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 "All across this land and around the world, Indigenous communities are organizing to halt mining exploration and resource extraction activities," writes Harsha Walia. (Photo: Kate Ausburn)

Mount Polley: Mining Is Disaster

Harsha Walia


The Mount Polley mining disaster in B.C. has barely been sustained in national news, let alone break in international news. This is despite the fact that mining experts are cautioning that the incident is the largest mining disaster in Canadian, possibly even global, history. Where it has made news, the incident is exceptionalized as a single accident, a failure, or the incompetence of one company. The notorious Canadian mining industry, actively supported by provincial and federal governments, has largely escaped public and media scrutiny.

Mount Polley disaster

Two weeks ago, the dam of the tailings pond breached from the Mount Polley mine near Likely, on Secwepemc territory, releasing 2.5 billion gallons of contaminated water and 4.5 million cubic metres of metals-laden fine sand into Hazeltine Creek, Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake. A state of emergency has been declared in the Cariboo Region, a water-use ban is in place, and federal and Indigenous fisheries have shut down salmon fishing. The long-term impacts are severe: about 2.4 million people -- 63 per cent of the province's population -- live along the Fraser River in 32 downstream communities and Metro Vancouver.

Imperial Metals operates the Mount Polley gold and copper mine. An environmental engineering firm, the Shushwap Nation Tribal Council, a former foreman, and the Ministry of the Environment have all confirmed that Imperial Metals was warned during previous site inspections. Yet Imperial Metals was allowed to keep operating, perhaps due to its $233,710 in donations to the B.C. Liberal Party. Imperial Metal's largest shareholder is billionaire N. Murray Edwards, who is on the board of directors for Canadian Natural Resources Ltd (who were under fire last year for four oil spills in Northeast Alberta). Six companies that Edwards has a major interest in donated $482, 857 to the B.C. Liberals.

While the particularities of Imperial Metals are troubling, they reveal a broader trend about mining in B.C.

There are 20 operating mines with similar tailings pond dams in B.C. Yet The Tyee reports that since the B.C. Liberals took office in 2001, mine inspections have reduced by nearly half while environmental orders have decreased by over 90 per cent. Furthermore, there is no requirement in B.C. that mining companies have emergency response plans including insurance for such spills.

This is part of Premier Christy Clark's aggressive mining agenda. She has announced the plan to build 17 new and expanded mines by 2015, all on unceded Indigenous lands. In 2010, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School found that in B.C, "First Nations bear an unfair burden at every point in the mining process," including the burden of a lack of consultation and detrimental environmental, health and spiritual consequences.


Mining is disaster

The mining industry in Canada is a key example of Canada's colonial and capitalist foundations. Capitalist accumulation explicitly requires dispossession of Indigenous communities from the lands on which they subsist. Both locally and globally, Canadian mining corporations have been devastating the environment, dispossessing communities, and committing egregious human rights violations in order to continue extracting resources to secure their profits.

Over 75 per cent of the world's exploration and mining companies are headquartered in Canada, and mining and energy investment is the third largest component of Canadian direct investment abroad. A leaked report by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, the biggest industry lobby group, confirms that Canadian mining corporations are responsible for almost half of all the documented mining-related rights violations around the world, and in the global South are implicated in four times as many violations as companies from other countries.

A recent Globe and Mail article reveals startling facts about Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) poverty-reduction aid funds being prioritized to countries that have deposits of mineral resources and are of "strategic" and "commercial" interest to Canada's resource-extractive sector. According to Maude Barlow, CIDA has approved $50 million in projects linked to the mining industry since the Harper government took power.

Simultaneously, Canada continues to pursue international trade agreements designed to ensure that multinational mining companies can access mineral resources. These corporate rights agreements -- like NAFTA, CETA, FIPAs, and TPP -- create mechanisms for investor-state arbitration that allow corporations to pursue compensation for any regulatory regimes that limit their profits. These pre-emptive corporate bailouts provide the economic certainty needed to attract corporate investment and secure profits, particularly in sectors such as mining that face significant opposition. A recent example is of Canadian-based mining company Pacific Rim pursuing $301 million in compensation for lost investment and future profits from El Salvador, that has a de facto ban on mining, for refusing their extraction permit.

Within Canada, Stephen Harper has changed key environmental regulations. Though not previously used, since 2006 the Conservative government has been approving mining projects under Schedule 2. Introduced by the Liberal government, Schedule 2 is a loophole in the Metal Mining Effluent Regulation of the federal Fisheries Act that allows metal mining corporations to use lakes and rivers as toxic dump sites. Mining companies have applied to reclassify at least 13 natural water bodies across the country as "tailings impoundment areas" to get around the anti-dumping prohibition.

This loophole is in addition to the long list of environmental changes and Indigenous treaty rights in the two federal omnibus bills, Bill C-38 and Bill C-45, that are designed to ensure easy access to resources on Indigenous lands. In true colonial fashion that perpetuates the racist myth of terra nullius, Canada is one of the few countries with a free-entry (a.k.a. Wild West) model of mineral tenure, where the mining industry is given free and virtually unlimited entry, access, and tenure to "stake a claim" on a first-come, first-serve basis without public consultation, environmental assessment, or Indigenous consent.

Given this local and global context, it is perfectly apt, then, that Jon Baird, President of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, declared: "If the USA is the world's policeman, Canada is the world's miner."

Resistance to mining injustice

All across this land and around the world, Indigenous communities are organizing to halt mining exploration and resource extraction activities.

In an unprecedented move this year, the federal government rejected Taseko's proposal for New Prosperity Mine due to the tireless efforts of the Tsilhqot'in Nation. Similarly, persistent legal and political mobilization by Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) -- including blockades which led to a number of arrests and sentences -- led to an astounding victory two years ago when Ontario announced that over 23,000 square kilometres of KI territory would be off-limits to mining. KI and Tsilhqot'in are developing their own mining protocols, published in their own languages as well as English, laying out rules for if and how mining companies can operate in their territories.

To address Canada's global role in mining, a Permanent Peoples' Tribunal last month investigated Canadian mining abuses in South America, where over 230 Canadian mining companies operate. Bringing together impacted communities from across the continent, the Tribunal found the Canadian government directly responsible for massive human and environmental violations. This comes on the heels of decades of grassroots community organizing, including prolonged blockades in Guerrero, operational shut-downs in El Salvador, popular assemblies across Guatemala, seizing workers in Bolivia, continent-wide protests of Canadian embassies and officials, and two significant legal challenges against HudBay and Tahoe Resources on Canadian soil.

This global chorus of resistance is envisioning not merely environmental regulation of the mining industry, but a fundamental opposition to infinite resource extraction under capitalism that perpetuates colonial pillage and dispossession. A Cree prophecy is a sobering reminder: "When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money."

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Harsha Walia

Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer based in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories. She has been involved in community-based grassroots migrant justice, feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous solidarity, anti-capitalist, Palestinian liberation, and anti-imperialist movements for over a decade. The column, "Exception to the Rule," is about challenging norms, carving space and centring the dispossessed.

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