Zinc mine Zinc Mine, Photo: Vicki, Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, link at bottom of article

The destructive greed and predatory role of Canada’s mining companies has led to horrific events in the Perkoa Mine, writes John Clarke.

Eight miners have been trapped in a flooded zinc mine since April 16 in the west African nation of Burkina Faso. The Perkoa Mine is owned by a Canadian company, Trevali Mining Corporation, which is headquartered in Vancouver. Horribly, it is now clear that none of the workers were able to make it to a refuge chamber where they might have found safety. There are still hopes that at least some of them may have been able to access a second such location within the mine.

A judicial review is now underway of the circumstances behind the flooding of the mine, which occurred after heavy rainfall. Prime Minister Albert Ouedraogo has suggested “that there had been “irresponsibility” on the part of those in charge of the mine. He also claimed that, in the days before the accident, “dynamite was used on the open-air [part of the] mine, which weakened the [underground] gallery and enabled the flooding.”’ He added that “Precautionary measures have been taken to prevent the persons in charge of the mine from leaving the country and instructions have been given firmly to the Minister of Security for this.

It has been reported that families of the missing miners have “filed lawsuits against ‘persons unknown’ for attempted manslaughter, endangering life and failing to assist a person in danger.” However, a representative of the advocacy group MiningWatch Canada bleakly asserted that “I would be very surprised if there were actual repercussions for the company or its senior executives” and added that “The problem of effective impunity when our Canadian companies operate overseas is alive and well.”

Global predators

The terrible events unfolding in Burkina Faso are but one example of the predatory role that Canadian mining companies engage in on a global scale. Some 75% of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada and they are engaged in thousands of projects on an ongoing basis. Their track record of exploitation and environmental degradation is well established and has been copiously documented.

When local communities resist the encroachment of mining operations, they often face violence from local state forces or private security guards employed by the Canadian companies. In 2010, the late Peter Munk of Barrick Gold, responding to allegations of human rights abuses by his company in New Guinea, told the media that “By moving into these countries and developing their mines, we provide — way beyond the importance of money — we provide human dignity.” Nine years later, Barrick CEO Mark Bristow “downplayed the role of Barrick in alleged incidents of rape, arson, and assault by mine guards in Tanzania, saying that Acacia Mining, which employed or hosted the guards, operates independently of Barrick, even though they are Acacia’s majority stakeholder.

Canadian governments and their diplomatic services function as the enthusiastic enablers of predatory mining companies, whose representatives enjoy direct access to the highest levels of government. “Between January 2018 and April 2019, representatives from the Mining Association of Canada (MAC) and Prospector & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) met government officials on no fewer than 530 separate occasions. Lobbyists met officials in the prime minister’s office alone thirty-three times.”

The courts in Canada have also played a dutiful role in protecting mining and broader corporate interests from attempts to obtain redress by their victims. In 2019, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear a case put forward by Bangladeshi victims of the notorious Rana Plaza disaster, in which a garment factory collapsed, killing 1,130 people. The court decided that the Canadian Loblaws company, though it was being supplied with clothing from the facility, had no ‘duty of care’ towards those who were killed and injured. Regardless of the profits the company made from the lethal conditions the workers faced, Canada’s highest court ruled that “The imposition of liability [on Loblaws] is unfair given that the defendants are not responsible for the vulnerability of the plaintiffs, did not create the dangerous workplace, had no control over the circumstances that were dangerous, and had no control over the employers or employees or other occupants of Rana Plaza.”

This legal impunity is being challenged, however, by people in Guatemala who have faced assault and sexual violence at the hands of security guards employed by Canadian mining interests. Thanks to the courage and determination of Guatemalan women, who were the victims of such brutality, the mining company Hudbay faces a lawsuit in the Canadian court system. As one of these women, Margarita Caal Caal, stated, “We didn’t come to Canada to tell lies. With God’s help, our whole truth will come out. It hurts to remember what happened that day… I lost my baby because of what all those men did to me. All I want now is to tell my truth to the judge.”

It must be stressed that the destructive conduct of these mining companies also plays out within the borders of Canada, where the lives of Indigenous communities are often impacted. Last year, Inuit people in the northern territory of Nunavut blocked the Mary River mine on Baffin Island to challenge efforts by the owners to double the output of in iron ore mining operations. “Inuit are being asked to carry so much risk, with very little benefit, or benefits that come in the form of money, which can’t replace our culture or the wildlife or our harvesting practices,” said one of their representatives. Such manifestations of the impact of ‘resource colonialism’ on Indigenous people are widespread and increasing in their intensity.

“Corporate responsibility”

Since coming to power, in 2015, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has continued to serve the needs of Canadian mining companies. “While Trudeau and his party might pay lip service to environmental and labor rights, in practice, they have served to prop up Canada’s predatory, globe-trotting mining industry.” Four years after taking power, the Liberals finally established the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) and, after two more years, CORE heard its first cases.

So farcical are the activities of this ‘corporate watchdog,’ that, in 2019, “all fourteen of the union and NGO representatives advising on CORE’s work resigned, complaining that the government had ignored everything they said.” Ludicrously, CORE has no power to compel companies to hand over the information it needs to conduct its investigations. Clearly, the near impunity under which Canadian mining operators conduct themselves is still intact.

Sharing a border with the United States, the world’s hegemonic global exploiter, Canada is often viewed as a much milder operator on the world stage. It is important to understand how false this picture is and that Canada is, in its own right, an imperialist power. In the case of its ‘globe-trotting mining industry,’ it’s destructive greed in unrivalled.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.