Canada the Good

Myth and reality in Canadians’ involvement in African mining.

In 2010, a bill to increase corporate responsibility in the mining sector went before the Canadian House of Commons. Entitled the Responsible Mining Act, it gave hope for a new level of accountability in a sector rife with problems. It would have given the minister responsible for international development the ability to set environmental and international human rights standards for Canadian companies engaged in mining, oil or gas activities in developing countries. After intense debate, Bill C-300 was defeated. The vote was 140 to 134.

It leaves in its place a voluntary corporate social responsibility system. A damning report commissioned by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada that was leaked in 2009 found that Canadian mining companies were implicated in four times as many international mining violations of corporate social responsibility as mining companies from other countries. The report went on to state mining companies from Canada were “more likely to be engaged in community conflict, environmental and unethical behaviour”1. Why would we as a country not want to address this serious discrepancy in corporate conduct?

According to Canadian studies scholar Paula Butler, who teaches at Trent University, the mining sector’s power means it can successfully lobby domestic and international governments for its own benefit. In Colonial Extractions: Race and Canadian Mining in Contemporary Africa, she argues that Canada is actively creating and participating in a global system of laws and economic persuasion that enshrine and legitimize the power of our country’s elites. “Canada” for Butler’s purposes, while not always clear, includes individuals from government, diplomatic offices and the mining industry. She argues that the global system in place ensures a systematic imbalance of power to enable mining elites in countries such as Canada to get rich through low-wage resource extraction.

Butler’s writing is heavily academic, befitting the book’s origin as a doctoral thesis. Using post-colonial and critical race theories, she identifies similarities between the mindset of colonialists extracting resources in Canada during colonization to those of Canadians currently involved in mining in Africa. Much of her evidence came from theoretical frameworks applied to 18 interviews with Canadian mining professionals, correspondence from Canadian embassies, court cases and World Bank policies. Butler uses these sources to examine the motivations and actions of members of Canada’s mining community involved in mineral extractions in Africa.

One thing that becomes clear in her interviews is the extent to which these key players exhibit what she sees as the typical Canadian view of our country’s place in the world. In Butler’s words:

Many Canadians are taught to think of Canada as a country characterized by innocence and fairness, meritocracy, exemplary ethical standards, inclusivity, and humanitarianism … This false history as a “non-colonizing state”—in tandem with false depictions of Canada as a land where slavery and other forms of racial violence did not exist—is then deployed with powerful simplicity to produce an idea of Canadians as moral giants: Canadians are not people who colonize or enslave others; Canadians are not racist; Canadians are good.

Her interviewees, again reflecting a typical view among many Canadians, also tend to find nothing wrong with companies profiting from low wages, either globally or in our own economy. The idea is at the core of a free market system where individuals willing to get paid low wages are fair game, especially if low wages serve as a source of a country’s competitiveness. The market-oriented economy has been credited with drawing nations—not simply former colonial powers but also newly developed countries—out of poverty. For example, the World Bank estimates that China lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty between 1981 and 2004 due to the opening of the country’s markets. Butler’s text lacks competing theories and perspectives on development, and thus misses an opportunity to define the distinction between colonialism and opportunistic capitalism, which by its very nature is blurry.

But while her conclusion is likely to cause disagreement, she presents a compelling narrative of land acquisition and wealth by affluent (white) Canadian mining executives enabled by the displacement of indigenous people who have been excluded from the benefits of the mining, except for a relatively few low-paying jobs. From this foundation, Butler argues that because Canada’s business community has been the primary beneficiary of Canada’s mining operations in Africa they are intrinsically linked to growing international inequality.

Butler makes a legitimate case that, regardless of the potential for the Canadian economy to benefit from the foreign operations of the country’s mining companies, important questions need to be answered. Are Canadians benefiting to the detriment of others? Are we creating systematic imbalances of power that prevent a state from profiting from its own resources? While not all of the conclusions she draws have clear lines from evidence, there are some noteworthy examples of inequality and interference.

International Canadian mining projects frequently operate in African countries where life expectancies are low and child mortality rates are high. The exports of mineral resources from African countries with Canadian mining operations are estimated to be in the billions of dollars but host government revenues from those activities were less than five percent of those amounts. Butler also describes involvement by Canadian actors in drafting the legislation in those countries that governs royalty rates and created private and exclusive mining licences. She concludes that the local miners can no longer compete and are therefore locked out of the process, leading to protest and physical violence.

For most Canadians, the implications of these regimes are so far removed they barely register on public consciousness. For me, they are much more present. In 2012, I was in Tanzania working for a local organization when one of these violent episodes took place at a mine owned by a Canadian-owned subsidiary. The community had long mined that area until the foreign company acquired exclusive rights to the area and the local miners’ livelihoods were made illegal. Some were still permitted to mine through informal arrangements with staff. When the companies decided to crack down, three local miners were shot dead.

In her interviews, Butler asks her interviewees what they think drives the mining professional to explore Africa. Their responses suggest that they are motivated by the opportunity that these sites present to make high profits for shareholders, made possible by paying very low wages to local workers. Their justifications for excluding locals from all but the lowest paid jobs are not surprising: no one was mining the land when they arrived; low-paying jobs are more stable than small-scale mining; the local mining operations were dangerous and disorganized; or the ever frequent “we are helping.”

One of the most interesting features of Butler’s book is the attention she pays to the locals whose livelihoods as artisanal miners are at risk when western mining firms arrive. Traditionally Africa’s small-scale miners have been portrayed in pejorative terms with the emphasis on smuggling, their possible use of child labour, and their likely neglect of environmental and safety concerns. Butler musters considerable evidence to show that this picture is reductive. And to the extent that the picture makes it possible to deny these miners what many would argue are their legitimate rights to at least part of Africa’s mineral wealth, it is harmful as well. According to Butler:

These miners are not inherently criminals. It is possible that a small percentage of them are simply looking for a quick buck (which could have been said of Canada’s early gold rush prospectors, as well as many of today’s international investors), but most of them take up artisanal mining for basic economic survival—to secure a reliable, decent income in the absence of viable alternatives.

This sympathetic view of artisanal miners now informs much professional commentary within the world of international development, yet is still relatively unfamiliar to non-specialists. It is a view that many readers of Butler’s book will find revealing—one of the many ways in which Colonial Extractions has the potential to shift our perspective on the Canadian mining industry’s involvement in Africa.

One of the challenges Colonial Extractions makes to our preconceptions is Butler’s attribution of specific actions of human rights violations to Canadian mining companies themselves. Her interviews with the Canadian mining corporation representatives allow the reader to gain an understanding of “why” these actions are occurring. While it is not indicated what percentage these 18 individuals may represent in the industry or their positions in the organization, their comments on local mining give us insight into the real paradox of the thoughts and actions of Canadian mining representatives.

For many of the professionals she interviewed, artisanal miners were a particularly problematic group. “When questions were posed about artisanal miners,” she notes, “the interviewees showed considerable discomfort. It was hard for them to successfully represent these subjects as supporting the Canadian presence and the entitlement of Canadian companies to African minerals.” Questioned about the lack of support or partnering with local mining operations, the mining company representatives made it clear they believed they had the expertise essential to create wealth with safer and healthier outcomes. This justification for why Canada is needed has little weight when Canadian mining companies in Africa have such a poor record. Butler argues the mentality that Canadian individuals can “do better” than a country can do for itself is a major reason why human rights abuses are happening. (Another reason is the previously mentioned economic gain, which can lead to conflict and various forms of repression.)

While her use of the interviews helps show us the why; the exploration of the Canadian government’s role would be the how. But Butler blurs the distinct roles of political actions, bureaucratic policy making and diplomatic conversations. So when she cites a general overall favouritism by government officials to the economic interests of Canadian firms rather than to legitimate domestic interests, the actors have to be inferred by the reader. Butler comes short in specifying whether individual agents acted in their own self-interest or whether they were part of a nationally supported agenda regarding mining in Africa to maximize benefits for Canadian business. Perhaps there is no one answer. The conclusion drawn is that the government allows space for the mining companies to act in their current capacity, which after the defeat of Bill C-300 raises an eyebrow.

There is certainly evidence that government policy in Canada has disappointed human rights advocates. The Canadian government has recently been found to lag behind its peers in “helping the world’s poor” (the “poor” include countries where Canadian mining companies operate). According to a recently published report by the Washington-based Center for Global Development, Canada is ranked 13 out of 27 wealthy countries in regards to their commitment to seven areas that have a significant impact on the world’s poor and the only one in the group who did worse than last year. When looking just at the environmental category, Canada was dead last.

We may accept Butler’s arguments that Canada has a bad track record in mining, but this should be only the start of a full analysis. In Colonial Extractions there is no indication of why Canada’s record is worse than other countries. Is the Canadian government interfering in a way that is particularly colonial or do other countries have Bill C-300 type regulations to prevent this behaviour? Is the Canadian government leveraging our international reputation for legislative drafting to manipulate other legal systems? It cannot be that other countries are not using diplomatic pressures to pay low wages for profit. While the World Bank is quoted as a major player throughout the book, Butler’s limited focus on Canada means there is an absence of comparisons with other countries. In addition, is it the government actors or business community that need the reform? Only by understanding the answers to these questions can we know if national regulation could make a difference.

Without knowing how Canada is unique, we have no map on how to improve. What we are given is a chance to reflect on a Canada we would like to have and to ask the question posed by the African philosopher and political scientist Achille Mbembe, quoted in Butler’s book: “To whom do a country’s riches belong?”


  1. See “Suppressed Report Confirms International Violations by Canadian Mining Companies,” Mining Watch, October 28, 2010. http://www.miningwatch.ca/news/suppressed-report-confirms-international-violations-canadian-mining-companies.