Canadian mining races to the bottom

By Rob Wipond, February 2013

A new book provides a shocking analysis of environmental destruction and human rights abuses committed by Canadian mining companies abroad—and how we help them do it.

Chandu Claver was born in the small town of Tabuk in the mountainous Cordillera region of the Philippines, near a large copper mine at various times partially owned by Canadian interests. This is where he became a surgeon, got married, and wanted to raise his family. 

He never planned on being a refugee in Victoria.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Claver was running a one-man surgical hospital in Tabuk, while every two months he’d spend a couple of weeks voluntarily bringing health care to remote indigenous villages of the area. Claver himself is indigenous, of the Igorot tribes of the Cordillera. But he was also the son of a loyal mining company doctor, so it was during these sojourns, he says, that his “consciousness” first began developing into that of an activist for human rights.

“I started to see the effects of mining,” says Claver, whose calm, warm demeanour belies the intensity of his feelings. “When you’re working in situations like that, you get to see the poverty, you get to see the oppression, you get to see the state militarization, you get to see the effect on the people. You start to see that people are getting sick because of that, because of the poverty that they are forced to undergo because their lands are being denied them.”

To those familiar with British Columbia aboriginal rights issues, Claver’s explanation of the fundamentally conflicting views in the Philippines is recognizable. “They see that everything around them is connected,” says Claver, who shifts between using “we” or “they” in relation to indigenous peoples. “So the land, the sea, the water, the skies, the minerals, the trees, animals, fauna, all these are connected and comprehensively linked to support life, including people. So they cannot understand how you can actually compartmentalize things, like mine out the minerals without affecting the rest…And when you start saying that this land is for a mining company and nobody else, that’s not something we can grasp. And that’s where it all starts; that’s where the violations of rights start.”

As Tabuk grew and surgeon specialists began arriving, Claver turned to general medical practice. He also increased his volunteering as a leader with the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (cpaphils.org), a multi-sectoral organization of 150 grassroots groups that advocate for indigenous people’s rights. The organization “became very influential and strong,” says Claver.

But in the late 90s, new, even more permissive mining and land expropriation laws were passed. There was also a push towards “free trade” and “globalization,” and, after 9/11, a tightening relationship between the Filipino and US governments. All these factors led to dramatically worsening conditions and tensions around the country. The Philippine military, says Claver, even set up a specialized “Investment Defense Force” to help protect mining companies from the growing protest movements. Worse, “extrajudicial” assassinations became rampant: Since 2001, over 1,500 activists and members of social justice organizations have been killed or “disappeared,” says Claver. None of the attackers have ever been convicted, but, according to Claver, a damning secret document obtained by Philippine media revealed that military intelligence seemed to have begun regarding many legitimate political and non-profit organizations as merely branches of known terrorist and armed rebel groups. 

One day, without warning, Dr Chandu Claver became a target for assassination. 

It was July 31, 2006. “It was a Monday, early morning,” says Claver. “I’d just dropped off my youngest daughter at her school.” He manoeuvred away from the busy curb in the heart of Tabuk and began to head towards the school of his other girls, aged 7 and 11. 

“As I was making a turn, a van cut me off,” says Claver. Next, two people stepped out of the van, raised automatic rifles and unloaded 38 rounds into the Claver family car. One daughter was never hit. Claver’s other daughter took a bullet to the head but, miraculously, it only scraped her scalp. Claver himself took three bullets in the shoulder and one in his abdomen. Claver’s wife of 15 years, Alice, took seven bullets near her heart, and would die on the operating table. 

“[The gunmen] got back into the van and escaped,” he says. Though police were on the scene almost immediately from the nearby police station, adds Claver, “the [gunmen’s] van actually passed through three military and police checkpoints and never got stopped.”

For the next six months, Claver only visited his children surreptitiously and continued to speak out for indigenous rights and for justice for his wife and other victims of extrajudicial killings. But when a medical colleague relayed to Claver a warning about another planned attack on Claver and his children, from a patient who was a sympathetic soldier, Claver decided he couldn’t stay. He and his three daughters landed in Canada in 2007.

Claver felt Canada was a safer place to continue to speak out, although the US would have recognized his medical credentials. “My objectives were twofold: to raise my kids and to continue working for justice,” explains Claver. “Nowhere in those goals said that I have to be a doctor.”

So he’s found a small, affordable rental home and employment as a caregiver and support worker at a Victoria shelter. And he’s begun liaising with church and non-profit groups on behalf of the Victoria Philippine Support Group and Cordillera Peoples Alliance as he tries to raise public awareness about the impacts of mining. 

Claver has also been learning about his new homeland—how destructive a role Canadian mining companies and the Canadian government have been playing in BC, in the Philippines, and around the world, and how few Canadians realize the extent of it. So educating Canadians, says Claver, has become an important part of the process towards getting justice for his wife. 

A powerful new book may help his efforts.

 

Daring to ask why

According to the Canadian federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 75 percent of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada. It’s an astonishing statistic that obviously raises the question, “Why?”

Two Quebec-based academic researchers, Alain Deneault and William Sacher, set out to answer that question in a searing and disturbing new book: Imperial Canada Inc.–Legal Haven of Choice for the World’s Mining Industries. Along the way, the authors examine a parallel troubling question, “Why do so few Canadians know?”

Tellingly, two major Canadian mining corporations have been trying to prevent Canadians from ever seeing this book.

In early 2010, tiny Vancouver publisher Talonbooks announced on its website that Imperial Canada Inc. was being developed with Deneault and other collaborators. Within days, lawyers for the world’s biggest gold mining company, Canadian transnational Barrick, faxed Talonbooks a “demand” for copies of any parts of the manuscript-in-progress that made “direct or indirect reference to Barrick, Sutton Resources Ltd, or to any of their past or present subsidiaries, affiliates, directors or officers.” Barrick also sent the letter to all the authors, collaborators and translators, and threatened to sue everyone if they didn’t like what they saw.

Many promptly quit the project. Talonbooks announced Imperial Canada Inc. was “cancelled.”

“We were scared and we were intimidated,” explains Talonbooks President Kevin Williams. “We were also somewhat outraged by the fact, ‘We haven’t even published the book!’ It felt like an infringement of our civil liberties and our ability to have free speech.”

It wasn’t a complete surprise, though. Barrick had similarly threatened lawsuits in 2008 ahead of publication of Deneault and Sacher’s previous book about Canadian companies in Africa, Noir Canada. Small Quebec publisher Écosociété pushed ahead and, even though less than a couple hundred copies of the French academic book were ever sold, Barrick sued for $6 million and another Canadian mining giant, Banro, sued for $5 million.

From 2008 through 2010, public concern about these threats and developing legal cases spread. Montreal independent daily Le Devoir reported the story. Academics and lawyers posted a petition at freespeechatrisk.ca, where Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein expressed support. Some alternative media covered the story, including The Tyee, Watershed Sentinel, The Walrus and CBC radio. 

Most observers criticized the legal actions as “SLAPPs”—Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. SLAPPs are typically libel lawsuits that corporations use to shut down public criticism by dragging shoestring-budget watchdog groups or small publishers through expensive, time-consuming court processes. Many US states and European countries have crafted anti-SLAPP laws to allow judges to more quickly dismiss cases where libel laws are obviously being abused in this way. Canadian governments, however, have been reluctant to pass anti-SLAPP laws. 

Though the Banro lawsuit continues, an out-of-court settlement was reached with Barrick that Noir Canada would be withdrawn from print. “It was a way for Écosociété and for ourselves to continue the fight in another forum than the legal one,” says Deneault on the phone from Montreal, explaining that he’d rather see the evidence he’s gathered debated freely in public than at mammoth expense in a small courtroom between lawyers. He says the years he’s spent battling has taught him how much the Canadian court system is corrupted by money: “Do you have the money to continue? No? Well, then you have to settle with the conditions of the party that has money to continue.” Continuing, Deneault says, “It’s totally undemocratic. Taxpayers are subsidizing a structure that’s only accessible to wealthy people. It’s not a question of rights, it’s a question of means.”

Talonbooks never did show Barrick Imperial Canada Inc. However, Williams says the book’s content was refocused more on structural, overarching problems than on specific cases and companies. 

“The book was extremely carefully written,” says Williams. “But aside from the fact that it took us two years longer than we would have liked, and we had to pay for the cost of a legal review, in the end we got a very good book…It’s allowing people to have a look at this issue and consider perhaps what we need to do.”

And though mainstream media have so far ignored it, Imperial Canada Inc. is provocative. It’s essentially a 189-page argument, buttressed comprehensively with reference footnotes, that provides an overview of reams of damning research about Canada’s pre-eminent role in mining’s devastating global impacts on both the environment and human rights.

 

Canada the haven

Deneault says he first became interested in the mining industry while studying offshore tax havens. “A haven is a country that allows a wealthy individual, corporation or a bank somewhere in the world to circumvent some kind of constraints,” says Deneault. “There are about 80 or 90 havens in the world. And why is it so? They all have their specific vocation.” Havens like the Cayman Islands, Jamaica or Liechtenstein each offer specialized legal bypasses, he explains, such as 100 percent tax-free revenues, non-existent minimum-wage laws, or ship registration without safety standards.

And Canada, Deneault discovered, has become the top haven for transnational mining companies. Deneault points to the company running the infamous Katanga mine. “It’s a Belgian corporation in the province of Katanga in the Congo. [The senior officers] are all Belgian,” says Deneault. “They registered their company in Toronto. Why? Why did a Belgian company register itself in Toronto to operate in Southern Congo?”

Indeed, the significant, dubious involvement of Canadian-based mining companies and the Canadian government in the war-ravaged Congo will be one of the more disconcerting revelations in the book for most Canadians. Deneault writes about an “avalanche of public documents,” including UN reports, that explicitly criticize Canadian citizens and companies for their roles in the Congo war. 

But for Deneault, that was only the beginning. “We started to discover all sorts of cases, in a lot of countries, involving a lot of corporations,” he says. “And [they were] cases about very important issues. Not about anthropological civilities, but corruption, bribery, arms dealing, collusion with warlords or rebels, partnerships with dictatorships or kleptocrats, and so on.” And these came from many different sources, he says, including UN reports, parliamentary commissions, independent documentaries, academic studies, and organizations such as Mining Watch Canada, Amnesty International and Global Witness. 

Another UN report points to abuses of indigenous peoples around the world and implores the Canadian government to “explore ways to hold transnational corporations registered in Canada accountable for these acts.” Yet instead, as Imperial Canada Inc. lays out in detail, our governments have been actively assisting these corporations with enormous tax breaks and subsidies, lax stock market regulations, diplomatic support, and immunity from prosecution for environmental destruction and human rights abuses overseas.

 

Canadian government support

Imperial Canada Inc. provides evidence showing how our governments help the mining industry with diplomatic support and funding, particularly exploring how Export Development Canada and the Canadian International Development Agency regularly pump millions into mining operations in notoriously troubled areas where mining wealth, civilian poverty and resulting armed conflict are virtually synonymous—like Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia and the Congo. 

“The money [our government] will put into a project is related to the interests Canadian corporations have in that specific project,” says Deneault. He points to two dams on the Senegal River which Canadian International Development Agency aid helped build in the 1980s. “It was a catastrophe,” says Deneault, describing soaked arable lands, collapsed fisheries, new diseases blooming in the stagnant water, and violence erupting amidst diminishing food supplies. 

“And why,” Deneault asks, “were those dams built?” First, he explains, Canadian companies made money building them, and then the dams provided electricity for a Canadian company’s nearby open-pit gold mine, which itself spread streams of deadly arsenic and turned into an environmental and health disaster for local populations. “And they called that a successful project on the web site of the Department of External Affairs,” says Deneault. “It’s a pure contradiction, what [Canada] claims to be and what they do abroad.”

Canada also has a legal framework that makes it impossible to hold these corporations to account in court, says Deneault. Imperial Canada Inc. reviews how over 23,000 Guyanese citizens filed suit against Canadian mining company Cambior after a catastrophic tailings pond accident, but in 1998 Quebec courts simply threw the case out. Just last November, Canada’s Supreme Court summarily dismissed attempts by a coalition of organizations and families of victims to sue Canada’s Anvil Mining for its involvement in a massacre in the Congo. 

One supposes that at least these companies must be golden-milk cows for our own government coffers. But a study by Quebec’s auditor general, for example, found that 14 mining companies with $4.2 billion in revenues from 2002-2008 paid no tax at all, while other mining companies paid a tax rate of about 1.5 percent. Meanwhile, Quebec tax breaks and credits cost taxpayers from 1.5 to 7 times more than mining royalties brought in. 

Investors are also being handsomely compensated, with tax credits of up to 150 percent for investing in companies doing mining exploration. Such figures almost stretch credulity but, commendably, the ImperialCanada.ca website has links for many of the book’s references. That footnote clicks through to a Quebec government tax advisory for mining investors: “…which gives a total possible deduction of 150 percent of the amount invested.”

So why are our governments so supportive of mining companies? 

Deneault shows that our mining industry magnates and political leaders are in many cases the same people, including Brian Mulroney, Paul Desmarais Sr, Jean Chretien, Joe Clark and Brian Tobin. However, the book also presents a more variegated history to how Canada became so mining-friendly.

 

Corrupt stock exchanges and uninformed investors

“Canada is a former colony,” says Deneault. “The public institutions that we created in Canada historically were dedicated to monopolies exploiting natural resources…Canada is fashioned a little like Leopold the Second fashioned the Congo.”

Further, both the Toronto and Montreal stock exchanges developed during Canada’s late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century goldrush eras, establishing their niche as speculative mining markets. Imperial Canada Inc. examines how the two exchanges then competitively raced each other to the bottom to attract companies, including making most regulatory compliance obligations “voluntary.” Today, though the Toronto exchange has become the mining company epicentre, many of those lax practices remain in place at Vancouver (home to nearly half of Canadian mining companies), Toronto and Montreal’s stock exchanges. For example, unlike in most other countries, Canadian publicly-registered companies are allowed to mislead ordinary investors by blurring the lines between “reserves,” which are precisely calculated estimates of a mine’s geology, and “resources,” which are speculative assertions about how much ore might be there. It’s a practice that became infamous during the $6 billion stock market collapse of Calgary’s Bre-X in 1997.

Canada also only requires publicly-traded companies to report to shareholders on issues that a “reasonable investor” would care about—and that’s deemed to be only issues directly affecting market value, not affecting broader society, human rights or the environment. “When we’re reading the documentation related to the [legally required] disclosure of information,” comments Deneault, “it’s always about this ‘reasonable investor’ and what he should know…It’s like a sociological character, defined so. A reasonable investor in that fiction is an investor who only cares about what he has to know with respect to his own private interests.”

Even more unnerving: Most Canadian financial institutions, mutual funds, and major private, public and union pension funds, including the Canada Pension Plan, are heavily invested in this cloaked ethical miasma. “All Canadians are mining shareholders, but they don’t have any control of that, they don’t even choose to be shareholders or not,” says Deneault. Meanwhile most of us, he adds, don’t realize that mining companies and government officials often rationalize many exploitative and abusive acts overseas by claiming they’re protecting average Canadians’ investments and pensions.

 

Change needed here first

In many respects in the globalized economy, concludes Deneault, it’s Canada that’s the “lowest common denominator” dragging the rest of the world’s ethical and environmental mining standards down. That’s why it seems backhanded flattery that, in a 2008 survey, mining executives ranked 7 Canadian provinces amongst the top 10 jurisdictions on Earth for their pro-mining policies—BC ranked 24th, well below Botswana, but far above Ghana and Zambia. And it’s therefore perhaps even more unnerving that, this year, UBC and SFU received millions in Canadian International Development Agency money to host a new institute that will work with mining companies to promote Canadian mining “policy, regulations, educational programs and technologies” in developing countries. 

Besides suing academics, our mining industry works in other ways to suppress open discussion in Canada about all of this. Deneault draws direct links between directors of mainstream media and the mining industry. But his book reveals other insidious efforts, like an industry group’s “Mining Matters” educational program for elementary schools, implemented by the Ontario government, which warns teachers against being critical of mining, and the University of Toronto agreement allowing Barrick to co-develop curriculum in exchange for donations, which got rewritten only after protests.

Deneault doesn’t claim every Canadian mining company is immoral, but he does believe his book is revealing “only the tip of the iceberg.”

“The mining sector in Canada is totally out of control,” he summarizes. “We don’t have any way to make sure that, on an ethical level, these mining corporations registered in Canada behave properly abroad.”

How can we rectify the situation?

Deneault proposes calling independent commissions to investigate. “There are too many allegations from too many sources on too many very controversial cases to believe that it’s all suppositions,” he says. 

He also suggests taking ethical financial action. “Since there’s no way to verify what [mining companies] do, Canadians should try by any way or means to withdraw their money from that sector.” 

Deneault believes we’d do well to improve mining practices here in Canada, too, which he feels often aren’t much better than elsewhere. He recently spoke in Kamloops, and heard from the protesters battling the planned open pit mine there. It reminded him “how weak the voice of the population is” even in Canada.

I describe to Deneault the ruckuses that have erupted since the BC Liberal government put up an online tool making it incredibly easy and cheap for mining companies or anyone else to stake previously publicly-reserved mining rights on public and private lands. Though most new claims have been happening in remote locations, so few of us know about them, two men recently staked claims across huge swaths of Pender Island, throwing property owners, law enforcement and local government into confusion about what happens next. The Tyee has reported on a quarrelsome Vernon man who staked claims on his neighbours’ lots and then with impunity began trespassing on their properties at all hours, putting up mining signs, and spray-painting their trees for removal. And of course, the intent of the tool is that real mining operations might ultimately begin in some cases.

“In any other kind of activity, in any other sector, it’s impossible to imagine you could obtain a property in five minutes on the internet,” comments Deneault. “It tells a lot about the jurisdiction that we’re in.” 

That’s part of the reason that, here in Victoria, a new group called the Mining Justice Action Committee has begun trying to raise public awareness and build solidarity amongst people affected by the practices of Canadian mining companies in BC and around the world (see event below). Indigenous Filipino refugee Chandu Claver has been working alongside them.

“We identify very well with what First Nations are looking at here,” comments Claver on the BC situation, where he sees controversial oil pipeline proposals as just another example of the power of the “extractive” industries like mining. “The state looks at indigenous peoples’ areas as resource-based areas, meaning a source of raw materials. Period. That’s why the people there are not a priority for social services, they’re not a priority for anything. What’s important for the state are their raw materials.”

Like Deneault, Claver hopes BC activists could help set a better standard for human rights and environmental responsibility that would be exported as a model elsewhere. “If I’m able to work with First Nations in doing what needs to be done here, maybe it’s something that can actually accelerate change in the Philippines.” 

Deneault optimistically points out that there have been several federal mining-related bills recently, one each from the Liberals, Bloc and NDP, that variously sought to create a mining ombudsperson with investigative and regulatory powers, require more forthright corporate reporting, and permit Canadian companies to be sued in Canada for human rights abuses. Although he saw flaws in each bill and watched each be defeated or scuttled, Deneault felt encouraged. “Technically, they can change [the laws],” he observes. “We’ve had bills, we can see that it’s possible, we’re not dreaming.”

 

Alain Deneault, Kevin Williams and Chandu Claver will speak at the Victoria Central Library on February 26th at 7 p.m. For more info see the Mining Justice Action Committee Facebook page.

Rob Wipond can be reached through his website at robwipond.com.