Silence and Stories: Labour, Marijuana, and Rural British Columbia

Rural British Columbia; Photo by Dr. John Bodner
Rural British Columbia; Photo by Dr. John Bodner

Most studies of the marijuana industry prior to legalization examined the consumer side of the sector. Dr. John Bodner, a Professor of Folklore at Grenfell Campus, was interested in learning more about the labour, lives, and livelihoods of those who illegally produce it. To do so he travelled to rural British Columbia (BC) where the production of illegal marijuana serves as a major part of the underground economies of many small communities.

“I’m interested in marginal communities, and people who have been left behind by neo-liberalism, and I’m interested in how rural people and communities survive,”

explains Bodner.

“I’m not really interested in the consumer side of it, I’m interested in ‘who grows your pot, and what do their lives look like.’ How does the industry come to shape the lives of the communities that depend upon that money.”

The underground and informal economies encompass economic activity that is either illegal or simply not regulated by the state. These economies, far from being disconnected from the formal, or state-regulated, economy, often interact with it in numerous ways. Indeed, as of 2010, the illegal marijuana industry was estimated by some to have been contributing billions of dollars a year to Canada and employing hundreds of thousands. But much as with the formal economy, few people who consume the product know much about those producing that product. Bodner states:

“The public culture of marijuana that most people know is a consumer culture of marijuana… The same way that we don’t care about who made a five dollar-shirt, we just care that it’s five dollars and don’t want it to be six dollars.” 

A marijuana plant; Photo by Dr. John Bodner
A marijuana plant; Photo by Dr. John Bodner

Isolation: Social and Geographic

The nature of illegal marijuana production is inherently isolating, as Bodner’s research has shown. Producers often work either alone or in small groups in remote areas where local authorities are not present. Workers are then further socially isolated by the fact that their labour, though a major part of their life, cannot be discussed openly. This can have significant effects on the nature of the stories that producers tell and how they perceive their own identity.

“These are people who usually work alone, or with one or two other people,”

Bodner points out.

“They can’t talk about their job; they can’t complain about their job. Imagine if you could never talk about what you did as a job, ever. One of things that I’m interested in is the stories people tell about their job, and it’s trite but it’s true that storytelling is a kind of therapy; we tell stories about our job for a number of reasons but largely it’s about creating and protecting a sense of identity.”

Where hard work is normally seen as a positive attribute in employment, for many of those interviewed there was a deep disconnect between the intensive labour involved in their work and the social perception of it, as Bodner elaborates:

“We value hard workers, and one of the things about being a pot grower is that it’s incredibly hard work. But you never get that identity, a shared identity, even amongst your close friends…. One very provocative line from one participant was ‘we’re buried people’.”

Bodner points out that the vast majority of marijuana is grown by small independent operators, not by organized criminal groups and gangs, but the stigma of large organized, or gang, criminal activity is often still associated with this work. In order to keep the nature of their employment separate from the rest of their lives these independent operators frequently self-edit when in public or engaging with others. This self-editing was also a common theme of the interviews conducted during this research. Participants would often take moments of silence to think out their responses, a pacing and act of storytelling that is of particular interest in Folklore research:

“Although I haven’t started working on it yet, I think silence is going to take a up a good chunk of what I’m writing about here. You think, when you’re doing interviews, that the point of interviews is to have sound coming out of somebody’s face, and we tend to be very focused on words, and we don’t tend to be very focused on silence and what’s not said. So much of the interviews about people were them saying ‘I can’t tell you things; I’d like to tell you things, but I can’t tell you things.’ There’s places in the interviews where you can see there’s silence and people are trying to figure out the next step of the story they want to tell me, knowing that there are things that they won’t be telling me.”

Dr. John Bodner
Dr. John Bodner

Family and Legalization

Family is a key consideration for many involved in this work and work itself can have severe consequences for those with dependents. For those living in rural BC, with few other options for employment, marijuana production can be a lifeline, especially when trying to provide for others. But it’s a lifeline that comes with risks. Benefits can result from being able to live closer to their home communities and families but some worry about the long and short-term consequences.

“One individual that I interviewed, oddly enough, said that he got back in to growing pot so he could be closer to his family,”

states Bodner.

“His particular skills set had him working in Alberta, and he had small children at the time, and his particular skill set had him leaving them for months at a time…. On the other side there was an interviewee who talked about the strain of knowing that social services could take your child away from you.”

For some the production of marijuana is being passed on to the next generation, something which concerned one person interviewed as part of the research, as they feared passing on the isolation that came with this work. With legalization Bodner also has concerns about what will happen to rural communities’ economies, now that much of the profit from production is going to corporations rather than smaller producers.

“My own field site ended just before legalization was happening, but from research by others, it will decimate small growers…. You’ve taken a large amount of money, billions and billions of dollars, out of the hands of small growers in marginalized communities and put it in the hands of corporations that are largely growing in urban, or near urban, areas.”

Written and edited by Conor Curtis; Additional editing by Dr. John Bodner and Pamela Gill



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