The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Capitalism and Dispossession: Corporate Canada at Home and Abroad, edited by David P. Thomas and Veldon Coburn. The collection brings together a broad range of case studies to highlight the role of Canadian corporations in producing, deepening, and exacerbating conditions of dispossession both at home and abroad. For more information, visit www.fernwoodpublishing.ca.
Early in 2020, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Canadian corporation—Nevsun Resources Ltd.—could be sued in a Canadian court for its alleged abuses at a mining project in the country of Eritrea. In one of the world’s most authoritarian and repressive states, mine workers alleged that they were “forced to provide labor in harsh and dangerous conditions for years.” Eritrea runs a “national service” program that a United Nations Commission of Inquiry labelled “enslavement.” Also in early 2020, six Indigenous land defenders were arrested in northern British Columbia for trying to block the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The land defenders were acting in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who are opposed to the construction of a massive pipeline through their territory.
While these two cases are very different, they are both symptoms of a broader problem with contemporary capitalism and with the activities of Canadian corporations acting both at home and abroad. This book makes a rare attempt to critically examine the activities of Canadian corporations domestically and internationally and, more importantly, to draw connections between processes of corporate accumulation in both realms. Rather than treating them as fundamentally different, we suggest that both exist within a global capitalist market that is creating dispossession for many. Canadian corporations, with the direct and indirect assistance of the Canadian state, are profiting from these acts of dispossession across jurisdictions. Moreover, we argue that the problems associated with Canadian corporations around the world are not due to a few bad corporations acting poorly but, rather, an economic system that prioritizes the accumulation of profit over the well-being of people and the planet. The abuses committed by Canadian corporations abroad are normally analyzed and discussed in isolation from that which takes place within the borders of the Canadian state. We aim to demonstrate that there are important connections between the two and that we can deepen our understanding of global capitalism by making these connections.
Contemporary capitalism and dispossession
According to David Harvey, the process that transitioned society from feudalism to capitalism—primitive accumulation and the violence that it involved—has morphed into an integral feature of contemporary capitalism. For Harvey, contemporary capitalism relies upon what he terms “accumulation by dispossession,” a process that entails the same practices and impulses for dispossession of the natural capital stock that characterized early stages—“predation, fraud, and violence.” As Harvey points out, “all the features of primitive accumulation that Marx mentions have remained powerfully present within capitalism’s historical geography up until now.” Sylvia Federici similarly observes that “the most violent aspects of primitive accumulation has accompanied every phase of capitalist globalization, including the present one.” This view is often clouded from the vantage point of Western society. Our spatial myopia blurs the hallmarks of primitive accumulation; much of what falls within the ambit of “accumulation by dispossession” occurs on the margins of capitalist society or, as Rosa Luxemburg observed, in the non-capitalist “outside.”
Indeed, it is in places far from the developed metropolitan centres of capitalism that displacement of peasant and Indigenous Peoples continues, leaving their lands unoccupied and unencumbered for the exploitative prerogatives of organized capital. While advanced economies operate by way of modern features that would be unrecognizable in Smith or Marx’s time, such as increased financialization and monetization mechanisms, these traits redirect our attention away from physical dispossession of territory and natural resources. Land grabbing and other rent-seeking behaviour may be viewed as a relic of a more basic and uncivil era long behind us, but it remains a contemporary reality for Indigenous Peoples on the periphery of some of the most advanced states. Dene scholar Glen Coulthard has similarly challenged the historical assumption of primitive accumulation, noting that violent dispossession of territory and natural resources underwrites ongoing colonial endeavours in Canada and other settler societies. Far from reinvesting profits for expanding economic production, contemporary capitalism has increasingly replicated its emergence from feudalism by way of “accumulation by dispossession” and its attendant violence.
Though formally separated from the economic sphere, the state is thoroughly ensnared in capitalist imperatives and often not far removed from the violence involved in the processes of dispossession. As Harvey remarks, “the state is not innocent, nor is it necessarily passive, in relation to these processes.” This view is not out of step with Marx’s view of the bourgeois state in The German Ideology and later in The Communist Manifesto. It was in the latter that Marx identified the state as the administrative committee for the management of the bourgeoisie’s economic affairs and securing their economic interests. The state’s monopoly on violence and coercion that guarantees capital property rights and individual liberties is the same institution that legitimizes forced displacement and dispossession of land and resources.
In recent times, violent expropriation of the territory and natural resources held in common by Indigenous Nations and international peasantry populations has been carried out under the pretense of state legality. To be sure, all three branches of the modern state—the judiciary, legislature, and executive—in addition to a complex administrative bureaucracy, are profoundly oriented to facilitating capitalist expansion. Since the 1970s, states in the Global North and developed world have reoriented and transformed the machinery of government to lubricate the wheels of capital accumulation. At the same time, these same governments have rapidly discarded any vestiges of population welfare functions.
The role of the Canadian state
Since the mid-1970s, most developed states have undergone profound reorientation towards neoliberal and structural reorganization to facilitate neoliberal imperatives and corporate economics—Canada is no exception. For several decades preceding this sharp divergence, what has been called the “Golden Age” of welfare state capitalism in the post-war era, running from 1945 to the early 1970s, the public sectors of many advanced states were structured to provide robust social security. In addition to civil and political rights, the welfare state also guaranteed a set of social rights that were supported by state programming and expenditures. But by the 1970s, many of the advanced capitalist states took an abrupt turn for neoliberal imperatives. This new tack in governance implemented austerity measures to curb social protections and intensely sharpened the focus on economic priorities such as production growth. In Canada, the last decades of the twentieth century saw significant decline in generous social support from the state; during the same period, there was an expansion of the machinery of government designed to sustain the neoliberal economy, coupled with a transfer to corporations and other market entities of traditionally state-held functions.
There are several ways that the Canadian state directly and indirectly funds and assists corporate Canada in its accumulation both at home and abroad; consequently, the Canadian state is deeply implicated in the many forms of dispossession that result from this corporate activity. One way the Canadian state assists Canadian companies abroad is by engaging diplomatically with other states where there is interest in trade and investment. This can take the form of negotiating bilateral or multilateral free trade agreements. The government also sends trade missions to visit other countries in order to promote Canadian businesses, which typically involves bringing politicians, corporate executives, and others to visit important political players abroad.
In addition to diplomatic support, there are several government funds or agencies that directly support Canadian corporations abroad. For example, Export Development Canada (EDC) and the Canada Account both enable Canadian firms to pursue their production, sales, and research activities internationally. As a Crown corporation, EDC is “dedicated to helping Canadian companies of all sizes succeed on the world stage.” This means providing loans, insurance, knowledge, and other material support to Canadian firms operating abroad. In addition, further government assistance through the Canada Account is available for some firms if the risk is deemed to be too high for EDC. The Canada Account is administered by EDC, but decisions to dispense funds rest with the federal Cabinet. According to EDC:
BQ Canada Account is used to support export transactions which we are unable to support, but which are determined by the Minister for International Trade to be in Canada’s national interest. This is usually due to a combination of risks, including the size of transaction, market risks, EDC’s country capacity, borrower risks, and/or the financing conditions. We negotiate, execute and administer these transactions on the same basis as Corporate Account activities but the risks are assumed by the Federal government.
According to EDC, the Canada Account has dispensed billions of dollars to Trans Mountain, which was a private firm purchased by the Canadian government in order to build a deeply polarizing expansion pipeline in western Canada.
For Indigenous Peoples, the imperative of organized capital incursions into their jurisdictions has remained largely unchanged from the early days of colonialism. Increased financialization, Harvey explains, has been the primary vehicle for accumulation by dispossession as the manoeuvres of high finance generate liquidity and credit crises; however, rentier capitalism continues to thrive by way of dispossessing Indigenous Peoples of their territory. Like their early colonial forebears, contemporary land grabbers, both at home and abroad, are a significant driver of economic activity in Canada. Sadly, these rent-seeking behaviours come at the expense—and dispossession—of Indigenous Peoples. Primitive accumulation—the likes and political modes described by Marx—continues to transpire unchanged: the Crown encloses the territory of Indigenous people that is held in common; Indigenous rights to access and use to their territory are circumscribed; and exclusive rights of property are granted to organized private capital. And like much earlier times, capital interests enjoy the protection of the state and its monopoly on the use of coercion and violence.
Colonial dispossession in the service of the capitalism is an intensely racial project. From the inside looking out, foreign acquisition and unilateral development of Indigenous territory would suggest a matter for international law. Indigenous Peoples have long maintained that Crown-Indigenous relations are only correctly understood on a nation-to-nation basis. But settler colonialism reduces Indigenous identities to subalterities, to sub-national collectivities that are viewed as incapable of holding sovereignty in the modern global order of nation states or without the requisite capacity to exercise jurisdiction over territory. In the imperial hierarchy of power, racial subalterity is installed to divide the rulers from who and what will be ruled. From the time of colonial contact with Indigenous nations in what would become Canada, the settler state and society have been impelled by what Patrick Wolfe has termed the “logic of elimination,” the settler-colonial impulse to replace the Indigenous inhabitants with settler fragments of the colonial power. At its base, settler colonialism is the drive to acquire land. The settler-colonial logic of elimination, as Wolfe observes, “is premised on the securing—the obtaining and the maintaining—of territory.” Disposed to this logic, the Crown has constructed a vast authoritative edifice for the sole purpose of racial administration of Indigenous Peoples and regulating their occupation or usage of land and other natural resources. Explicitly enshrined directly into the Constitution Act, 1867, the colonial state has retained for itself the prerogative to legislate and execute laws concerning “Indians, and lands reserved for the Indians.”
The exclusive privilege and right of the settler state to enact legislation and regulations over Indigenous Peoples and their territories, to carry these laws out, and to interpret them according to colonial legal traditions continues to be a powerful instrument to serve capital interests. Territorial title that Indigenous nations have held and, in many cases, have not ceded, surrendered, or extinguished has a long history of being ignored by the state as it grants rights of access, withdrawal, alienation, and income to corporations. When Indigenous resistance to corporate encroachment and dispossession emerges, the state deploys two broad strategies to ensure Indigenous Peoples are divested and extricated from their territory: consent and coercion. Treaties and other legal arrangements that transfer territorial rights and title to the colonial state are tactics that have been used since European contact and continue to this day. For example, the Algonquins of Ontario modern treaty has been under negotiation since the early 1990s; through these negotiations, a treaty agreement-in-principle was reached in 2016 and will leave the Algonquins with 475 square kilometres out of an original 36,000 square kilometres. And not incidental to the capitalist imperative of the state, the Crown will set aside $300 million for economic development in the region.
But when the state fails to obtain a “consensual” agreement for dispossession, it will avail itself of coercive recourse. Brutality and oppression in colonial endeavours is also as old as peaceful agreements, and the state has shown that it will marshal its monopoly on violence and force when Indigenous Peoples will not accede to capital interests to their territories and, by extension, the abundant natural resources therein.
Numerous recent examples of Indigenous resistance to corporate ventures come to mind—Elsipogtog’s refusal to allow fracking on its land, Wet’suwet’en rejection of oil and gas pipelines through their territory, the Algonquin blockades against logging companies—which were met by the state’s militarized police authorities vigorously shoring up corporate desires for unfettered access to and income from Indigenous territory. Journalistic coverage of these events has accustomed observers of Canadian current affairs to graphic imagery of militarized police forces descending on Indigenous people asserting their rights and title.
At the same time that Indigenous resistance to corporate dispossession has been criminalized, the Canadian state has furnished corporations with novel assurances that their own wrongdoings and harms created in the pursuit of capital accumulation will be delicately pacified and given near amnesty. In 2018, the Trudeau government introduced a new instrument to shield corporations from prosecution for economic crimes. Canada’s Criminal Code was amended and revised to entail a “Remediation Agreement regime” that would relieve corporations of criminal liability. This approach to corporate economic crime—replete with the “deferred prosecution agreements” used in the United States and United Kingdom and which entered the Canadian public lexicon during the SNC-Lavalin scandal—is justified on the basis that pursuing criminal proceedings would entail negative collateral consequences for innocent parties. Prosecuting corporations for their economic crimes, it is argued, would harm others such as employees and company shareholders.
David P. Thomas is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Mount Allison University, on unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaw Peoples. His teaching and research interests focus on the role of Canadian actors abroad and on international political economy.
Veldon Coburn is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies. Veldon is Anishinaabe, a member of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn. Veldon’s primary research focus is on Indigenous politics and policy in Canada with particular emphasis on political and economic theory.