What's Yours is Mined: Confronting the Abuses of the Canadian Mining Industry
Ask anyone around the world what they think of Canada’s role on the world stage and you may find that they hold a primarily positive view of our country. Indeed, Canada has consistently ranked highly in the minds of the international community in terms of its positive influence on the world. But for all the pride Canadians may have in their cooperativeness and benevolence, there is at least one glaring dark spot on Canada’s international record: our mining industry.
The long reach of Canada’s mining industry extends across the world, from Southeast Asia and Latin America to Africa. According to a report from the Canadian Center for the Study of Resource Conflict, Canadian mining firms have increasingly been implicated in cases of environmental degradation, and abuses of human rights.
The report found that 34% of the 171 companies identified in mining industry-involved incidents were headquartered in Canada. The Center identifies such incidents as involving damage to local cultures and economies, often sparking violent protests, as well as a negative impact on ecosystems in regions in which these companies operate.
Reports of Violence and Abuse
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) published a 2014 report that described disruptive practices performed by the mining industry in Latin America. The report detailed environmentally damaging industry practices such as the contamination of waterways, and and the clearcutting of forests, leading to an increased risk to the health of indigenous populations. The IACHR also reported that mining firms forced the displacement and impoverishment of communities while falsely promising economic benefits.
The report goes on to state that those who protest against the encroachment of multinational corporations on the self-determination of local communities are often labeled as violent, and in some cases are identified as terrorists. Opponents to mining projects in Latin America are frequently threatened, and are in some cases killed for their position of resistance.
In Guatemala, for example, the local and Canadian governments have worked closely in order to develop mining operations in the Latin American country in the aftermath of its decades-long civil war. Men with ties to the Guatemalan military during the civil war are now employed by security groups contracted at mines owned by several Canadian mining firms. These groups are accused of various human rights violations, including the rape and murder of local residents.
In Africa, Barrick Gold, a Toronto-based mining firm, has also come under heavy scrutiny for the dozens of deaths and injuries at the hands of local police forces near its Tanzanian North Mara gold mine. Inhabitants of the area around the gold mine often attempt to enter the mine in order to extract small pieces of gold. They are frequently met with disproportionate violence from the local police forces hired by Barrick Gold to guard the mine.
Human Rights Watch released a report criticizing Barrick Gold for similar abuses in Papua New Guinea. The Porgera gold mine located in the nation has been the site of a series of brutal gang rapes perpetrated by Porgera security guards employed by Barrick Gold. The victims were targeted for their unauthorized foraging for gold in Porgera waste dumps. In the wake of this tragedy, Barrick Gold was pressured to modestly compensate the women.
Co-opting Courts and Governments
The mining industry has also made use of the international court system in order to sue national governments for not complying with free-trade agreements. In 2009, Canadian mining firm Pacific Rim unsuccessfully sued the El Salvadorian government for $250 million for withholding mining permits despite the government’s allegation that the firm did not comply with environmental regulations.
Similarly, after the Romanian government withdrew support for a gold mining project by Gabriel Resources in the Roșia Montană village in 2014, the firm sued the Romanian government for $4.4 billion (an amount representing 2% of the country’s projected 2017 GDP) for allegedly infringing on international investment agreements. Gabriel Resources’ proposed mine would have destroyed mountain peaks, disrupted nearby villages, and also would have also produce 250 million tons of toxic waste produced by gold leaching.
The above examples demonstrate the extent to which Canada’s mining industry is willing to infringe on national sovereignty in order to turn a profit. The global network of free-trade agreements and trade courts have also facilitated the ability of multinational corporations to prosecute sovereign states for daring to defend the interests of local communities. No matter the environmental, economic and cultural concerns of these communities, corporate interests are protected and prioritized by the Canadian government, both at home and abroad.
The same IACHR report mentioned above concurs with this notion. It states that “the mining sector plays a fundamental role in the Canadian government’s efforts to secure a new policy of cooperation with foreign states.” As such, the report notes that the Canadian government acts as a promoter for investment in the mining industry, taking advantage of international cooperation mechanisms in order to sell mining projects in developing countries. While advancing the interests of its mining industry, however, Canada does not mandate that mining firms respect environmental regulations or that it safeguard human rights.
Addressing the Problem
Some attempts have been made to address the egregious practices of Canada’s mining industry. One notable attempt came from Liberal MP John McKay with his proposed Bill C-300 in 2010. The bill sought to increase governmental oversight of the mining industry in order to ensure that it complies with environmental and human rights standards. The bill (notably opposed by Barrick Gold) was narrowly defeated in the House of Commons, to the dismay of human rights groups.
Resisting the authoritarian violence perpetuated by Canada’s mining industry will take more than simple government oversight in order to ensure compliance with regulatory standards. The various human rights abuses and environmental devastation are merely a symptom of the more problematic unchecked expansion of industrial activity across the world. It is the constant pursuit of profit that leads these corporate entities to use the government as a lobbying body, and take advantage of international courts in order to bully sovereign states into opening their borders for extraction. We may attempt to ensure that our mining industry complies with human rights standards, but in doing so we ignore the system of corporate supremacy that allows these abuses to occur in the first place. We must instead address the need for nations and communities to make autonomous decisions regarding their land. We must subordinate the legal claims of industry to the moral claims for a thriving environment. We must value the basic human needs for clean water, food, and good health before we ever value corporate profits.
With these first steps, perhaps Canada may arrive at a point in which we truly live up to our international reputation. In this process of self-improvement, perhaps Canadians may come to prove to the whole world that we are a country worth being proud of.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the McGill Left Review's editorial board.