Volume 48, Issue 5: September/October 2014

Alain Deneault in Conversation with Canadian Dimension

Jethro Tulin, an Indigenous Ipili from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea and leading organizer of resistance against the mining bosses. Here Tulin is speaking outside Barrick Gold’s 2009 Annual General Meeting. Photo by Allan Lissner (allan.lissner.net); posted by the Porgera Alliance (porgeraalliance.net).

Québec author Alain Deneault has a research doctorate from the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin and a PhD in philosophy from the Université de Paris-VIII. He is an instructor at UQAM and the Université de Montréal. In 2008 he published noir Canada: Pillage, corruption et criminalité with research assistance from Delphine Abadie and William Sacher, about Canadian mining companies operating in Africa. The publisher, les Éditions Écosociété inc., and the authors became the object of two multi-million dollar SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) suits brought by Barrick Gold and Banro Corporation. More recently Deneault has turned his attention to tax havens, publishing Offshore: Tax Havens, Criminal Enterprise, and the Growing Global Threat to Our Democracy (New Press 2011) and Canada: A new Tax Haven (Talon Books, forthcoming) among many other books and essays on a variety of topics. He is also a researcher with Le Réseau pour la justice fiscale Québec, an organization affiliated with the international Tax Justice Network

Canadian Dimension: Can you talk a little bit about what happened with Barrick Gold when you published your book Noir Canada?

Alain Deneault: In the spring of 2008 my publisher Écosociété advertised on its website that Noir Canada would be published and the table of contents of the book was quoted on the webpage. On the basis of that document— the website—and without any content from the book we received a legal letter from Barrick Gold saying that if we published that book and if there was defamation from their point of view in some part of it, then they would sue us—the publisher, my researchers and myself—for a considerable amount.

So we talked about it and we decided to go ahead and launch the book. We then had to contend with a $6-million lawsuit. We continued to talk about the book because it mainly summarized sources concerning the role of Canadian corporations in Africa. We called for a public inquiry on the allegations that we mentioned in the book.

Since that lawsuit wasn’t enough to stop us, Banro Corporation sued us for $5 million in Ontario so that we had to fi ght in two different legal systems with two different teams of lawyers. We discovered then how unfair the legal system is in this country. Basically no average citizen from the middle class and even the upper middle class has the means to defend him or herself in a court room because it costs a lot.

What does it mean? it means that every citizen in this country finances the legal system with their taxes, but only millionaires and billionaires have access to it because to have access to justice you must be the client of a lawyer. Since lawyers have, as we know, very expensive fees, this means that citizens have rights in theory, but in reality they cannot make sure that these rights are applied or enforced when it concerns their interests.

We struggled in that context for three and a half years. We made the book public and Écosociété sold several thousand copies worldwide. After this case, the Québec government took the opportunity to introduce Bill 28 to reform civil law procedures. This bill was a way for the legislature to give support in principle to people like us who were facing that type of lawsuit. Justice Beaugé from the Superior Court in Québec said that the lawsuit was abusive in many respects. He asked Barrick Gold to pay for a part of our defense fees and almost explicitly asked the two parties to settle out of court. So the justices were telling us to negotiate with Barrick Gold and settle out of court. But, of course, the problem of inequality of means remained. We finally agreed to withdraw the book and Barrick Gold withdrew its lawsuit.

Right after that we published Paradis sous terre and Imperial Canada Inc., which contain essentially the same content as Noir Canada, but presented in different ways. It also deals with allegations of abuses by mining corporations, in the case of that second book not only in Africa but in the Global South, in Eastern Europe and in Greece. I think that on a legal level, we neither lost nor won, but we certainly won on the political level because the point of view and approach that we took has become, I think, part of the social consciousness. I think that today these problems— cases of abuse, pollution and so on— spring to mind when we think about a Canadian mining company operating somewhere in the world. Although we weren’t alone—a lot of organizations worked toward the same end—we definitely helped. We were certainly active in the struggle to publicize this issue.

What role do you see gold playing in the world now both culturally and economically?

My work focused on how the Canadian jurisdiction supports the world mining industries. I tried to figure out why 75 per cent of the world’s mining companies are registered in Canada. There are a lot of gold companies among them. With respect to gold there are two particular points one can raise. The first is that in Africa especially gold mining is something scandalous because it takes a lot of water. Of course in Haiti, in African countries and in South American countries water is more important than gold for people, but you see these huge corporations coming in and obtaining access to concessions in ways that are unclear—maybe thanks to corruption—and then they use cyanide and a lot of water so that they spoil the natural resources necessary for people’s daily lives and they pollute the land. Their operations represent a higher risk with respect to pollution than other activities.

The second point is that human beings nowadays don’t need that gold. We use gold for jewels and to support institutions that are active in the financial markets because they want to have some reserves in case of economic crisis related to currencies. So I would say that the gold industry raises questions about the useless character of some mining industry activities.

What is a pity when we talk about the mining industry also among activists is that we often raise the issue of mining without considering this specific industry in relation to other social and economic questions such as our way of life—overconsumption —and the possibility of recycling what we already dig, exploit and use in industrial processes. Also, we don’t raise the issue of planned obsolescence. And it all works together. If we could put all of these questions on the agenda at the same time, we could say, okay, maybe it’s worthwhile to dig that hole in that specific area because we need zinc, but we’ll use it carefully. We’ll exploit zinc carefully because we’ll make sure that what we dig out will be recycled in many objects that we will use. We’ll take what we need from what we have wasted to do other things. If we raise the issue that way one is able to say that we don’t need to dig for gold at all today because what we have already taken out is enough. If we need it for industry or for dentistry then we have more than enough, and the rest is only useful in specific domains which doesn’t justify all the risks related to that industry.

In light of ongoing revelations—to which your work has contributed enormously—about the human rights and environmental abuses of Canadian mining companies around the world, an organization called the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA) has launched the Open for Justice campaign. They are calling for the creation of an extractive-sector ombudsman to investigate complaints from people who have been harmed by the activities of Canadian mining companies and other extractive industries operating internationally and also to give people who have been harmed in this way better access to Canadian courts in order to get redress. Do you see any point in that type of reform?

I think it is worthwhile to work toward the creation of an ombudsman. It’s an idea that was put forward six or seven years ago. It was supported by many organizations. Nevertheless, I think that proposal is too weak. We engage in politics with symbols and the symbol of an ombudsman is far too weak to acknowledge the gravity of the abuses demonstrated or alleged to have been committed by Canadian mining corporations. An ombudsman usually exists within organizations such as government departments and academic institutions in order to settle conflicts between employees or between managers and employees. It’s a position that has more to do with resolving personal conflicts between people in the same institution than with corporations that are huge, wealthy, powerful and often associated with abuses that are very serious like corruption, arms dealing, pollution, support of rebels, threats to public health and sometimes assassination or the support of armies when they are in conflict with other social groups. This is so serious that we should at least ask for a permanent and independent commission of inquiry that would have all the powers not only to inquire, but also to ask representatives of corporations to appear and to submit documents. I would say the ombudsman is sort of a compromise between that position and what the Harper government did, which is to name an advisor who can only inquire into the activities of a corporation if that corporation agrees, which renders the advisor quite powerless.

Christian Tym has argued, “There’s a huge difference between drilling for oil in a neoliberal corporatocracy and drilling in Ecuador where the public collects 85 cents of every dollar in profit.” [“Why There Is A Progressive Case To ‘Drill Baby, Drill!’ In Ecuador,” zcom.org, May 30, 2014.] He made that statement in the context of a defense of what’s called “progressive extractivism.” What do you think of the case that’s being made for progressive extractivism? Do you consider it a contradiction in terms?

I don’t know if we can trust the representative of a corporation when that person claims they pay taxes. It may be clear that in the case of a specific corporation we can find royalties or taxes being paid, but when we study the way corporations use tax havens to avoid legal taxation—with techniques such as transfer pricing—it is easy to see that there are a lot of ways to circumvent the tax system of many countries, not only the so-called developing countries, but also countries like Canada, the USA, France, Japan and so on. Maybe legally and formally there are fiscal obligations for corporations that operate in the energy or mining field, but just because there are tax laws doesn’t mean that taxes actually get paid.

Also the main point is not taxation, but rather what populations actually want and whether they are a part of the process. We also could talk about the costs a country incurs for inviting mining corporations to operate there. It has to build roads, provide access to water, and finance security. The army is often called in to settle conflicts. There are also sometimes financial supports related to job creation. Or when a corporation goes ahead with the decontamination of a site they will often ask the state to give them tax breaks to finance these programs related to what they call social responsibility and so on and so forth.

So we have to look carefully at the big picture to make sure that what companies claim to pay is actually paid and to assess the social costs of their presence, and also we have to consider the question of democracy. Are the people consulted and do they agree with the projects, and in which contexts, and are alternatives discussed during these consultations? It shouldn’t be just about the possibility of allowing a mining or oil company to operate, but also about determining in a democratic way how people want to live. We are far from that situation even though some people do green-washing or claim to be socially responsible.

Often the activities of mining companies in particular run completely counter to the ability of people to make a living in traditional ways because they are ruining the land and polluting the water so they are actually in conflict with other possibilities.

When we hear testimony from populations that have to deal with mining or oil corporations it’s a copy-paste of exactly the same social, political, fiscal and environmental problems. People are also manipulated in the same ways. One part of the population will say, “Well, we definitely need jobs,” and they will believe in whatever is presented to them even though the best jobs are always kept for foreigners. The long-term jobs also revolve around what foreigners can do because they are trained in developed countries, like engineers and so on. The poorest jobs are kept in short-term contracts to the populations. But it will always be enough in Ecuador or in Québec or elsewhere to divide people, and of course corporations and governments take advantage of those conflicts. Those people with another point of view on the issue will see everything that is being lost due to mining projects, and they understand that capital is not financial, but is worth much more than what we can record in accounting ledgers.

Even as Canadian foreign aid spending has been steadily cut under the Harper government, Canadian aid has been quite openly subordinated to the promotion of commercial interests and especially mining interests as demonstrated by the government’s move last year under the omnibus budget Bill C-60 to merge CIDA and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade into the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. A Canadian mining industry executive, Rio Tinto Alcan CEO Jacynthe Côté, was chosen to head up the external advisory group for the new department. Aid has always been tied to foreign policy—that’s not really new—so it’s arguable that the relationship is now simply more transparent. Is that something to be welcomed?

Unfortunately things are becoming clearer and it’s just pure capitalist logic. If we look at history, governments finance the activities of private corporations in many ways. Many of the most powerful and impressive private corporations were extensively financed by governments—Boeing, General Electric and so on. For decades the mining industry had the support of government here or abroad to get access to concessions, to gain access to resources such as water and people—people with the kind of training that made them immediately helpful to the corporations, such as engineers, and experts in public relations, administration and finance and so on.

The Canadian government finances the program of corporate social responsibility. The corporations don’t have to handle, as they claim to do, that dimension of their presence because CIDA or the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade will take care of it, at least partially.

What about the ways in which foreign aid has been tied to mining interests? CIDA was supposed to be engaged in poverty reduction, but it was teaming up with NGOs to help mining companies. Now they’re targeting specific countries where there will be mining prospects and saying that’s where the aid is going to go.

Well, by the end of the 1990s we already knew that CIDA wasn’t independent. At that time the Canadian government said that CIDA would only support countries that had a tie with the structural adjustment plans of the IMF. Everybody knew that the IMF plans didn’t support the economies of so-called developing countries at all. We knew that the USA would have never have accepted having such funds imposed on it. It was a colonialist approach, and we know what kind of work Joseph Stiglitz did in that area. But CIDA was only supporting countries that were involved in structural adjustment plans. So the tying of aid to corporate interests is not new, but it’s true that the central power of the Canadian government supports this relationship. There were small organizations that needed CIDA’s support to assist people in the communities they knew, but that has now become more difficult.

That ties into my last question. How would you characterize Harper’s record when it comes to policies promoting mining interests and activities both in Canada and overseas? You have tended to stress the continuity in Canadian government policy, as in the case of CIDA, between the Harper government and its predecessors. Do you think anything of significance has changed under Harper or is there a complete supersession of partisan politics when it comes to mining policy so that it makes no difference whether it’s the Liberals, the Conservatives or the NDP in power?

I wish it were an exaggeration to say that the Liberals only serve up the Conservative program with a smiling face. But many Canadian Prime Ministers, after their political careers had ended, worked exactly in the same manner for mining corporations. Joe Clark was the Mr. Africa of First Quantum Minerals. Jean Chrétien worked for almost every firm you can imagine. Brian Mulroney was on the board of Barrick Gold and also on the board of this international advisory board. I wonder where Stephen Harper will wind up when he retires.

The real differences among the parties in power would be felt by Canadian citizens who come together in organizations and groups and try to change things. Within our country there are real differences with respect to the possibilities for activists and citizens to raise issues publicly about our concerns over human rights abuses, activities promoting pollution abroad and what we can do here.

So it’s really the repression of dissent that has intensified under the Harper regime.

We also see it today for artists, who scarcely have the funds they need to perform outside the country. The difference between Conservatives and Liberals lies in the interest Conservatives take in the content of what organizations produce with the public money they are granted. I would say that the Liberals—as their name suggests—allowed for more freedom in the positions organizations could take. So we see the difference, but I don’t think in Angola or Haiti or Cameroon or Papua New Guinea you can see any difference between Liberals and Conservatives.

This interview was conducted on July 21, 2014 by Andrea Levy and Richard Swift. It has been edited for length and clarity.