research publications related to Aboriginal capacity-building and natural resource development has increased over the last decade. A comprehensive bibliographic review found that these studies focused predominantly on land-use strategies and planning processes, followed by impact and benefit agreements. Most papers focused on forestry and mining, followed by energy, which had half as many publications as the first two sectors.

  • Studies on the benefits natural resource development has on Aboriginal capacity-building are difficult to substantiate. A review of publications on this topic shows that the majority of the studies (22 of the 24 articles) provided examples of actual associated benefits. These included employment (12 articles), improved decision-making (11 articles), and financial support (eight articles). However, definitions and data varied significantly, making it very difficult to quantify and compare benefits across cases and sectors.

  • New employment models and social support for Aboriginal women need to be explored more greatly. Aboriginal women’s roles are intrinsic to overall and long-term community development. A study on Aboriginal women and mining uncovered the need for more opportunities for women to enhance their marketable skills. Social support to address downstream-community social ills associated with working in extractive industries is also needed, to enable these models.

  • There is clear geographical disparity in research capacity and between research sites in Canada. A knowledge synthesis on Aboriginal capacity development found that research is predominantly being housed in or conducted by southern Canadian institutions. Greater examination of research capacity and disparities between north and south, rural and urban, and other domains, would help in assessing implications for research by and with Aboriginal Peoples, as well as Aboriginal capacity development in general.

Figure: Research sites and locations of author-affiliated institutions related to research on Aboriginal natural resource development Footnote 33

Map of Canada indicating research sites and locations of author-affiliated institutions related to research on Aboriginal natural resource development

  • The limitations of socio-economic research on fracking make it challenging for decision-makers to apply findings more broadly. Due to the localized nature of hydraulic fracturing, studies on socio-economic effects are typically province- or region-specific. The majority of studies, which are mainly conducted by think tanks as opposed to being peer reviewed research, predominantly cover economic benefits. Those that quantify environmental impacts are largely focused on the United States.

  • A diversity of methodological approaches makes it hard to draw conclusions about the viability of local resource-based economies. An analysis of local labour markets cautions against comparing studies employing diverse methodological approaches. Researchers must select resource measurement typologies that fit the purposes of their particular study, and need to offer clear explanations for their use.

  • Debates on the employment effects of renewable energy are gaining prominence in Canada, but knowledge gaps remain. There is significant potential for renewable energy sectors to generate strong employment growth. However, specific analytical work and empirical evidence on this important subject remain extremely limited.

    Having access to sex-disaggregated employment data on specific renewable sources such as wind, run-of-river hydro, solar, biomass and geothermal would enable us to better understand trends as well as to propose policies and interventions for promoting employment equity. Without data, there is no visibility. And without visibility, there is no policy priority.Footnote 36

  • Much uncertainty surrounds extraction’s long-term economic effects on communities. Questions remain about whether busts are generally worse for the local economy than booms are good, and what happens when economically attractive resources have been largely exhausted. Given numerous studies that have documented the industries’ economic gains, more convincing research—particularly on human capital effects—is needed.

  • Renewed commitment to the environment may further overshadow socio-economic issues surrounding natural resource development. Research on the environment can come at the expense of greater appreciation of natural resource development’s deep and long-lasting social and cultural effects on communities. These effects are often invisible in research, policy development, program implementation, and monitoring and evaluation.

    Policy incoherence in relation to resource development and extraction can be linked, in part, to significant research gaps, including: a lack of overlap between environmental and social science research in this area; little research on gender and resource development, with the important exception of a growing body of research related to Indigenous women; knowledge gaps about the impact of resource development on people with disabilities, recent immigrants, those identifying as LGBTQ or two-spirited, and people who are homeless; and limited attention to the gendered experiences of men and boys. Footnote 37

Social sciences and humanities research is fostering a deeper understanding of the human dimensions of the quest for energy and natural resources, and their production, extraction and use. Building trust and transparency at the start of and throughout resource development projects is critical for meaningful dialogue and mutually beneficial relationships. Building stronger linkages across and within research disciplines and sectors, and with citizens, is central for realizing a strong future for the sustainable development of natural resources in Canada and abroad.

More longitudinal and comparative analyses, both nationally and internationally, and mixed-methods research are needed to get a more complete picture of the long-term impacts of and potential opportunities for resource-based communities in Canada.

This report summarizes the key findings emerging from SSHRC’s Knowledge Synthesis Grants projects related to energy and natural resources. It also identifies several areas of improvement for achieving more harmonized approaches and equitable outcomes for natural resource development across Canada’s diverse communities and landscape. Where Canada has demonstrated strength in research capacity and expertise, greater efforts to mobilize knowledge may be taken to inform policies, regulatory frameworks, practices and citizens.

In areas where there are knowledge gaps or weakness, opportunities to support new research questions may be pursued. As raised at the SSHRC-NRCan knowledge symposium, there are additional, critical questions for researchers and policy-makers to pursue on the future of Canadians in the quest for natural resources. These areas include transportation, foreign financing and ownership, and federal initiatives addressing water issues.

The exploration of this future challenge area has generated significant interest among the research community, as well as by research users in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. SSHRC will continue to monitor SSHRC-funded research in this area, while we also look for ways to better connect research knowledge and expertise with Canadians.

SSHRC encourages the research community to review the current project findings closely. It also encourages the community to consider leveraging new funding opportunities for knowledge mobilization and future research, including seeking out partnership opportunities, as appropriate.

SSHRC invites all stakeholders and researchers to participate in our national dialogue on all six of the future challenge areas identified through the Imagining Canada’s Future initiative. Through partnerships and innovative collaborative efforts, we can leverage new and promising opportunities for research, training and knowledge mobilization. Together, we can build a better tomorrow for all Canadians.

Footnote 1

Guy Laforest, 2016-17 president-elect, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and director, Department of Political Science, Université Laval; remarks June 1, 2016, SSHRC Forum, Calgary, Alberta.

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Footnote 2

NRCan and SSHRC. Final Report: Knowledge Symposium on Energy and Natural Resources Research. December 7, 2015, 3.

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Footnote 3

Petra Dolata, Canada Research Chair on the History of Energy, and associate professor, Department of History, University of Calgary; remarks June 1, 2016, SSHRC Forum, Calgary, Alberta.

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Footnote 4

CAGS, Imagining Canada’s Future: Summary of Roundtable Discussions with Graduate Student Researchers, October 26, 2015, 6-7.

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Footnote 5

Université Laval, Rapport présenté à l’ACES et au CRSH comprenant les données recueillies lors de la table ronde de l’Université Laval dans le cadre de l’initiative Imaginer l’avenir du Canada, May 8, 2015, 13.

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Footnote 6

Imre Szeman et al., “On the Energy Humanities: Contributions from the humanities, social sciences, and arts to understanding energy transition and energy impasse,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, 2.

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Footnote 7

Stewart Elgie et al., “Accelerating clean innovation in Canada’s energy and natural resource sectors: The role of public policy and institutions,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, 3.

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Footnote 8

Szeman et al., On the Energy Humanities, 14.

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Footnote 9

Bipasha Baruah, “Creating and optimizing employment opportunities for women in the clean energy sector in Canada,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016.

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Footnote 10

Kevin Hanna et al., “A gap analysis of impact and assessment research for alternative energy development,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, 2.

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Footnote 11

Philippe Le Billon et al., “Volatile commodities: A review of conflicts and security issues related to extractive sectors,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, 9.

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Footnote 12

NRCan, Minerals and Metals Fact Book—2016.

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Footnote 13

Ortiz et al., World protests 2006-2013. Working paper. Initiative for Policy Dialogue and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, New York, 2013. Cited by Le Billon, Volatile commodities, 7.

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Footnote 14

Roberta Rice, “Building sustainable partnerships: Aboriginal Peoples and Canadian extractive industry in global perspective,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, 14.

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Footnote 15

Ibid., 10.

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Footnote 16

Greg Halseth et al., “A scoping review on the community impacts of unconventional natural gas development for northern BC,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, Figure 7, 35.

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Footnote 17

Le Billon, Volatile commodities, 7.

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Footnote 18

Sara Teitelbaum et al., “Conditions supporting resilience in Canadian resource-based communities: Empirical and methodological insights from the literature on social-ecological systems,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, 5.

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Footnote 19

Lemmen, Warren, Lacroix, and Bush, ed.s, From Impacts to Adaptation: Canada in the Changing Climate, Government of Canada, Ottawa, 2008.

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Footnote 20

Eyzaguirre and Warren, Adaptation: Linking research and practice in Canada in a changing climate, Government of Canada, Ottawa, 2014. Cited by Richard Shaker et al., “Urban resilience in Canada: Research priorities and best practices for climate resilience in cities,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, 2.

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Footnote 21

Robin Cox et al., “Children and youth’s biopsychosocial health in the context of energy resource activities,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, 4.

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Footnote 22

Robin Cox et al., “Children and youth’s biopsychosocial health in the context of energy resource activities,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016.

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Footnote 23

D. Bistrow, Thermodynamics and the sustainability of cities, Doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto, 2013. Cited by Shaker, Urban resilience in Canada, 17.

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Footnote 24

Bonnie Campbell and Marie-Claude Prémont, “Transformations in multi-level regulations and the role of stakeholders in the development of mineral resources and renewable energy,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, 7.

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Footnote 25

Courtney Fidler, “Increasing the sustainability of a resource development: Aboriginal engagement and negotiated agreements,” Environment Development Sustainability, 2010, p. 236. Cited by Rice, Building sustainable partnerships, 12.

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Footnote 26

Chris Southcott, director, Resources and Sustainable Development in the Arctic, and professor, Department of Sociology, Lakehead University; Remarks June 1, 2016, at SSHRC Forum, Calgary, Alberta.

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Footnote 27

Deborah Stienstra, Gail Baikie and Leah Levac, “Federal government has responsibility to critically evaluate Muskrat Falls, other resource development projects,” The Hill Times, August 15, 2016.

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Footnote 28

Ryan Bullock et al., “Aboriginal capacity building achievements for sustainable natural resource development,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, 20.

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Footnote 29

Raywat Deonandan et al., “Mining the gap: Aboriginal women and the mining industry,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, 8.

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Footnote 30

Deonandan, Mining the gap, 12.

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Footnote 31

Bullock, Aboriginal capacity building, 15.

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Footnote 32

Ibid, vi.

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Footnote 33

Ibid, 7. Map configured by SSHRC with author data.

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Footnote 34

Bipasha Baruah, “Creating and optimizing employment opportunities for women in the clean energy sector in Canada,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, 5-6.

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Footnote 35

Caleb Behn, executive director, Keepers of the Water, Eh-Cho Dene and Dunne-Za, lawyer and co-lead, 2016 SSHRC Partnership Grant for sustainable water governance and Indigenous law project; remarks, June 1, 2016, SSHRC Forum.

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Footnote 36

Baruah, Creating and optimizing employment opportunities, 3.

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Footnote 37

Deborah Stienstra et al., “Gendered and intersectional implications of energy and resource extraction in resource-based communities in Canada’s north,” SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant Final Report, May 2016, 4.

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Footnote 38

Testimonial from NRCan’s Strategic Policy and Results Sector, September 20, 2016.

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Footnote 39

Stewart Elgie, associate professor, Faculty of Law; chair, Sustainable Prosperity; and director, Institute of the Environment, University of Ottawa; panel held December 7, 2015, SSHRC-NRCan knowledge symposium, Ottawa.

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