With mining policies that favor multinational corporations and a long-standing political model of invading Indigenous land, Canada has spawned industrial leaders like Barrick Gold that undertake massive mining projects worldwide, with complicity in the environmental damage and human rights abuses that result. That’s why Occupy Toronto commemorated May Day with an overnight campout and daylong protest in front of Barrick’s Annual General Meeting at the Toronto Convention Centre.
Amani Mhinda traveled from Tanzania with a legal proxy to attend the AGM, but was denied entrance. So, from the “place of consciousness and humanity” created by Occupy across the street, he commemorated Mary Otaigo who died from illness caused by mine-induced water pollution downstream from Barrick’s North Mara mine. Pieter Basedow of U of T’s Science for Peace read a statement from the Porgera Alliance, who annually petition Barrick about the crisis created by Canadian millionaires in their home territory in Papua New Guinea:
Our request – the solution – is to relocate our people to an area where we can live away from the mine, away from the daily environmental hazards, the militarization, the detentions, the shootings and the rapes. We want to live in an area where we can live a subsistence lifestyle, where our garden areas aren't over run with waste.
As this statement is being read, Porgera is being occupied by 120 soldiers, sent there on Barrick's request. We need an apology for the the continual human rights abuses that we endure, and compensation for the victims…
Every year we have brought our complaints to this board, only to have our suffering ignored and the situation get worse.
The Porgera people’s experience is not unique. Citing over 8 million deaths in the wars fed by pursuit of the mineral wealth in one of the world’s most resource-rich countries, a representative of the Congolese Community in Toronto called upon Canadians to “inform themselves about the roles of the Canadian mining corporations in Africa, in Latin America and particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
On the weekend of May 5 and 6, resistance action moved to the Mining Injustice Conference at the University of Toronto. Activists from mining-affected areas in Canada and abroad revealed that, in this era of the open-pit mine, they don’t struggle only for a share of the wealth: they struggle for life itself. Most minerals are found not in “native” or pure form but in tiny quantities inside rocks. Land isn’t tunneled under but scraped clean of life, smashed and leached with vast quantities of water and toxic substances like sulphuric acid, cyanide and mercury. These early refining stages, which poison the waters and create tons of toxic waste, are done on site: our companies don’t haul tons of rock home to Toronto for refining. Cleanup may be part of initial mining agreements but it rarely happens, and is impossible in a pulverized, poisoned landscape.
“When the mining companies leave,” said Bodia Macharia of Friends of the Congo, “You can’t grow anything, and there’s no more minerals, no more money.”
Canada’s not the only big player in these international mining scenarios, but it’s one of the most powerful: a “go-to” place for investment, technical and policy strategies. Its mining acts regard minerals as the highest use of the land, prioritizing their extraction over other layers of law, including foundational constitutions, treaties and agreements. Though local and downstream communities endure the damage, benefits go to individuals and companies exploiting the resource. According to mining unionist Francisco Ramirez Cuellar, “Colombia has the largest open-pit coal mine in the world. Colombia has not gained one dollar, but endures persecutions, displacement… We ask why is this mine even operating? It’s killing us, and the planet.”
The poverty of Indigenous communities within Canada is directly related to this kind of arrangement. Even as De Beers pulled diamonds from their territories, the people of Attawapiscat became world famous for the health-threatening cheapness of their Indian Affairs-built housing, water and sewage infrastructure. Michel Thursky of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake says that $100 million per year are taken out of Barriere Lake territories “without a cent going into our community.”
Canada could have pioneered different policy directions, for groundbreaking work was done here on agreements that tip the balance in favor of human rights and environmental responsibility. These included a 1991 Tri-Lateral Agreement with Barriere Lake that was called “an environmental trailblazer” and a “model of co-existence.” But, in Canada’s time-dishonored way of working with Indigenous peoples, provincial and federal governments failed to keep their end of the agreement.
Instead of building on such models, Canada furiously pedaled backward. In 2010, the Harper government imposed section 74 of the Indian Act, to supplant the Algonquins’ traditional direct democracy with an elected council it expects to be more amenable to Canada’s agendas. The 97% of band members who boycotted the vote oppose these deals. “We cannot negotiate away fundamental rights that came from our ancestors and have been here since before the government was here,” said Thursky. “We cannot do that to our children.” But it’s not a fair fight. Communities that resist incur massive legal costs even as resource companies pull wealth from their lands.
Canada assists the export of its model of invasion and extraction throughout the world. Colombia’s Cuellar noted that CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) has helped to restructure mining policy in Colombia, to favor the transnational companies. Like other international speakers, he accused CIDA of helping to “create legal environments” where paramilitary organizations (the kind responsible for slaughter and rape in New Guinea, Africa and Latin America) “operate with impunity.” To maintain sweetheart deals that funnel money into the pockets of tycoons, shareholders and corrupt politicians, mining companies hire paramilitary forces to deal with those who organize their communities to resist.
“Because of the model imposed on Colombia,” Cuellar cited, “200,000 people have been assassinated, 5.2 million displaced, and 61,000 disappeared. 4,000 union leaders have been assassinated.” In places like the Congo, such campaigns include rapes on a massive scale, an instrument of terror that Bodia Macharia calls “hacking into the womb of the nation.”
Speakers pointed to Free Trade Agreements as supporting what Colombia’s Andres Idarraga Franco refers to as “national plunder.” He noted that these agreements “prioritize the rights of corporations over the rights of communities” and “generate ambivalence between human rights and the ‘rights’ of Capital.” Franco doesn’t see the possibility of “more humane, more just” FTAs, but emphasizes that they must be opposed “unequivocally.” Every form of local decision-making large and small has been rendered impotent by Free Trade Agreements that give life-and-death powers to corporate entities that have no democratic accountability.
The Colombian Network Against Large-Scale Mining, brings together seventy organizations representing communities that have been affected by large-scale mining. Franco listed the common ground these diverse organizations established:
1) They oppose large-scale trans-national mining.
2) They combat displacement: On national and international levels, current mining law takes away human rights and expels people and entire communities from their territories.
3) Sovereignty: “Without it, we cannot determine the future of our lands and resources.”
Other mining activists are in consensus with Franco that: “An immediate task is to recuperate national sovereignty so we can, in an autonomous way, manage our natural resources and determine our communities’ futures.” Thursky of the Barriere Lake Algonquins affirmed: “Recognize who we are as a people with a land-base. Then we can co-exist and live in harmony.” Bodia Macharia noted that her homeland was originally stable and wealthy but “from the time of the decline of the Kingdom of the Congo it has been run by foreigners.” She clarified that mercenaries operating from Uganda and Burundi pursue what has been misrepresented as civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: “The international community that is on top of the mining mafia has to stop pulling the triggers on their puppets.” Congolese died for rubber, and are dying now in the rush for gold and coltan, a material in demand for cell-phones.
Tanzania is a place where artisanal and small-scale mining is traditionally undertaken, providing cash and trade commodities on a land base that can still feed its people. Amani Mindha charged that companies like Barrick pressure the nation to cater to multinationals: using law to exclude small-scale mining (forcing traditional miners to go through the same environmental assessments needed for land-altering large-scale mining), offering money incentives to exclude small-scale mining, and finally, “brutal force.”
According to Mindha, such pressures resulted in over a million missing Tanzanians, while employment amounted to 14,000 unskilled jobs. “We are trying to revive our unions,” said Mindha, “but we don’t have the skills or the organization.” Canadian unions can help, but it takes incredible courage. Cuellar noted: “Union workers have the highest level of political violence” against them. Noting that Drummond closed a coal mine in Alabama to operate on the cheap in Colombia, he emphasized, “That’s why we need solidarity.” Defending our local economies can spare communities abroad.
Noting that May marks the twentieth anniversary of the Westray Mining Disaster in which 26 Canadian miners were killed, Ilan Barbano of CUPE cautioned: “Conditions in Canada are better than in Tanzania and Colombia, not because the employers are better but because the unions were stronger and had community support.” In recent years, Canadian unions have lost ground on all fronts, including vital health and safety, and unionists noted a corresponding increase in fatalities.
Many speakers represented unions of mine workers, and all had a complex take on what it means to extract minerals for use in the contemporary, connected world. The problem is seen as political: a wasteful political and economic philosophy with a chilling tolerance for environmental destruction and human rights abuse. Therefore the solutions are political: confronting the powerful economic and political interests that undermine land and life. The activists see mining as an industry that needs to be approached with caution and thought for the future. Said Cuellar: “We are a mining union but we don’t believe in mining any place at any price… It cannot be done at the cost of the planet. We don’t need gold to keep in a hole. We need some in the computer.” Similarly, Machura noted that electronics laced with precious minerals should not be treated as disposable, or as toys: “I tell my daughter, ‘I’m not getting you an iPad. You’re going to read, to walk, to run. I’ll get you a skateboard.’”
Speakers questioned whether mining is an appropriate use of the land in sensitive areas. Indigenous communities prioritize their roles as stewards of their watersheds, both in their territories and downstream. Michel Thursky notes that Barriere Lake lands are at the “headwaters of the Ottawa and Gatineau rivers.” Elizabeth Babin of Wahgoshig First Nation in Northern Ontario fears for the water table in her nation’s territory: the home of one of the “purest waters in the world.”
Conference speakers suggested plans of action large and small. Said Cuellar: “We’ve come to implore the unions that your pension funds not be invested in companies that bleed our country and our people.”
People from the Congolese diaspora insist that Canadians get behind Bill C-323, which holds Canadian companies accountable for human rights violations that occur in the context of their activities abroad. They invite people to accompany them in their frequent rallies that take place twice a month, to hold mining corporations accountable.
American professor and author Avi Chomsky noted: “The world we live in was shaped by mining. It dispossessed Indigenous peoples and enslaved African people… We have created surplus populations and unemployment: people who have no place in the new economy are also dispossessed of traditional sustenance.” Changing this system involves “working closely and in solidarity with communities affected by mining.”
As the home base of some of the biggest mining multinationals, Canada offers plenty of opportunity for international solidarity, and many Indigenous communities within Canada urgently need support. The KI people, Barriere Lake and Wahgoshig First Nation are resisting but as Elisabeth Babin says: “There is only so much out there that you can hold, and meanwhile the mining company is moving in with all its resources: taking the gold and affecting the water.”
Evans Rubara of Tanzania concluded: “The greatest need of the day is for us as humanity to embrace Ubuntu spirit and say ‘You are because I am,’ and without me, you are not. If you fight my fight, if you support my cause, then we support the protection of Mother Earth, and we support humanity.”
Bill C-323: <http://www.parl.gc.ca/LegisInfo/BillDetails.aspx?billId=5138027&Language=E&Mode=1&View=3>
Some speakers are on youtube: <http://www.youtube.com/user/MiningInjustice?feature=watch>