Canada’s shame

Fresh from the victory at Standing Rock, activists need to look from Flint, Michigan to places like Azacualpa to confront neoliberal efforts to put profit over people and the environment.


With the recently announced delay to the permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline and the possible plans to re-route it away from Lake Oahe, the main water supply for their reservation, the Standing Rock Water Protectors have a small reason to celebrate after months of peacefully facing down what amounted to an ongoing police riot.

As if to demonstrate the importance of the resistance at Standing Rock, just 200 miles from the main protest camp, a 6-inch pipe operated by a different company was shut down when a leak was discovered this past Monday.

Although the US Army Corps of Engineers decision doesn’t mean an end to DAPL, the coming together of over 200 indigenous communities internationally in support of the Standing Rock Sioux should be seen as a jumping off point for allied activists to learn about similar struggles taking place throughout the Americas and the world.

The events at Standing Rock have revealed to many North Americans the lengths that authorities will go to to protect big corporate interests, especially with a compliant media that seems to have given up on its traditional role of holding the powerful accountable. This is something that’s been obvious to people in poorer countries who have been on the receiving end of far worse violence at the hands their governments and security forces working with foreign business interests for decades.

In Honduras, this past March, Berta Caceres, an Indigenous Lenca woman, was killed in her home as a result of her work to protect the Gualcarque river basin from a series of large-scale dam projects supported by many foreign interests including China’s Sinohydro, the Dutch Development Bank and German companies Siemens and Voith.

Less reported, at least two more activists from the organization she founded, COPINH (Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras), have been killed in the months since. The danger these activists face can be partially attributed to a coup in the country that deposed its moderately leftist former President, Manuel Zelaya in 2009.

One little-remembered fact about the aftermath of the coup is which leader of a Western nation was the first to officially visit the country and bestow some legitimacy to the Honduran government after Juan Orlando Hernandez was elected President in 2011. That leader was none other than Stephen Harper, the former Prime Minister of Canada.

As Grahame Russell, who has worked with the small non-profit Rights Action in Honduras and nearby Guatemala for over 20 years told an interviewer in November, “This visit legitimized the post-coup Honduran regime, and put in place preparations for the signing of one more free trade agreement, which was the last thing the majority of Honduran people need.”

Harper also lobbied the new government to rewrite the country’s mining laws, which former President Zelaya had been working to change by imposing a moratorium on new operations until new regulations could be imposed. In 2013, the Hernandez government ended the moratorium and operations planned by Canadian and other international mining companies went forward as before.

The serious consequences of this for Honduran citizens living in these areas is demonstrated by the story of the small town of Azacualpa where Canadian mining company Aura Minerals currently operates a gold mine. Besides demanding that residents and their 200-year-old cemetery be moved to make way for an open pit mine, the company has been accused of exposing workers and the local population to cyanide leaching.

Aura Minerals’ actions were recently publicized by a human rights delegation, “including First Nations women leaders, the organization MiningWatch Canada, lawyers and activists” after they visited Azacualpa this Spring and the hope remains that the bad publicity will lead them to change their plans as they already have at another gold mine in San Andres, Honduras due to a mixture of international and local pressure.

Unfortunately, the displacement of citizens and the use of dangerous chemicals by Canadian mining companies isn’t isolated to Honduras. It turns out that Canadian companies operate over 40% of the mines throughout Latin America and the long-running strategy of successive Canadian governments has been to open these countries up to potentially environmentally destructive mining operations through changes to local laws and free trade deals.

In 2014, the Harper government, responding to criticism from activists, created a mediator position to hear disputes over Canadian mining operations in other countries, “but the role came under criticism because it was entirely voluntary for companies to participate.” These kinds of public relations exercises emphasizing ‘corporate social responsibility’ over sanctions have been typical of successive Canadian governments, including the Liberal government of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

As explained by two Canadian academics, Alain Deneault and William Sacher in their book “Imperial Canada Inc.”, the country has long been a haven for mining companies in a similar way to how Panama has been for shipping interests or the Caymen Islands have been for corporate tax evaders.

While Canadian courts have heard some cases based on human and environmental rights violations by Canadian companies, they almost always turn over responsibility for them to the jurisdictions where they occurred. In November of 2015, the Supreme Court of the province of British Columbia, overseeing a civil case against Tahoe Industries whose mining security officers had been implicated in the shooting of seven people outside of the Escobal silver mine in Guatemala in 2013, found that that country was “clearly the more appropriate forum” for the case.

This decision, while admittedly valid under Canadian law, ignored widespread corruption in the country and its lack of a truly independent judiciary. Just as at Standing Rock, the people of the nearby town of San Rafael Las Flores were protesting the danger they felt the mine represented to their water supply when private security guards contracted by Tahoe Minerals reacted with bullets.

While the Canadian government likes to tout its record of foreign aid to Latin America, the numbers show that these relationships are far more lucrative for companies based in Canada and their shareholders than it is for citizens in countries where Canadian extractive industries work. In 2012, the country spent $187.7 million in total development aid to all of Latin America. That same year, almost $3 billion was taken out of the region by just three Canadian mining firms.

Fresh from the victory at Standing Rock, activists need to look from Flint, Michigan to places like Azacualpa to confront neoliberal efforts to put profit over people and the environment. It needs to be remembered that one of the reasons Canada has become a mining superpower is its history of forcibly removing Indigenous populations from their land to get at the minerals underneath, a process of dispossession that’s now playing out in the Global South and these struggles are just as deserving of our attention.


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