Wherever Canadian mining companies operate, they have an indelible imprint on the social, political and environmental realities in which they insert themselves. In countries that are politically unstable or where a culture of impunity is permitted to thrive, that imprint can span generations with successive mining companies following in the footsteps of their predecessors.
While much of the controversy surrounding Canada’s extractive industry centers on oil and gas projects like SWN Resources’ drilling plans in New Brunswick, Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline and the widely felt impact of Tar Sands extraction in Alberta, there is a significant lack of debate concerning Canada’s larger and much more influential mining sector.
It’s estimated that 75% of the world’s mining and exploration companies are based in Canada. Collectively, they account for 42 billion dollars of Canada’s gross domestic product, making mining and exploration one of Canada’s most economically powerful sectors. Some 40% of global mining capital is raised on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The impact of Canada’s mining sector, however, goes far beyond mere facts and figures.
Wherever Canadian mining companies operate, they have an indelible imprint on the social, political and environmental realities in which they insert themselves. In countries that are politically unstable or where a culture of impunity is permitted to thrive, that imprint can span generations with successive mining companies following in the footsteps of their predecessors. Such is the legacy of shame that the Maya Q’eqchi people in Guatemala have been forced to endure for the last half century.
The “Fenix” Mining Project in El Estor, Guatemala. Established in 1965 as the EXMIBAL nickel mine owned by Canadian mining firm INCO, the project was transferred to the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN) in 2005 after the expiration of the original 40-year license. CGN was the local subsidiary of Canadian Skye Resources, a junior mining company comprised of former INCO directors. Skye was bought by HudBay in 2008, and the project sold to the Russian-based Solway group in 2011.
For the average Canadian, the effects of mining and other forms of resource extraction are not immediately apparent; indeed, those who tend to benefit the most from such projects also tend to be shielded from the harsh realities that befall those who are affected by them, as Mi’kmaq lawyer and activist Pam Palmater told Intercontinental Cry (IC).
“The people who benefit are separated from the people who pay the social and environmental price,” she added.
For more than two years, Palmater, who leads the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, worked closely with Mathias Colomb Cree Nation (MCCN) Chief Arlen Dumas, who, in 2013, served two Stop Work Orders to Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Ltd (Hudbay) in connection to the Lalor mine project in Northern Manitoba. According to Chief Dumas, Hudbay failed to obtain MCCN consent to operate its proposed mine, situated on unceded MCCN lands. Soon after the Stop Work Orders were delivered, Hudbay sought out and obtained a court injunction against Palmater and Chief Dumas, restraining them and others from interfering with access to the company’s property.
A long line of Canadian mining companies have adopted a similar modus operandi, avoiding their constitutional obligation to consult, accommodate or even inform First Nations before seeking approval of mining projects that could adversely affect their indigenous rights.
Far more companies have been under fire for human rights abuses and other transgressions that took place outside of Canada. Among them, there is Barrick Gold, Fortuna Silver, Sherritt International, IAMGOLD, Curis Resources, Tahoe Resources Inc., Denison Mines Corp., First Majestic Silver, TVI Resource Development, Inc., Nevsun Resources Ltd., New Gold Inc., and GoldCorp.
In their unyielding pursuit for justice and accountability, Indigenous Peoples are presently pursuing at least three of these companies in Canada’s court system. Foremost among them is Hudbay Minerals.
In 2010, Toronto-based law firm Klippensteins Barristers & Solicitors filed a set of civil suits against Hudbay Minerals on behalf of Maya Q’eqchi people in Guatemala who suffered three separate injustices in connection to the Fenix Mining Project in El Estor municipality near the Pacific Coast.
The ongoing case against Hudbay Minerals centers on the actions of its former subsidiary Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN) and security forces hired by CGN between 2007 and 2009, specifically the murder of Adolfo Ich Chaman, a respected community leader; the attempted murder of German Chub, who was paralyzed after being shot at close range; and the gang rape of eleven women.
The case is widely considered to be a major step forward to holding the Canadian mining sector to account for its actions abroad.
The story of Hudbay in Guatemala goes back several decades to another Canadian mining company, INCO (now Brazilian company Vale). Linking together the history of INCO and Hudbay in this Central American country is crucial to understanding not only the Canadian mining sector but also its role around the world.
A favourable ruling could have far-reaching implications not only for Hudbay but for the entire Canadian mining sector. The possibility that anyone who suffers at the hands of a Canadian mining company could turn to Canada for their day in court could very well change the face of the industry.
Katherine Fultz, visiting Instructor of Anthropology at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA, who has studied opposition to mining in the Highlands of Guatemala, told IC by phone that community referendums as a tool to resist mining projects are also gaining popularity among mine-affected communities.
These community referendums have rejuvenated anti-mining activism in the highlands of Guatemala leading many communities to take direct legal action against the Guatemalan government to protest mining on a national level.
Recently, the Guatemalan constitutional court ordered the suspension of two hydro-power mega projects (Vega I and Vega II) for failure to properly consult with affected Indigenous communities. Other mining projects have also been suspended due to lack of consultation with indigenous communities. In one case, the rural community of Zunil in the municipality of Quetzaltenango carried out referendums (consulta) declaring their territory to be a mining free zone.
An avenue that Canadians can use to stop international human rights abuses by mining companies may one day be found in Canada. In 2009, Liberal MP for Scarborough-Guildwood John McKay introduced Bill C-300 as a private members bill to the Canadian House of Commons. The bill called for the creation of an ombudsperson that would oversee Canadian mining firms. Bill C-300 ultimately lost by six votes in 2009, even though the NDP and Liberals held a majority in the House of Commons at the time. McKay said in a recent interview that, although he thinks existing structures that oversee mining companies need to be strengthened, re-introducing the bill is a high priority for the Liberal government.
Instead of the provisions in Bill C-300, Canadian mining and extraction companies fall under “Building the Canadian Advantage” (BCA) which the Conservative government put in place instead of Bill C-300. Viewed by critics as an irresponsible PR gimmick, BCA moved Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) funds to support community projects run by Canadian mining companies and created a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) councilor to mediate disputes between affected communities and mining companies. None of these provisions, however, are binding; and while there is strong language about protecting human rights in BCA they are little more than guidelines that companies are under no obligation to follow.
The historical and contemporary case of Canadian mining companies operating in Central America shows that one should have no illusions about the role these companies play around the world. While building more north-south solidarity and mine-affected communities holding referendums are positive steps on the road to justice, there is the bigger issue related to the way that mining is tied to larger social, political, environmental and economic realities.
In an interview with Canadian Dimension Magazine, Alain Deneault, who was sued along with his co-author and publisher by Barrick Gold for the exposé Noir Canada, ties together the issues of over-consumption and planned obsolescence to the mining industry. “If we could put all of these questions on the agenda at the same time, we could say, okay, maybe it’s worthwhile to dig that hole in that specific area because we need zinc, but we’ll use it carefully. We’ll exploit zinc carefully because we’ll make sure that what we dig out will be recycled in many objects that we will use.” Deneaut went on to advocate for the creation of a permanent and independent commission of inquiry that would have powers to not only inquire into the activities of corporations but also summon their representatives to appear and submit documents.
For now, the more the Canadian public is informed about the activities of Canadian mining companies, the better. Pam Palmater advocates for a broad approach to bring Canadian mining companies abuses to light and urges that we work together to fight for our collective futures.