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Path of Destruction: Canadian Mining Companies on Rampage Around the World

Asad Ismi

Canada is the world’s leading mining nation. Sixty per cent of all public mining companies are listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. About half of all mining capital is raised in Canada. Many Canadian mining companies have become notorious for damaging communities and the environment and fuelling wars and repression all over the world. The Canadian government has refused to hold these corporations accountable, leading to increased international criticism of Canada.

As Joan Kuyek, former National Coordinator of MiningWatch Canada, puts it, “Just as European settlers created Canada by stealing and plundering native land, its mining companies today continue these practices at home and abroad. This colonialism and neo-colonialism is what Canada is all about.”

Canadian mining companies have been responsible for devastating communities and the environment all over the world, including in Guyana, Ghana, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Burma, India, Kyrgyzstan, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Romania, Spain, Chile, Argentina, Australia, the United States, and Canada.


In Canada, indigenous communities have borne the brunt of mining operations. Canada itself was created by British and French settlers through the genocide of its indigenous people and the stealing of native land. Close to 15 million natives in North America were killed by European invaders.

There are 86 mining operations in Canada, and mining has ravaged many communities all over the country, spreading death and disease by poisoning the air, water, soil, and food supplies through acid mine drainage, toxic effluents, and pollution. More than 10,000 abandoned mines endanger fragile ecosystems, while as many as 50 lakes have been turned into dumps for mine waste.

The people of Atikameksheng, also known as the Whitefish Lake First Nation, are descendents of the Ojibway, Algonquin, and Odawa Nations. Their reserve is located near Sudbury, Ontario. The current land base is 44,000 acres, much of it forest. The total population is 850 members, with 340 living outside the reserve.

The Sudbury nickel and copper mines are the largest mining operation in Canada. The mines were opened in 1901. They were operated by Inco, a leading Canadian mining corporation, from 1916 to 2005. In 2006, Inco was sold to a Brazilian company and is now known as Vale Inco Ltd.

For Path of Destruction: Canadian Mining Companies Around The World, our recent three-part radio documentary on Canadian mining, Kristin Schwartz and I spoke to Arthur Petahtegoose during his tenure as the Whitefish Lake First Nation’s Gimaa or Chief. The interview with Chief Petahtegoose is primary research that has never before been published, according to the Chief and Joan Kuyek.

Chief Petahtegoose’s position is that the area of the Sudbury mines belonged to the Nation and was stolen from it with the mines’ creation. A treaty signed between the Nation and the British Crown in 1850 set up the Whitefish Lake Reserve, which included Sudbury. However, the Crown, and later the government of Canada, refused to survey the land in order to establish the boundaries of the reserve, even though the Nation’s representatives asked them to do this several times. The Chief believes this to be an act of racism designed to deprive the Whitefish Lake First Nation of its land.

When nickel and copper were discovered at Sudbury and mines were set up between 1901 and 1908, the Canadian government stated that the mine areas were not part of the native reserve and that the state therefore did not need the Whitefish Lake First Nation’s permission to develop the mines. Since the boundaries of the reserve had not been marked due to the government’s refusal to survey the land, any part of the Nation’s land could be taken away from it by Ottawa. In Chief Pehtategoose’s view, the Sudbury mines were created by deception and trickery through which the Canadian government stole the Whitefish Lake First Nation’s land.

He explains: “We are bullied as a population. I think about the child in the schoolyard, where the bully comes and takes his money, pressures the victim to behave in a particular manner. That’s how I’ve expressed our relationship in terms of how we sit with the Crown. The Crown bullies our people and is able to get away with it because we are not able to defend ourselves. So when we look at the territory of the First Nation, the territory of Atikameksheng, the city of Sudbury is clearly within the boundaries of our territory. And that’s partly what we’re reminding Canada and Ontario about today–that this is something that needs to be addressed.

“That was part of the understanding of what was contained in the treaty agreement. However, what we see today is that the boundary that was put into place has been moved from where we had intended that it be originally placed, and this is where we see the injustice on our part being suffered. The reserve has been made smaller, not by choice, but by design of the Crown’s…We were removed by the Crown so that the resources from the land would not have to be shared with us.”

The Nation has launched a $550 billion lawsuit against the Canadian federal government and the Ontario government, on the basis that the area of the Sudbury mines belongs to the Nation, as does the revenue generated by their operations for the last century.

The Canadian government’s stealing of the Whitefish Lake First Nation’s land was not only an example of racism, but also a part of the process of colonization which was spearheaded by biological warfare. According to Chief Petahtegoose, the white colonizers hoped to wipe out the Nation completely through the spread of diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis that they brought from Europe. Ninety per cent of the Whitefish Lake First Nation and other native communities were killed, mainly by these diseases. Prior to colonization, the native population in the Sudbury area numbered in the tens of thousands. After the epidemic of diseases unleashed by the invaders, only a few thousand were left alive, and these survivors were displaced by the mines. The mines thus completed the colonizing process of stealing native land, first implemented by killing most of the indigenous people and then by displacing those left alive.

As Chief Petahtegoose puts it: “We were some of the first victims of germ warfare…That’s a tragedy, but the government doesn’t talk about that…You don’t want to talk about the nasty things that you do. Our numbers were decimated by the diseases. Our people, those that remained, the survivors, we had a difficult time in coming to reassert our presence as a people. We’re still being challenged in terms of recovery from this kind of tragedy. We hear about crimes against humanity…and when we are a small population, we become victims, and we’re not able to challenge our attackers.

“We are threatened by eventual extermination as a body of people, and we have to remind Canadians that this is something that is actually occurring. We use terms like genocide and ethnic cleansing, the practice of which we have seen in parts of Europe and Africa, and we see this as a policy which is being brought against us.”

Nor are the lives of the surviving members of the Whitefish Lake First Nation safe today. For a hundred years and continuing, the Sudbury mines have poisoned their air, water and soil, endangering, degrading, and shortening their existence. Acid rain and other pollutants caused by the mineral industry have had a significant negative impact on the food supply of the Nation. Fish is a major food source on which they heavily rely, but acid rain has considerably damaged the fish stock, causing both its quantity and quality to drop dramatically. This means that at times the Nation has not had enough food, leading to malnourishment and numerous deaths.

“We’ve had a significant drop in fish,” said Kathleen Naponse, Director of Community Health and Wellness at the Whitefish Lake First Nation. “We still have a large number of people who fish and hunt. For them the wildlife is their main source of food. We have low-income families that still depend on the land to provide them with their proper nutrition.”

Chief Petahtegoose adds: “When we look at the lake trout, we see the adult fish, but not the young. So that tells us something is happening with the eggs. The research people tell us that the spaces where the fish would lay their eggs were becoming contaminated with the acid rain particles, the material that was being dumped from the mine stack.”

We asked Chief Petahtegoose if this has led to malnourishment from a lack of food. “In some of our earlier populations, yes,” he replied. “They relied solely on the land–my father’s generation, my mother’s generation. With the wage economy not being present, they relied on the resources of the land to produce for them the food they needed. When there was less of a supply, that meant that their children were going to have a less healthy diet. In our family, disease came to us…we had tuberculosis and flu outbreaks that hurt our population…we could look at the mine as being partly responsible for that.”

Other sources of food also damaged by pollution are animals such as deer and moose, as well as trees. The animals have become sickly and their livers have been poisoned. The leaves of maple trees have been burnt so that the trees no longer produce maple syrup which the people used to collect. The Nation sued Inco for the tree damage, and the company settled out of court.

“We used to harvest the trees,” said Chief Petahtegoose. “We saw the value in selling the timber resources, but through time people noticed that, when there was a reversal of the winds, when the sulphur fumes saturated our air, we saw a decline in the trees. The leaves would turn yellow and drop off, which tells you that there’s damage in the tree, and through time we saw the population of the trees declining. A lot of them would die due to the burns that resulted from the air fumes. So our people launched a suit against the company, which resulted in a small compensation paid to us for some of the damaged trees.”

Members of the Nation also suffer from high levels of asthma due to mine pollution. Sometimes the air is so bad that they cannot go outside. In 2003, Pollution Watch Canada identified Inco as the biggest air polluter in the country. In the same year, Environmental Defence Canada listed Inco as the worst mining polluter. The group’s assessment is based on pollution data collected by the federal government.

Chief Petahtegoose explains: “Recently there was a study initiated from the perspective of our community. What we’ve noticed is that among our children there has been an increase in asthma and other breathing problems…There’s something going on here that’s not right. Children should not be getting these kinds of diseases. And the older people, the ones who have to be supported, their capacity to have a more healthy life is also diminished because they’re breathing air that is not of a high quality. That’s something we really notice when there’s a shift of wind from the northeast and fumes from the mining operation are carried in our direction. Within half an hour, it starts to affect your breathing. You can actually taste the chemical in your mouth. So of course we become concerned that it’s going to affect us in terms of our health.”

A study of metals in Sudbury soils in 2001, conducted by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, found that copper and nickel levels were above the recommended level in almost 80% of the samples. Lead and selenium levels in a quarter of the samples exceeded guidelines, and 5% of the samples had above the recommended level for antimony, arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, and zinc. To make things worse, high concentrations of nickel, copper, cobalt, arsenic, lead and zinc tended to turn up in the same samples.

Lead, arsenic, nickel and cadmium have been declared legally toxic in Canada. Lead is associated with kidney and blood problems, as well as neurological disorders. Arsenic and nickel cause cancer, and are believed not to have a safe threshold for human exposure. Cadmium is considered a probable carcinogen when inhaled and is associated with the development of kidney disease.

According to Chief Petahtegoose, “We do know that cancers have increased among our population….the heavy metals attacking their kidneys. Our space that we’re living in becomes much more of a hazard. And this is something that we become very concerned about, contaminants that are within the soil, within the air, and this is what we’ve been wanting to track as part of our concerns for the well-being of our people. We know that cadmium and arsenic are very very dangerous as elements.

“We’re still going to be here, okay. We’re not going to go anywhere. Other people may be mobile, able to move to other parts of the country or the world. But our people, we’ve always lived here and we intend to stay here. So the long-term impact of this accumulation of contaminants in and around our homes worries us.”

Clearly, the European invasion and the Sudbury mines have had a devastating effect on the Whitefish Lake First Nation. As Chief Petahtegoose puts it, “So we take a look at what has been brought to us by European settlers. What has happened to you? You forgot your teaching. What’s happened to people? They forget their sense of humanness. It’s unfortunate that they have not learned more appropriate behavior, more moral behavior in terms of how to live.”

Papua New Guinea

Another indigenous community drastically affected by Canadian mining are the Ipili people of Papua New Guinea. Canada’s Barrick Gold is the world’s largest gold mining corporation. In Papua New Guinea, Barrick operates the Porgera gold mine, one of the world’s biggest. The open-pit mine has transformed parts of this beautiful South Pacific island into a moonscape. Barrick has dumped tons of poisonous waste directly into rivers and streams, a practice illegal in Canada. Mine debris and rivers full of mine tailings or waste are eroding the landscape and making hillsides collapse, destroying the homes of many villagers.

The Akali Tange Association (ATA) is a human rights organization which addresses the rights abuses perpetrated by Barrick’s Porgera mine security forces. According to the Association, Porgera mine security guards have shot 33 people and raped 14 young girls. The ATA adds that 20 more people have died as a result of mountains of waste rock dumped by the mine which have also destroyed farming and houses.

Barrick admits to nine killings. The Ipili are subsistence farmers who depend on the land, and the waste generated by the mine has ruined the land and livelihoods of 10,000 people.

Barrick appears to be extracting as much gold as it can at minimum cost by impoverishing the community and severely degrading the environment. Barrick Gold is notorious for damaging communities and the environment and for violating human rights in several countries, including Tanzania, Australia, Argentina, Peru, Chile, the Philippines, the U.S. and Canada.

Jethro Tulli, executive officer of the Akali Tange Association, and two other activists from Papua New Guinea travelled to Toronto in May 2008 to attend Barrick Gold’s annual general meeting and to demand that the company relocate the 10,000 people whose land has been destroyed by the mine. The company refused to do so.

Tulli said about Barrick Gold, “They are horrible, they are terrible, they are criminals, corporate criminals…They should not be mining…They are causing destruction to everything.”

“We survive on the land,” he explained. “Most of the fertile land has been taken by the company. We were left to fend on a small portion. Now that is being overcrowded with the increase of population and we cannot sustain ourselves… We can’t live there [and] that is why we are asking the company to relocate us.”

Tulli also wants Barrick to pay compensation for the people killed by mine security forces, as well as for environmental destruction.

“What I have demanded from them to compensate is roughly about $350 million, and that claim is still sitting with them.”

Jethro Tulli’s appeals for help to the Papua New Guinea government have brought no action due to the power Barrick Gold has over the state. As he puts it, “The government is corrupt…We’ve raised these matters, but the government can’t say anything. They are controlled by the companies.”

If Barrick does not pay compensation to the community, Tulli is determined to resist its operations. “Either they stay or we stay,” he says. “We will move them out. By force we can move them out.”

Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is Africa’s richest country in terms of mineral resources. A decade-long war in the Congo has killed more than five million people and displaced about six million. This genocidal war was started by the United States, which used its proxies, Rwanda and Uganda, to invade the DRC in 1998 in order to establish Western control over its resources.

Although a peace agreement was signed in 2002, the war continues in the eastern part of the country. In 2002, the United Nations Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo released a report in which it accused eight Canadian mining companies of pillaging the Congo and contributing to the conflict there. The companies named were Banro Corporation, First Quantum Minerals, Kinross Gold, American Mineral Fields, International Panorama Resources, Tenke Mining, Melkior Resources, and Hrambee Mining. In total, the Panel named 125 companies and individuals for having contributed, directly or indirectly, to the Congo War.

Banro and Barrick Gold have held mining properties in eastern Congo under Rwandan or Ugandan control. According to Le Monde Diplomatique, both companies have been accused of “funding military operations in exchange for lucrative contracts.”

Intelligence specialist Wayne Madsen, who has worked for the U.S. National Security Agency, testified to the U.S. Congress in 2001 that “Barrick and tens of other mining companies are helping to stoke the flames of civil war in the DRC.” Madsen disclosed that Barrick signed a mining deal in 1999 with RCD-Goma, a Rwandan-backed rebel group fighting the Congolese government. According to Madsen, one of the main goals of RCD was “the restoration of mining concessions for Barrick Gold.”

The DRC’s richest mining area is in the southern province of Katanga. In October 2004, the Canadian-Australian company Anvil Mining provided logistical support to the DRC’s army to suppress a rebellion in the town of Kilwa, where Anvil operates a copper-silver mine. The company gave the army a plane, vehicles, personnel, and food. The military used these supplies to massacre 70 to 100 civilians, even though the rebels offered no resistance.

Prince Kumwamba is Executive Director of the Congolese human rights organization Action Against Impunity for Human Rights (ACIDH in French). ACIDH is based in Lubumbashi, capital of Katanga province. The organization has been trying to bring those responsible for the Kilwa massacre to justice and to obtain compensation for the victims in the Congo and abroad.

According to Kumwamba, “Our organization investigated this massacre in 2004. Through this investigation we realized that the soldiers of the Congolese army had committed killings of people considered to be sympathetic to the insurrectional movement that had happened in Kilwa. In reaction, the armed forces of the DRC, invited by the corporation Anvil Mining and with its material support, including trucks and also a plane to transport some soldiers, had committed these killings, as well as looting and burning down some homes of the population in Kilwa. So, for us, the Anvil Mining Corporation was very implicated, but unfortunately the Congolese justice system couldn’t make that finding.

“The massacres were committed in October, 2004, and in January 2005, our organization was informed about these massacres. We sent a letter to Anvil Mining to ask Anvil to tell us to what point it was involved in these massacres. Unfortunately, the corporation never answered our letter. So in April, after our letter in January, we issued a press release to denounce this massacre and to denounce especially the silence of the corporation that didn’t want to clarify, for the population, its possible involvement.

“In April, an Australian TV channel visited us in Lubumbashi, and we drove them to Kilwa ourselves, to prove everything that we were alleging about these massacres. And some weeks later, this TV channel produced a documentary that described the situation. It infuriated Bill Turner, CEO of Anvil Mining, and he began to take action on an international level, and especially on a local level, here with the local authorities, to try to prevent us from talking about this story.”

Partly due to ACIDH’s demands, Congolese military personnel and Anvil Mining employees were tried for the Kilwa massacre by a military court in 2007. The court acquitted military officers and three expatriate employees of Anvil Mining of charges of war crimes and complicity in war crimes. The expatriates were Canadian Pierre Mercier, general manager of Anvil Mining Congo, and two South Africans. According to Amnesty International, “there was apparent high-level political interference in the trial, as well as intimidation of witnesses. The acquittals were widely condemned as a setback in the struggle against impunity in the DRC.”

Kumwamba explained that “Anvil Mining corporation seriously involved itself, with the support of the Congolese authorities, to prevent a fully independent trial. As a result, the judgment that was issued was a false judgment—a judgment that has no relation to the acts committed in Kilwa, a judgment that said there was no massacre. But several reliable reports, including the reports of the United Nations Mission in Congo, have confirmed that people were massacred, that lootings were committed, and that rapes were committed by soldiers of Colonel Ademar Ilunga. So, for us, it’s a complacent verdict, issued in order to exempt the true criminals from their legal responsibilities.”

In April 2008, Prince Kumwamba tried to visit Kilwa on behalf of an Australian legal firm pursuing possible compensation claims in the Australian courts against Anvil Mining. The Congolese government barred Kumwamba from going to Kilwa, and after that he started getting threats on the phone warning him to stop his activities concerning the Kilwa massacre and Anvil Mining. Amnesty International issued an “Urgent Action” on Kumwamba’s behalf in April 2008 and believes that the government may be behind the threats and that his life may be in danger.

We asked Prince Kumwamba what he would like Canadians to do. He replied: “We simply ask them to exert some pressure on these Canadian multinational corporations, to encourage them to have some morality, to have a bit of generosity, to participate in the development of the native population, to dedicate a fraction of the benefits. Rather than collaborating in hurting them, notably through acts such as Anvil Mining committed against the population of Kilwa. And I think, at this moment, that the Canadian people can support us.”


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, February 2009

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. This article summarizes the radio documentary Path Of Destruction: Canadian Mining Companies Around the World, written by Asad and produced by Kristin Schwartz. The documentary is dedicated to indigenous peoples everywhere and has been aired on 32 radio stations in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia reaching about 31 million people.