Mining Makes This World Possible
In 2016, I joined a group of co-organizers and trusted friends at a vigil on the showroom floor at the annual convention of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC), the biggest mining convention in the world. We read names and shared stories of people who were killed resisting––or simply living near––the operations of Canadian mining companies. Mariano Abarca Roblero, who fought against Blackfire 1 in Chiapas, Mexico, was killed outside of his home by an employee of the company. In Tanzania, Kibabwa Ghati was killed by security forces while walking past a Barrick Gold mine and was later framed as an illegal intruder. In Papua New Guinea, Taita Maliapa was killed by security forces near another Barrick Gold mine. In India, Raghunath Jhodia was killed due to his activities resisting a mine in India partially owned by Rio Tinto Alcan. In Eritrea, an unnamed mine worker died of heat exhaustion constructing Nevsun’s Bisha mine. In Guatemala, 16-year-old Topacio Reynoso Pacheco was resisting the Tahoe Resources Escobal mine and was killed in a targeted assassination. We named dozens of the dead. We laid down flowers and spoke about the violence to people and to land and the ways this violence is connected through resource extraction. 2 As we held this space, standing in a circle with our backs out wearing t-shirts with “Canadian mining kills”’ written on them, people shouted: “You all have phones! Mining makes this world possible! Try living without it! You all have phones! You all have phones!” Over and over again. After 15 minutes of holding space, the police escorted us out.Mining makes the world we live in possible, and it is made possible by this world: a world that makes capitalist resource extraction possible and seemingly inevitable. It is also one that restricts the flourishing of other worlds: worlds that prioritize living in healthy relations with each other and the land; that centre autonomy and freedom; that are free from capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and ableism. This world is one where people in remote communities are provided the economic opportunity to remain on their lands only if they consent to the destruction of their land, water, and lifeways, one where Indigenous people are denied sovereignty over their land and criminalized for defending it. Extraction relies on and enacts colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes,
My land is seen as a resource. My relatives in the plant and animal worlds are seen as resources. My culture and knowledge is a resource. My body is a resource and my children are a resource because they are the potential to grow, maintain, and uphold the extraction-assimilation system. The act of extraction removes all of the relationships that give whatever is being extracted meaning. Extracting is taking. Actually, extracting is stealing—it is taking without consent, without thought, care or even knowledge of the impacts that extraction has on the other living things in that environment. That’s always been a part of colonialism and conquest. 3
Resource extraction is not necessarily special in its violence. I focus on it because of my social and geographic location. I grew up in Toronto, which is also home to the majority of the world’s mining companies. I benefit from mining injustice as a white settler in Canada through intergenerational wealth (as precarious as that has felt at moments), my pension plan, bank account, the computer I work on incessantly as a graduate student, my funding from the federal government of Canada, and so much more. I also organize against the mining industry with the Toronto-based Mining Injustice Solidarity Network (MISN). 4 Over the past six years I have organized with MISN doing popular education, direct action, signal-boosting of impacted community voices, resource sharing, and more. At workshops we share stories of impacted communities and the inaction or active support of the Canadian state. During discussions, attendees often ask what they can buy differently. I usually respond by saying that our world is so deeply shaped by resource extraction that we need collective responses rather than individual shifts in purchasing patterns. This is easier said than done. In this piece, I articulate the structures we are up against in movements against capitalism and colonialism and share lessons and strategies from my organizing work against the abusive practices of the Canadian mining industry. The mining industry is foundationally violent and making this visible is an essential part of being in solidarity with mining-impacted communities who are fighting capitalism and colonialism on their own terrains. International solidarity is an essential part of movements for justice and is rarely as simple as only taking direction from impacted communities (though taking direction is important). In this piece I argue that taking direction needs to be combined with taking action and taking responsibility in order for international solidarity to be transformative.
So, what is solidarity and why is it important? Often, solidarity is articulated against a charity model that does not challenge the structures that cause people to be in need. Solidarity, at its best, identifies and challenges oppressive structures at their root. Solidarity forces us to recognize the ways in which our liberation is bound together and can therefore be founded on building a common cause. However, building a common cause across power differentials and incommensurable worlds is not always easy or even possible. Through organizing with MISN, I have come to understand some tensions in solidarity work, especially around finding a balance between taking direction from impacted communities versus being proactive and honouring the knowledge we have as a Toronto-based group. Taking direction will always be an important part of solidarity work but can easily slip into trying to assuage guilt or become a settler move to innocence. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang argue that settlers often co-opt language like decolonization to make our/themselves feel better about benefiting from settler-colonial structures. 5 This becomes co- optation through continuing to center the feelings of settlers and settler futures rather than transforming structures of violence and ongoing dispossession in necessarily unsettling ways.
In order to move forward, fighting alongside each other from multiple spaces, a fuller understanding of the current context is necessary. In the following sections I will examine the ideologies of the mining industry and some of the challenges in developing counter-narratives to those stories. I will articulate why fighting for mining justice requires both taking direction from those most impacted, as well as proactively learning about and fighting the forces that structure violence in the places we live. Understanding the logics that underpin the Canadian state and mining corporations is an essential aspect to intervening in their unjust practices. Through an understanding of these logics it becomes clear that legal reforms, though they may reduce harm in important ways, are limited in terms of challenging the colonial logics of this industry. We must think about the stories we tell, learn to tell other stories, and do the work so these other stories can be heard and arm us in the fight against capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, and all forms of injustice and oppression.
The differing experiences of resource extraction across the world point to the need for a perspective on mining that accounts for its material impacts (harmful and otherwise) and that can hold the multiple experiences, knowledge, and perspectives emerging from a mining impacted world. The world that is made possible through mining is one where I have access to a computer, a cell phone, a chip bankcard; one where my contributions to the Canadian Pension Plan are invested in companies like the Vancouver-based Nevsun, which is accused of using slave labour to build their mine in Eritrea. 6 In Canada, many benefit from the mining industry, though these benefits are not distributed evenly. This means that resisting mining requires building solidarity with and across different experiences and worlds. I have come to think about my organizing with MISN through what Juanita Sundberg, drawing on Zapatismo, calls “walking with.” 7 She writes, “walking with does not mean helping the Zapatistas nor does it mean being like them. To walk with the Zapatistas means to be involved in the struggle for a just world from and in our own sites of entanglement and engagement.” I draw inspiration from this articulation of strategic place-based solidarity as both a researcher and organizer; I am not trying to be like the Indigenous people that mining disproportionately impacts, nor do I imagine that the place where minerals are extracted is the only site of struggle in the fight for social transformation.
Walking with requires a deep engagement with complicity in oppressive systems and advantages gained from these systems whether or not we consented to participate in them. It is important to note that walking with is not about moving from a place of guilt to a place of innocence and purity. I am a white settler, born and raised on territories that have long been in relationship to many Indigenous nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Métis, and Wendat. Being in solidarity with, or walking with, does not absolve me from the positions of power I hold and the responsibilities that come with my inheritances as a settler. As white settlers, many of our families were active or present during many periods of colonial, racial, and gendered violence. There is no innocence to be found in this. As a fifth-generation settler, I need to work within my complicity rather than attempt to transcend it; innocence is not, and cannot, be the goal of working to transform the world.
To be in solidarity as settlers we must open up to the uncertainty and discomfort of Indigenous futurity, including a loss of power. In Unsettling the Commons, Craig Fortier recognizes a tendency to imagine “a settler future that incorporates Indigenous people, rather than multiple Indigenous and non-Indigenous futures that recognize each other’s sovereignty and work through the contradictions that exist in sharing territories.” 8 Movements against resource extraction can easily slip into documenting injustices as firmly at odds with “Canadian values” and end up upholding an ahistorical vision of Canada as a benevolent nation state. However, close attention to the politics of resource extraction can also reveal the multiple ways the Canadian state continues the project of securing a settler future through denying sovereignty to Indigenous nations and facilitating ecological destruction across the world; this ‘settler futurity’ is contingent on ongoing colonialism and the violent denial of Indigenous futures. 9 If walking with is imagined as a way to secure a settler future or settler innocence it can easily become part of this tendency. It is in this spirit that I write: holding and staying with the tensions of my positionality rather than imagining there is a way to transcend these inheritances and responsibilities.
The political practice of walking with has value for organizers, activists, and socially-engaged researchers in thinking through how to transform the world. Mining injustice is shaped by global relations of injustice and therefore must be countered not only on the ground in impacted communities, but in the places that uphold and benefit from these unequal power relations. I write this as part of a process of thinking through theories of change in both activist and academic spaces. Many of us in movements move through both of these spaces and in my experience the act of moving between these worlds produces specific questions. My questions are mostly about how to be strategic from activist and academic spaces within the “belly of the beast.” Being strategic for me means thinking through collective goals, both short and long term, and choosing tactics to achieve the changes we want, that communities need, and that are grounded in our location and expertise. Much of MISN’s work has focused on raising awareness in order to move people toward collective action. We have had to think through the tensions between focusing on individual companies as “bad apples” versus naming the entire industry as rotten. This work is complex and requires us to choose different strategies at different times.
In R-Words: Refusing Research, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang critique how the majority of social science research focuses on the project of naming and proving harm in order to create change.[[ Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “R-words: Refusing research” in Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities, ed. Marsha T. Winn and Djangc Paris (New York: Sage Publishing, 2014), 223-248.
]] Tuck and Yang note that if highlighting violence was actually transformative, transformation would have occurred many times already. My experience in activist spaces often mirrors this theory of change rooted in exposure, even as many of us in these spaces understand its limitations. So often, we are caught in cycles of responding to crisis situations because there is a real urgency in our deeply unjust world. For example, naming the dead feels pressing and can be impactful, especially for the family and community of those who have died at the expense of Canadian mining. They cannot be forgotten. However, there is a tension: those present at the PDAC are directly implicated yet seem unable to hear the names we read. We were telling a story that was incompatible with that space. Their resistance to acknowledging the violence of their wealth generation has stayed with me and in many ways mirrors the broader Canadian public’s refusal to accept their role in the settler-colonial project. The experience of naming the dead only to have them either ignored or normalized as casualties of the system has provoked me to question the efficacy of re-narrating violence in transformative projects. Tuck and Yang argue that a different way of moving might be to point to the instruments of harm rather than the resulting violations.
On Telling, Countering Stories
The stories told in our educational institutions serve to obscure relationships of exploitation. Take the video The Journey from Mine to Market, produced by Barrick Gold and shown at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in downtown Toronto. In this video, the journey from mine to market begins with exploration: not with the Indigenous knowledge so often harnessed by companies, not with Free, Prior and Informed Consent, but with geologists looking for a mineral deposit. With images of men looking closely at rocks and helicopters surveying sweeps of empty land the narrator states, “exploration is an intense, scientific, and challenging part of the mining process.” In this film Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s articulation of extractivism, where everything is understood as a resource, is clearly enacted. 10 The relationships imagined here are between mine workers, scientists, and the rocks where they find deposits of gold. Land is portrayed as empty of people and history, and the search for resources is naturalized. Their story ends with the sale of a product, a happy meeting of buyer and seller in the Global North, and showcases the multiple ways gold makes modern life possible.
However, there is another story––many other stories––of the journey gold takes from the ground to being sold as a commodity. The people of Porgera, Papua New Guinea, have been unable to practice subsistence agriculture since a Barrick Gold owned mine opened in the 1980s and have taken to panning for gold in the waste rock for survival. In the spring of 2017, two women travelled from Porgera to speak at Barrick Gold’s annual general meeting about the sexual violence they experienced at the hands of security forces hired to secure the extraction of gold. They are just two of more than 100 women who have come forward with allegations of sexual violence. Barrick Gold has acknowledged that these assaults happened; 11 however, in order to avoid a lawsuit they paid survivors in what they have termed a “remedy program” that many survivors felt manipulated and pressured into agreeing to. Yet, at the Barrick Gold shareholder meeting these two women travelled so far to attend, they were denied the right to speak.
The video shown in the ROM is typical of the stories that Canadians hear about mining and reflects the stories that underpin law and property regimes. These stories make mineral and resource extraction seem natural and inevitable. Centuries of resistance to settler colonialism are erased. The concept of land as something that can be owned or something that can be transformed into a resource is not universal and has an immensely violent history and present. The construction of land as private property means more than being privately owned. Capitalist resource extraction requires a conception of both law and property as neutral, natural forces that move us away from the pre-modern violence posited by liberal theorists. We are reminded of this simple lesson by Karl Marx, who asserts that the origins of capitalist accumulation require disciplinary and punitive measures to displace people from the land and transform them into workers in a capitalist system. The state and law continue to facilitate this consolidation of capitalism, through creating wage ceilings for workers (but not for capitalists), forcing people into factories and generally functioning with the best interests of capital in mind.
It is hard to resolve these vastly different stories. The story told in Barrick Gold’s video has a veneer of innocence; images of sweeping, empty landscapes are only broken by labourers, working to explore, extract, process, and sell gold. People who have non-capitalist, non-extractive relationships with the land are not visible. There are no images in this video of what life looks like during the intensive and destructive process of extraction, nor after all the ore is extracted and the mining company leaves. Their story begins and ends without the messiness of gaining or coaxing consent from impacted communities, with no mention of the hiring of some but not all for construction and extraction, nor of the protests endemic to Barrick Gold mining sites. Lives are lost, landscapes are devastated, and communities are torn apart, all by the actions of Canadian mining companies like Barrick Gold.
As I think about the limitations of naming harm, I think through how a focus on solely naming harm may not be transformative in a world that cannot perceive this harm. The relationships that facilitate this harm exist between the same actors that are so difficult to hold accountable beyond movement spaces. My fear is that in focusing on naming individual and recurring instances of harm, we contribute to a narrative in which the Canadian mining industry is salvageable if we can just get them to stop killing people. We must recognize that the mining industry’s harm goes beyond targeted assassinations and toxic spills. Even if these symptoms disappear, the foundations of this industry are violent and colonial. So my concern with a focus on naming the most visible and dramatic harms is not the naming of harm itself, but the fact that we live in a world that places the foundational harms of settler colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism in the past, outside of the frame of how things are now and therefore as something that can be fixed by superficial reforms. An important part of walking with mining impacted communities is amplifying the stories of violence that many experience and telling stories that make it clear how settlers in Canada are complicit in structural violence that includes, but goes beyond, injury and bodily harm to individuals.
Part of the reason I feel the need to move beyond a model of only taking direction in solidarity movements is because it is important to understand the ways in which Toronto and Canada are active in ongoing violence that mining impacted communities experience. Taking direction often looks like sending funds to impacted communities, showing up at mining company annual general meetings and asking pointed questions, holding vigils after people are assassinated by mining security forces, or sharing statements directly from impacted communities. These are important actions but generally reactive ones. In order for solidarity to be transformative a balance between proactive and reactive actions is essential. Intervening in the mining industry in Toronto and throughout Canada requires also building power and intervening here in proactive ways.
In the Belly of the Beast
One way MISN has worked on making structures of harm visible is through attention to Toronto as a mining impacted space. In MISN we think of Toronto as the “belly of the beast,” signifying its importance to Canadian capitalism and colonialism. Much of the world’s mining capital is based in Toronto and the majority of the world’s exploration, or junior mining companies, are headquartered in Toronto, where the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) deals in speculative capital. In March of 2017, MISN hosted a bus tour through downtown Toronto making connections between government buildings, universities, law firms, museums, and the many corporate headquarters of mining companies in the financial district. Understanding Toronto as part of the problem has important implications for walking with. Solidarity that recognizes the ways in which we are bound together forces us to move beyond taking direction and toward taking proactive responsibility and acting through our complicities. An understanding of how and why Toronto has become so important to the mining industry helps us be more effective in intervening.
In their book Imperial Canada Inc, Alain Deneault and William Sacher argue that in order to stay competitive the TSX has, since its inception, lacked regulations. This has been an important part of facilitating settler claims to Indigenous territories as companies have been able to speculate on land without having to gain consent. Joan Kuyek’s Mining Watch report on Hunter Dickinson International is instructive of how junior mining companies operate––taking huge risks to maximize potential earnings, lying to investors, and engaging with communities in bad faith.[[Joan Kuyek, “Behind the Pebble Mine.” Mining Watch. https://miningwatch.ca/sites/default/files/hdi_investor_report.pdf.
]] Junior mining companies do not operate mines or produce minerals; they do the bureaucratic work of acquiring permits, making agreements with communities, doing feasibility studies that speculate on the potential profits of a future project. They do this work, often at an initial monetary loss, so the companies that actually operate and profit from the projects are less liable for the violence and coercion that is often involved in the creation and operation of a given mining project. Often, mining projects change hands (and names) multiple times, purposefully making it more difficult for impacted communities to track down who exactly is impacting them. Most of the communities that experience mineral extraction are far from Toronto and, unsurprisingly, do not get a say in decisions that will dramatically affect their worlds.
This is not just a story about Toronto, but a story about all of Canada. While Toronto functions as the administrative hub for mining companies, 12 being within the Canadian state and its industry-friendly legal system is a large part of its appeal. Mining laws in Canada are designed to facilitate settler claims to land and to prioritize profit over all else. Mineral laws can appear neutral, but they are shaped by and create the conditions for ongoing settler colonialism. 13 Laws in Canada separate the surface of land from the potential mineral content underground, or the subsurface, and are key in the construction of land as property and the limitation of other relations to land. In Canada, claiming the rights to minerals below the surface requires significantly less of a burden of proof than proving traditional relationships to land (which are narrowly defined as relationships to the surface), meaning mineral rights are able to be separated from Indigenous land claims and more easily claimed by governments and handed over to corporations. Part of how Canada becomes so important to mining capital is through historic, domestic, and international laws that are particularly friendly to resource extraction. Free-entry staking, the dominant way to establish mineral tenure in Canada, requires physical staking and recording of a claim and reifies a distinction between surface and subsurface rights to land. Historically, the right to subsurface minerals is the state’s by “right of conquest,” an artifact of the Roman conquest of England. 14 Generally, consultation of communities that will potentially be impacted by mining does not begin until a claim has been staked and environmental impact assessment is being done.
In Ontario, the mining code has gone through a process of “modernization,” where regulations have moved away from a free-entry system. However, scholars and civil society groups have critiqued this process, arguing that it has not substantially shifted the colonial relations of power. 15 The modernized laws give broad discretion to the government to determine if and how a mining claim proceeds, but the underlying logic that subsurface rights are detached from surface rights and the idea that mineral extraction is more important than other activities remains largely unchanged. In other words, while laws may have shifted, the extractivism that shapes them has not. Nevertheless, these more recent laws are currently under attack by Ontario Premier Doug Ford who understands them as red tape. Responses to such attacks need to recognize the colonialism that underpins all mining law in Canada. 16
Internationally, the picture is not much better, partially due to Canadian companies and the Canadian state exporting laws that are friendly to extraction. 17 In October of 2004 there was a massacre in the town of Kilwa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Canadian-Australian mining company Anvil Resources has been accused of providing logistical support for the atrocities that took place that day including deaths, detentions, and sexual assaults. 18 The vehicles used to ship copper and silver from the Canadian-based company’s Dikulshi mine were used to facilitate this massacre after a group of armed insurgents entered Kilwa, the town closest to the mine. Of the 70 people killed, many were reported to be civilians. 19
These deaths and the violence surrounding them inspired a movement in Canadian civil society to hold this industry accountable after it was decided that the civil case would be heard in Canadian courts. This movement fought hard for legal reform and created a political moment where the industry needed to do something. Unfortunately, rather than committing to a framework of substantive corporate accountability, many in the industry adopted voluntary corporate social responsibility standards, a framework that has done little to shift the violent behaviour of these companies and can often amount to little more than a public relations stunt for the industry. 20 One ongoing critique from civil society groups has been the lack of legal recourse to hold Canadian companies accountable in Canadian courts for their actions internationally. In recent years, the Canadian Network for Corporate Accountability has led a successful campaign for an independent ombudsperson who could investigate the actions of Canadian extractive industries abroad. Even in the circles of people calling for an international ombudsperson on extractive industries there have been questions about whether this position will have teeth or amount to further PR for industry. 21 After 15 months of waiting for someone to be appointed to this position, Trudeau’s Liberal government announced that they would instead create an advisory position without any power to investigate. 22
Through focusing on the Canadian state as an active agent in facilitating harm, stories come to the fore that illuminate the necessity of challenging the Canadian mining industry at its foundations rather than focusing on reform. Understanding Toronto and Canada as active agents in colonial violence both domestically and abroad means that being in solidarity with communities experiencing this violence necessarily involves challenging the Canadian state. Settlers need to take responsibility for the laws and structures designed to facilitate our futures at the expense of Indigenous futures and presents globally. Focusing on legal reform, as the broader Canadian movement for mining justice has done in recent years, is a very limited strategy. It may reduce some harm or assist in compensating those who have already been harmed, but I believe an effective movement for mining justice must challenge the Canadian state itself. In order to do this, more people must understand the foundational violence of the Canadian state.
Walking with helps us remember we all have skin in the game. Though some of us are beneficiaries of the violence wrought by mining, many of us desire a world free from colonial, capitalist, white supremacist violence. Stay with this desire, let it inform your actions, and let it keep you accountable as you move through this process. There is messiness to being in solidarity, in walking with. I will identify a few of the difficulties you may encounter. I am speaking from lessons learned from solidarity work that is mainly done by people located far away from each other both internationally and within the Canadian state. Toronto is far from most mining impacted communities, and most mining impacted communities are far from company headquarters, shareholder meetings, and other decision making spaces. Part of the work MISN does is making Toronto visible as a mining impacted space so more people can begin to perceive the relations of domination we are embedded in. This has involved pointing to the uneven ways people in Toronto benefit from this industry, the influences of mining corporations on educational institutions, and the ways in which downtown Toronto serves the needs of the mining industry internationally.
On Lessons/Concluding Thoughts
An important question in walking with or doing solidarity work is: who are you in solidarity with? There are frequently major community divisions caused by resource extraction. We live in a world where people rely on wage labour to survive and mining is one way that people do not have to leave their ancestral territories for urban centres, in order to work and support families. Mining companies have long records of creating and relying on racialized divisions of labour to minimize resistance. 23 Often doing solidarity work with a mining impacted community means forming an alliance with a specific part of the community that is resisting. Communities are rarely homogenous, so this is unavoidable. This reality forces us to take the time to understand the dynamics within a community, and this work is essential to doing responsible solidarity work. Take time to build relationships that go deeper than the instrumental moments of enacting solidarity and “doing the work.” Form bonds that won’t fade away once this or that struggle wanes. Do not romanticize, do not tokenize. Be clear and accountable, prepare for difficult conversations, and don’t shy away from potential conflicts. Walking with is relational and being clear about who you are in relationship with and why is an incredibly important component of being in solidarity. This does not mean only doing work with people who you completely align with politically. It also means having conversations about where you diverge, what your long-term goals are, and working toward building what Tuck and Yang refer to as “contingent collaborations,” on issues where there are mutual goals and shared desires. 24
Walking with does not always mean doing work internationally or with people in far away places. The beast you are fighting may be close. Natalie Knight’s writing on urban Indigenous struggles in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en reminds us that the colonial frontline is everywhere. 25 Knight argues through this urban- Indigenous solidarity there is the articulation and creation of a politics that connects land defense struggles with urban anti- colonial frontlines. As settlers we should not fetishize the sites of resource extraction as the only space where colonialism continues, even though it may be the most visible to us. As I’ve shown above, extractivism is a global phenomenon, and there are many opportunities to resist it from locations in the Global North and from the urban centres that are not often imagined as colonial frontlines. Walking with is an orientation that can at best open us up to our position in the world differently and to think through what might be strategic from our social and geographic locations; this orientation should also challenge us to reflect on our own perceptions of the world.
Finally, the consistent violence and brutal force that the mining industry relies on should remind us that capitalism and colonialism are not finished projects. This means they will continue to be violent but it also means we can undo them. Get together with your people. Think about the land you are on and how you got there. Fight the beast in ways that strategically use your position, and maybe together we can make a world in which many worlds are possible. *