The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History hosted Foxfire, a 187.7 carat uncut diamond, as a temporary guest in its gem collection in November 2016. Foxfire is the biggest rough stone mined in North America. It came from the Diavik Diamond Mine, one of three mines operating in Canada’s Northwest Territories, just north of the 60th parallel. As of 2007, Canada was the third-largest producer of rough stones in the world. Foxfire’s value is not simply a matter of its size. In their press releases, both the museum and the mining corporation (Rio Tinto) stress that the Foxfire diamond should be admired for its “fascinating provenance and ethical pedigree” (Amadena Investments 2017; Landers 2016). Foxfire’s ethical pedigree is linked not only to its distance from places like Angola and Sierra Leone, where diamonds were part of long-standing, complex violent conflicts (Calvão 2011), but also a gesture to the ways in which arctic diamonds are heralded as exceptional examples of corporate-community partnerships. Specifically, marketing campaigns and local public relations materials stress the capacity for mine development to provide local and Indigenous people with training for high wage work.
In 2008, as part of a larger ethnographic investigation of corporate and ordinary ethics of arctic resource extraction (Bell 2013), I met 12 Indigenous adults enrolled in Ready for the Job, a two-week course required for access to state- and industry-subsidized vocational training to become underground diamond miners. In line with general transformations of job training programs for the poor and unemployed across North America, Ready for the Job focused on “soft skills” over and above technical industrial know-how (Peck and Theodore 2000; Purser and Hennigan 2017; Smith 2010). Drawing on ethnographic engagement with the design and delivery of job readiness programs in Canada’s diamond basin, and follow-up interviews with trainees over the course of a year, this article reveals how the implementation of a soft skills training program for Indigenous would-be miners connects to the global production of ethical diamonds originating from Canada.
The inaugural delivery of Ready for the Job coincided with the financial crisis of 2008–2009. Program graduation aligned with hiring freezes at both operational mines and stalled plans for the opening of a third mine. The majority of trainees I knew did not get work at the end of their training. Undelivered job promises not only threatened to incite local critique but also stood to interrupt international discourse of Canadian diamonds as ethical commodities. In what follows, I show how soft skills training emphasized a way of speaking that was easily adapted to mitigate student critiques and disappointments when the number of jobs in the industry was drastically reduced. While the introduction of soft skills was aimed at orienting would-be worker behavior and speech to corporate norms, its more significant consequence came from the ways in which it participated in producing and maintaining the ethical sign value of subarctic stones both to global consumers and within local communities. In sum, drawing would-be workers in and out of the labor market is an essential component of creating ethical value over time.
As James Carrier (2010) describes, “ethical commodities” accrue value by infusing material objects with moral attributes, which can be assessed by the purchaser or otherwise interested parties. Much like commodities that depend on their “authenticity,” whether regional or ethnic, for their market value (Cavanaugh and Shankar 2014), ethical commodities are produced through material and linguistic means. Jillian Cavanaugh and Shalini Shankar (2012, 2014) proposed the term “linguistic materiality” to capture the intermingling of material and linguistic labor that aligns or ruptures at various points in the commodity chain. Building on their notion of linguistic materiality, I argue here that ethical commodities not only embody linguistic and material labor but also exert linguistic and corporeal demands on the kinds of people integral to the idealized commodity story. Semiotic processes take hold of and through people’s lives.
In what follows, I outline how and why Indigenous employment came to participate in the production of diamonds’ ethical sign value. According to the training program developers, many people were not accessing work because they lacked the “right attitude.”1 As will become clear, demonstrating the right attitude required that trainees speak in particular ways, what I call “the register of readiness.” Asif Agha (2004: 24) defines a register as “a linguistic repertoire that is associated, culture-internally, with particular social practices and with persons who engage in such practices” (see also Agha 2005, 2011). In outlining the parameters of the register of readiness, I show how the instability of resource economies was turned back onto trainees’ individual psychological states when jobs and training funds receded. In sum, job training “failure,” refracted through the register of readiness, is essential to producing and maintaining the ethical sign value of Canadian gems by configuring a subset of Indigenous people as “not ready” for work and thus in need of state and industry intervention. If the production of things always involves the production of social relations and subjectivities (Wolf 1982), then the (re)making of the Indigenous underemployed is not a failure of capitalist labor markets, but rather an essential component of them.
The fifth C of diamond grading
In 2001, World Vision launched a human rights campaign to draw attention to what became abbreviated as blood diamonds (De Boeck 2008). The negative reputation of blood diamonds spearheaded the trend toward “responsible mining” (Grant and Taylor 2004; Hilson 2014) and prompted a host of regulatory mechanisms to distinguish illicit or bloody stones from their clean counterparts (Babidge 2015; Feldt and Müller 2011; Le Billon 2008). One prominent campaign suggested that the four Cs of diamond selection criteria (cut, color, clarity, and carat) should be joined by a fifth: conflict-free. The result was the production of a discursive space in which some diamonds could become part of a fast-growing commodity class: ethical commodities. As it would turn out, diamonds’ emergent “grammar of responsibility” (Barnett et al. 2011) coincided with, and was amplified by, a new site for procuring the precious stone: the Canadian subarctic. Diamond development supporters in Canada felt the emerging industry was best placed to “secure a premium from the ‘peacefulness and integrity’ of its mining context” (McCarthy 2003, quoted in Le Billon 2006). Some of the most enthusiastic supporters went as far as to suggest that the fifth C of diamond selection criteria should be “Canadian.”
Diamond mines in Canada are largely owned by transnational mining companies Rio Tinto, De Beers, and BHP Billiton. With two exceptions, open-pit mines are located in the Northwest Territories (NWT), an area north of the 60th parallel roughly the same size as Spain with a population of 40,000. Residents are concentrated in a handful of peri-urban, multiethnic towns. Approximately half of the population is Indigenous. The Great Slave Lake region is traditionally Dene (Athabaskan) and Métis, but many Inuvialuit relocate from farther north for work. Half of the Indigenous population lives in small villages that formed around fur trading posts in the late 1800s. These are relatively remote communities of roughly three hundred to eight hundred people. The non-Indigenous population is a mix of longtime residents or “northerners” and migrant workers from other parts of the country who stay between two and five years working and saving to return south.
What often stands out about Canada’s northern regions are the disparities in health and wealth between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations (Adelson 2005; Sider 2014). They uncomfortably reveal what Elizabeth Povinelli describes as “the unequal distribution of life and death in democratic orders” (2008: 510). As Lisa Stevenson (2014) lays out in her book Life Beside Itself, Aboriginal life (and death) has come to act as a barometer of bureaucratic success or failure in Canada’s North. The approval of three (eventually four) diamond mines on disputed Indigenous territory proceeded on the promise that development would bring work and training to local populations (Bielawski 2003), thereby improving and extending Indigenous life. Jobs and job training became synonymous with state and corporate forms of care (Cameron and Levitan 2014).
In 2008 when I began my ethnographic exploration of the Canadian diamond boom, rumors in media and everyday talk suggested that despite millions of dollars being put in to training Indigenous workers, few were successful at completing programs, or even signing up for them at all. To improve completion rates, Ready for the Job was developed and mandated as a prerequisite to most vocational training. As a former teacher in the region, and as an anthropologist interested in what it means to make a future, the design and delivery of Ready for the Job caught my attention. The training was being offered in eight different NWT communities. I attended a training session for instructors, and at the completion of a two-day workshop, I was asked to deliver the program in Hay River, a multiethnic community on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. I met my incoming cohort of potential miners in January 2009 after glossy posters asking “DO YOU WANNA BE A ROCKER?!” went up across the NWT.2 The posters promised salaries of up to $100,000 a year. There was excitement over what trainees might do with “a hundred grand” once they started working. Ruth, a woman nearing her fiftieth birthday, proclaimed, “Once we start making money like that, we’ll be set for life”—a refrain I heard many times over the course of my work. Ruth, and the other aspiring miners had to pass Ready for the Job if they wanted access to state- and industry-funded Rocker program. But what would it take for Ruth and the others to be “set for life”? I turn now to a discussion of the unexpected presence of soft skills training for industrial work.
Registers of readiness: Speaking so as to be “set for life”
Mining is one of the most destructive human activities. Understanding the complex personhood of residents of extractive communities (Scott and Benett 2015) as well as the “affective resonances of natural resources” (Weszkalnys 2016) is vital to understanding the perpetuation and transformation of mining. As Ruth stated, mining creates a promise that one might be “set for life.” Indeed, I know many people working in the mines who love their work, speak highly of their employer, and enjoy a good standard of living. As a former teacher in the NWT, what provoked my research was the narrowing of future possibilities for northern people by the increasing emphasis on training for volatile sectors.3 Drawing on curricular materials and interviews with training agents, this section reveals what was perceived to be standing in the way of Indigenous people’s success in the job market: “attitude” and “self-esteem.” These highly valued soft skills put a marked emphasis on trainee talk and comportment as indices of their inner states and, by extension, evidence of their “readiness” for work. Access to high-wage work depended on local people’s ability to speak in what I am calling “the register of readiness.” More than teaching neutral employment skills, the register of readiness attempted to shape how trainees understood themselves, their citizenship rights, and their relationship to a market economy. At stake here are the ways in which state and industry work to transform the potential of indigenous people into “better” (more readily exploitable) commodities.4
In Yellowknife, the NWT’s capital city, Max,5 the director of the state-industry Indigenous mine training agency described the implementation of Ready for the Job as the first step in “a long way to go” for Indigenous would-be workers. Pacing his office, he said, “People from the communities have a long way to go, for sure. But for the people we get through the program, it’s worth it.” The phrase “from the communities” refers to rural Indigenous settlements scattered around the region with populations ranging from two hundred to one thousand people. Often, urban northerners (Indigenous and not) use the gloss “from the communities” to mean those who are more “traditional,” those in need of intervention, or both. It is meant to inscribe cultural difference and distance between rural have-nots and their urban counterparts.
Max’s downtown office was cluttered with agency paraphernalia: mugs, pamphlets, and playing cards. Almost everything in the room was branded with the organization’s logo: the nonprofit’s initials with a diamond on top and three feathers dangling below. “Take a mug,” he said, stuffing the ceramic cup with a pen and deck of cards. He spent our meeting time searching his office for more things to give to me while addressing my questions about graduation rates. If local people, or those “from the communities,” had, as Max suggested, “a long way to go,” where were they headed, and by what means would they be traveling this “long way”?
Marilyn handled training the instructors of the new curriculum. On the first day of class, she addressed the main issue of why trainees “from the communities” had difficulty with successful participation in job training and work placements: their attitudes. “Trainees have to get the right attitude if they want to be prepared for the reality of the market,” she said. Attitudes formed a central component of the curriculum. A section of the curriculum guide called “Attitudes” explains the importance of attitude:
A positive attitude is a state of mind. Individuals with positive attitudes approach activities and people with expectations of positive outcomes. This optimism motivates them to work hard within their families, schools, jobs and communities.… People with positive attitudes do not blame others for problems. They think about a situation, determine what is within their control and authority, and then decide what actions to take.(GNWT 2006: 7)
This excerpt individualized trainees’ emotional states and psychological compositions (Haney 2010: 14). It places the “problem of attitude” squarely in the minds of trainees. If we understand Michel Foucault’s governance to be the patterns of power and regulation that shape, guide, and manage social conduct, then we can begin to see that job training is a form of state regulation based on incursions into people’s individual psyches. Sharing many similarities to the discourses described in ethnographies of North American clinical spaces directed at the poor (Carr 2011; Haney 2010), northern training discourse mobilizes a strikingly therapeutic, self-help lexicon. To be prepared for “the reality of the market,” would-be workers needed to adjust their individual psychological states.
What did this emphasis mean in practice? What I hope will become clear is that states of mind are actually states of talk. Soft skills in Ready for the Job were primarily defined as maintaining a positive attitude and taking responsibility for one’s problems. These soft skills were assessed by attending to trainee talk and bodily comportment. Moralizing dimensions of classroom text and talk attempted to shape how the trainees I followed for more than a year understood and spoke about themselves, their futures, and their relationship to a market economy.
Taken together, the course forms what I am calling a “register of readiness.” Like the job readiness initiatives described by Emily Cummins and Linda Blum (2015), the register of readiness focused on instilling racialized, classed body norms. Four multimodal linguistic features defined the register of readiness. First, the course encouraged a high degree of self-referential talk that prioritized the speaker as agent (denoted by using primarily first-person constructions). For example, trainees were asked to speak using “I statements” (e.g., “I am very frustrated with the assignment”; not “The assignment is frustrating”). Second, the register of readiness asked that workers’ bodily habits align with employer expectations for deference: making eye contact while speaking, refraining from wearing a baseball cap, and being sure not to cross one’s arms were all described as open communication strategies. Women were taught to be sure to cover their “three Bs” (backs, breasts, and buttocks). Third, the register of readiness emphasized expressions of desired independence. Trainees were reminded that they needed to “help themselves before they help others.” Family ties that were too tight were seen as an infringement on success in the workplace. Independence largely referred to financial independence. Statements that revealed that trainees relied on others for income, or were sharing income, were ill regarded by training staff. Finally, the register of readiness was characterized by positive self-assessments expressed in extended turns at talk.
Ready for the Job included personality tests, learning-style inventories, and communication style quizzes that all aimed to provide trainees with acceptable ways of knowing and expressing themselves. Part of the program was to help trainees see themselves, and thus speak about themselves, differently. Trainees needed new visions (or likely, versions) of themselves if they wanted to be “set for life.” The assumption here is that Indigenous people do not know about themselves, nor how to talk about their “potential.” Said differently, they are unable to prioritize their capacities as labor in everyday speech acts.
Curricular activities were designed to help trainees access their “true” interior states and then relay that information through talk about themselves to trainers and eventually to prospective employers. For example, trainees spent half a day using True Colors International’s personality assessment tools. As the company’s website explains, “True Colors is a model for understanding yourself and others based on your personality temperament. The colors of Orange, Green, Blue and Gold are used to differentiate the four central personality styles of True Colors” (TCI 2017). Trainees were guided through a process to determine which of the four colors they were. Self-visions required that trainees narrate themselves as individual, autonomous, and ultimately free of any explicit assessments of the social world that conflicted with the staff’s. Conflicts could be resolved by understanding other people’s “true colors” and managed by simply identifying the two different personal temperaments at play (e.g., “I am a blue and she is an orange. I am likely being too sensitive!”).
The register of readiness carries with it ideas about the very nature of language itself. In other words, it emphasizes a particular language ideology. The two defining ideological features of the register of readiness are (1) speech is simply referential, and (2) talk is a direct reflection of mental states or individual intention, or what E. Summerson Carr terms an ideology of inner reference. The ideology of inner reference presumes that, first, “healthy” language refers to preexisting phenomena and, second, that the phenomena to which it refers is internal to speakers (Carr 2011: 4). In my case, “positive attitudes” were phenomena that were not necessarily preexisting but were understood as always possible or immanent.6 Possible positive attitudes were assumed to be inherent in speakers. What matters for the exploration of diamonds turned ethical commodities is that the promotion of “readiness talk,” rather than being a neutral employment skill, became crucial to the management of the impermanence of resource extraction.
Resisting and reconfiguring registers of readiness
Once into the course, it became obvious that trainees had difficulty with some aspects of the register of readiness. In a three-room subarctic community college in Canada’s diamond basin, I led trainees through a role-playing exercise on “providing quality customer service.” The exercise asked trainees to affirm the imagined customer’s needs by using an “I statement” and the customer’s name. In the provided scenario, a customer in an auto body shop is upset about her bill. In response, trainees are encouraged to say something like, “I would be happy to give you a breakdown of those costs, Susan.” During the class discussion that followed the role-play, Richard, a Métis man in his forties with decades of industry experience, shook his head in disbelief, “If you talk like that on a job site, you’ll get your lights knocked out!”
This in-class exercise reinforces my argument that soft skills demand the adoption of particular speech styles. Bonnie Urciuoli (2008) has argued that soft skills are essentially commodified communicative acts that align with corporate values and ends. Yet, in the context of mining, as Richard points out, the promoted performance of soft skills is at odds with workplace norms (“you’ll get your lights knocked out!”). Richard’s comment and general frustration with course materials revealed the ways in which corporate values were not in line with corporeal norms of a highly masculinized sector.
Trainees recognized the register of readiness as irrelevant to entry-level industrial work. Moreover, they experienced therapeutic, self-help talk as boasting, which was foreign and uncomfortable for them. As Ruth put it, “So you mean, we are supposed to brag about ourselves?” For many trainees, the register of readiness was at odds with their sense of self and local linguistic norms and thus put many people in a double bind when it came to accessing work and social assistance.
While training staff believed that the register of readiness indexed speakers who were ready for the job, trainees understood it differently. The process by which a linguistic repertoire comes to be associated with particular social practices and with persons who engage in such practices is known as enregisterment (Agha 2004). With the majority of educators and managers being non-Indigenous, these habits of speaking and being have come to be enregistered as white. Once the course ended, Destiny, a young Dene woman in her twenties, told me, “I’m not gonna fucking talk white! I don’t want to be all like, ‘Hi there! How can I help you!?’” she said in mock Valley girl speech.
When I asked why they felt they needed to get one of the coveted mine jobs, the trainees showed highly sophisticated “metalinguistic awareness” (Cazden 1974). Metalinguistic awareness refers to the ability to reflect consciously on the nature of language and the social functions it carries out. For example, trainees knew that employers favored certain ways of talking. Their job, as they saw it, was to learn not only technical mining facts but also how to present themselves in the right way to potential employers. When I asked the trainees what would be most helpful for the course’s focus, everyone agreed: “interview practice!” Ruth, who spoke with speech features characteristic of working-class people from the Maritime provinces, explained, “We’s can get alls [sic] the training we want, but when we open our mouths, they’re gonna think we are uneducated.” Scott, an Inuit man in his forties, felt he “wasn’t great at talking about [himself].” He was not alone. Most trainees disliked the idea that they had to speak about themselves.
Despite these tensions around what linguistic habits could and should be cultivated, everyone was keen on passing the standardized Ready for the Job exam. Passing would allow trainees to move onto a 12-week simulated mine camp training experience with people from all over the NWT. They would live in a former addiction treatment center turned conference center far from their home communities to simulate mine work life conditions. There would be three meals a day, strict behavior codes, and a security guard stationed at the front to ensure they did not head into town. The more immediate reward that trainees were looking forward to was a promised “fancy dinner” for passing Ready for the Job. One restaurant in town is markedly more expensive than the others, and many trainees had never eaten there; thus, the possibility of going generated a fair bit of excitement.
As the trainees worked through their course, the financial crisis had started to affect the mining industry, and the diamond mines began layoffs. Two days before their exam, a cardboard box arrived at the college. Inside were graduation certificates and baseball caps with the training agency’s logo. As I was the impromptu teacher, I called the head office in Yellowknife to sort out the details of the dinner. The agency decided to replace the fancy dinner with the more cost-effective hat. The agency secretary sympathetically reassured me that this was “no big deal” because “those who are selected for the next stage of the course … will get a full graduation ceremony and eventually be making $100,000 a year.”
The news that only selected trainees would move came to me as a surprise. The trainees all shared my impression that if they passed the two courses, then they automatically qualified for the full certificate program once they proved they were officially “ready for the job.” Because the industry was hesitant to renew funding, the agency faced declining resources and was not sure what it could afford for the upcoming course. The dwindling funds and the insecurity it caused were ultimately downloaded onto the trainees.
Through a long and drawn-out period, the agency tried to assess its financial situation. During this time, the trainees were unable to claim any social assistance or seek work, as they could be called to the next stage of the program at any time. When I communicated to the trainees that not all of them who passed would move on to the next phase, I felt the classroom dynamics shift almost immediately. Some trainees harnessed the language of individual responsibility to make themselves more marketable. Their shared fight to pass the courses was now a competition. For some, this meant constructing their classmates as “not really serious.”
The personal stakes for trainees were high. For David, a 21-year-old Métis man who had migrated north from Saskatchewan after being released from prison for alcohol-related charges, mine training was, in his words, “a crossroad.” David was put on early parole to attend classes. On the first day of Ready for the Job, David explained, “Either I keep going on the road I’m on, with trouble ahead, or I make a turn here and straighten out my shit.” Another trainee, Destiny was getting a housing subsidy attached to school enrollment. While I was never sure she dreamed of being a miner, I am certain she longed for stable housing.
After three months, although all six trainees passed the standardized exam, only four were selected to go to Yellowknife. Destiny and David were pushed out. David moved back to Saskatchewan and eventually landed a job in Alberta’s oil sands driving heavy equipment. Since the training in 2008–2009, he has become the proud father of two young girls and does two-week rotations between home and work. Destiny lost her housing and “took off” to reconnect with an old flame living on a reservation some 180 miles away. The successful trainees received financial assistance to cover costs of the next training, with the exception of Ruth, who was from New Brunswick. She did not qualify for assistance and had to take out a personal loan at a higher interest rate. She and her husband decided it was worth the investment to get a coveted “hundred grand” job at the program’s end.
I visited the successful trainees “in camp” twice during their 12-week training. They told me the training was meant to mimic mine life as much as possible. This included some positive things, such as three cooked meals a day and a comfortable place to stay, and some negative things, such as strict curfews, a long list of rules including no alcohol, and a security guard who tracked their comings and goings.
Security guards, curfews, punitive attendance, and cash payments (that were unreliable and dwindled) were forms of governance intended to guide and manage conduct but also to orient individuals to the job market. Any failures were deemed personal. Ready for the Job aimed to have trainees become conversant in the language of individual responsibility. But did trainees simply become governable subjects? The answer is largely no. Only the trainees who already possessed some of the values and behaviors favored by Ready for the Job showed up to and stuck with the course. In this way, Ready for the Job did not create governable subjects; it simply located and identified them as such. “Successful” trainees had strong histories with wage work, and their values aligned with those of potential employers more closely than their “unsuccessful” counterparts. This was not because of their training; these differences were largely preexisting. As a result, these existing local class differences were reinscribed. This conclusion underscores the importance of adopting an approach to resource politics that attends to the class trajectories of Indigenous people in North America (Dombrowski 2001; Sider 2003) or other parts of the world (T. Li 2010; Steur 2014).
During the in-camp phase, the larger group of 28 trainees from around the NWT gelled into a cohort. At one point, trainees flipped the script of readiness on the agency staff. According to the trainees, the agency staff never followed their own rules or made good on their commitments. They were frequently late and made promises they did not keep. Previous letdowns (canceled graduation dinner, funding changes) became evidence that the staff were themselves “not responsible.” Trainees noticed the start times of meetings with staff diligently, and Ruth, who had taken charge of the mounting complaints, rigorously recorded any staff lateness. Toward the end of the program, trainees were scheduled to meet with agency staff to go over the final exam schedule. After 30 minutes of waiting with no sign of the staff, they decided to stage a lockout: they lured the security guard away from the front desk and bolted the front door. They said if they were not allowed to be more than 15 minutes late, then the staff members should not be allowed either.
These acts of resistance formed intense bonds of solidarity. However, it is easy to see the limitations of such resistance to make significant change. The everyday battles that the trainees had with the staff ultimately missed their targets. The problem was that the trainees had begun to think of staff as “irresponsible individuals” instead of questioning larger structural problems that affected resource extraction work. In using the curriculum-sanctioned register of readiness, trainee critiques were largely apolitical. Promoted forms of talk directed trainee attention inward. In this way, standards of readiness—such as being on time, keeping promises, or being transparent—could not be measured against the staff. While a register of readiness provided a channel for trainee concerns to be voiced, prioritizing talk that can only reference inner states meant that trainee concerns could easily be dismissed as “blaming.” The adoption of certain metanarratives of the self was tied to the allocation of resources (to be kept in the program, to be promoted through the phases, or not kept or promoted), and therefore stakes were high for mastering rituals of speaking and communication.
Throughout the underground mining program, trainees were repeatedly told that mine employers would be hiring at their graduation. After completing the full training program, many had, as instructed, come with their polished résumés in hand in the event that they were hired on the spot and thus “set for life.” A level of disorganization that was standard to the program marked the graduation ceremony. Trainees were having their photos taken out front while staff scrambled to organize the details of the barbecue that was supposed to follow. When the trainees came in and took their seats, a few key personnel had not yet arrived, although it was 15 minutes past the start time. Tiffany, the master of ceremonies and an agency staff member, came up to announce that they would be starting shortly and that the event was running on “Indian time.” Despite the fact that the 26 “Indians” who had not missed a single minute of class time were all seated directly in front of her and that the two missing personnel were not from the Northwest Territories, the comment still got a few light laughs from the guests.
Only one representative from a mine was present at the graduation. He congratulated the group and talked of the “downturn” and said it was an “opportunity to exercise patience and flexibility.” He estimated that hiring would begin again in six months and encouraged them to keep “getting out of bed every morning” and to “stay on the right track.” With those words, I watched Ruth roll up her printed résumés and stuff them in her purse. Her husband, who had traveled 250 miles to the ceremony, reached for her hand.
Tiffany returned to the front and closed by telling the trainees “the most difficult chains to break are the ones inside of us.” “Don’t be a victim of circumstance,” she warned. Her words echo what I heard elsewhere about the ascription of contemporary issues as “internal,” though they might be more aptly linked to poverty and legacies of colonialism. This closing remark—and the event as a whole—illustrates how structural deficiencies of social programming through resource work can be turned into personal battles that responsible individuals need to face. After a year, none of the trainees had one of the promised $100,000 per year jobs. In fact, only one got a related job at all.
In the context of resource-dependent regions like the diamond basin, the promotion of “readiness talk” is far from a neutral employment skill. It is crucial to the management of the impermanence of resource extraction. By promoting types of talk that eschew trainee critique and concerns, the instability of resource economies is turned back onto trainees’ psychological states. Moralizing dimensions of classroom text and talk in this specific context remap structural instabilities of resource development onto individual and household aspirations for “the good life.” As it turned out, there was not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There were no jobs available to the trainees on graduation day. Agency staff naturalized this as “the cycle” of the market, and trainees’ newly developed soft skills of patience and flexibility were called on to weather the storm.
The showcasing of diamonds from Canada, like the Foxfire mentioned above, reveals how marketers and supporters of Canadian diamonds emphasize not only physical and racial distance of northern diamonds from “African” problems (Falls 2011, 2014; Ferguson 2006; Le Billon 2006, 2008) but also stress their capacity to improve life for people who are seen to be on the margins of the nation, both geographically and socioeconomically. Northern Canada is home to diverse Indigenous peoples (Dene, Inuvialiut, Inuit, and Métis) who, when compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts, endure higher rates of social harm and homelessness (Christensen 2016). At the height of the diamond boom, diamonds were promoted by state and industry as development agents, offering Canada’s Indigenous people access to high-wage work and training opportunities. Promises of work and an improved standard of living were directed not only toward communities but to consumers as well. For example, Brilliant Earth (2017), North America’s largest purveyor of finished “ethical” jewelry, describes stones from Canada as going “beyond conflict-free” as “mines have demonstrated a strong commitment to hiring local Aboriginal people, providing a skilled apprenticeship program and improving the average income and unemployment rate.” In this way, potential mine work was not only a matter of configuring individual futures but was essential in positioning select diamonds as ethical at a time when the gemstones’ capacity to signify love was undermined by global blood diamonds campaigns.
My aim here has been to outline locally situated meanings and consequences of the register of readiness. The malleability of soft skills as a conceptual apparatus lends itself to existing ideas about language, culture, ethnicity, and morality. The exclusion of some citizens from national narratives of “the good life” are easily reframed as a question of attitude. Educational ideologies like “skills gap” and “getting the right attitude” eventually come to both explain and attempt to solve the copresence of mineral wealth and the uneven distribution of everyday difficulties in Canada’s North.
As Asif Agha (2011) points out, classical political economy (from Smith to Marx) views the commodity through a restrictive focus on phases of manufacture and exchange (and hence on “labor” and “exchange value”). In this classical formulation, “the sign-values of commodities across the entire range of their ideologically inflected deployments in everyday life are brushed aside as ‘use-value’” (Marx 1992: 23). He advises that we attend to the ways in which phase-specific commodity formulations yield registers of conduct, and notice all of the semiotic activities through which they are recycled and transformed in social life. Here I have highlighted how the commodity formulation “diamonds as development” begins well before production and yields registers of conduct for states and citizens that endure beyond a mine’s lifecycle. I am making the case for an ethnographic and historical approach that is better able to understand the consequential nature of new forms of ethical use values and the linguistic registers they favor.
By attending to curriculum design and classroom talk, I illustrated how a register of readiness, assumed by curriculum designers to be an index of individuals prepared for entry into the demanding work cycle of an underground miner, was for trainees at odds with how they understood themselves and their experiences as workers. For them, many features of the register of readiness were associated with femininity, or whiteness, and often both. More important than mismatched interpretations of a speech style, the register of readiness emphasized inward investigation over social critique and thus became crucial in managing the impermanence of resource extraction. Registers of readiness trivialized trainee critique and concerns about the structural problems associated with resource work. In the process, the instability of resource economies was ultimately turned back onto trainee’s psychological states. Said plainly, trainee critiques were evaluated as “blaming,” and disappeared job opportunities were re-framed as “opportunities to exercise patience.”
Soft skills have been evaluated critically by social scientists as a broad and amorphous group of personal characteristics that includes things like attitudes toward work, flexibility, and character.7 Under the banner of neoliberalism, many have been quick to point out that the turn to soft skills emphasizes self-transformation over structural change (Cremin 2009; Hughes 2005; Purser and Hennigan 2017). Here I connect critical evaluations of soft skills to anthropological work concerned with ethical commodities on the one hand (Berlan 2012; Besky 2013; Carrier 2010; Grasseni 2013) and the social life of corporate (mining) forms on the other (Golub 2014; Kirsch 2014; F. Li 2009, 2011; Rajak 2011; Welker 2014; Welker et al. 2011). I showed how semiotic work to produce “ethical” brands is linked to face-to-face interactions, not only among workers and corporate representatives, sellers, and consumers, but also among those on whose behalf ethical development plans are made. What I want to underscore here is that the promotion of soft skills in the context of mining hard rocks cannot fully be understood as merely a poor attempt to produce ideal workers, although it is that too. Diamonds from Canada, marketed as ethical commodities, require would-be workers as much as they need laborers in the pits. The underemployed are crucial to the promotion of diamonds as development. The register of readiness mediates the contradiction of unpredictable job promises by recasting dried-up opportunities as “opportunities to exercise patience” and thereby thwart trainee critique and maintain the brand reputation of Canadian diamonds locally and globally. And while mining does not make jobs for those on the margins, for those with resource entangled futures, it does contain a possibility that things might be different—that one day we might be “set for life.”
Fieldwork for this article was made possible by a grant from Canada’s Northern Scientific Training Program and an Ontario Graduate Scholarship. This article took shape through a fellowship at the School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe, New Mexico. I am grateful for the support of the other fellows, especially Gretchen Purser and Mindy Morgan. An earlier version of this article was presented to Hamilton College’s Department of Anthropology. I would like to thank Bonnie Urciuoli and Chaise LaDousa for their insights. This article also benefited from engagement at a Wenner Gren Foundation workshop on the Anthropology of Precious Minerals. I thank Andrew Walsh, Annabel Vallard, Elizabeth Ferry, and other participants for their comments, especially Filipe Calvão. Sincere thanks to Monica Heller, Bonnie McElhinny, Gavin Smith, Sari Pietikäinen, Keith Murphy, Sarah Hillaweart, and David Knapp for comments on earlier drafts of this article. This piece was finalized through my time as a “Language for a Changing Society” fellow in Discourse Studies at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.
Like other studies of job training programs in North America, Ready for the Job’s curriculum design reflected larger policy trends that individualize impoverishment and demand the transfiguration of individual subjectivity (Halushka 2016; Purser and Hennigan 2017).
Of the 10 trainees who enrolled in the course, the analysis that follows is based on the experiences of the 6 trainees I came to know not only through the course but also in our correspondences after. I would later speak with trainees who had taken Ready for the Job in other communities to see if my findings matched their experience. They did.
For an important, participatory study of Indigenous employment and training, see Abele (1989).
This kind of commoditization of the self is well documented in the tourism sector. In particular, linguistic and cultural minorities who turn to tourism as an economic strategy in postindustrial times. In the case of francophone Canada, see Monica Heller et al. (2016) for a discussion on the “ideal” forms of French required to sell to francophone Canada. Beard-Moose (2009) looks at the case of the Cherokee in eastern North Carolina to track the ways in which cultural tourism threatens other forms of cultural expression and revival. This trend is not restricted to minority populations. Handler and Gable (1997) discuss the cultivation of “good vibes” ethos among employees in heritage tourism at Fort Williamsburg as a means to not make history “too tense” for visitors.
Max is a composite of multiple people in industry education administration as the community is very small and individuals would be easily identifiable. All other names are pseudonyms.
Encouraging positivity, optimism, and a general self-help ethos is not uncommon in programming for North American underclasses. The increasing hybridization of self-help and formal modes of social service in the United States documented by Fairbanks (2009), Goode and Maskovsky (2002), and Carr (2011).
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