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Mining Injustice Conference: Resisting extractivism, lessons and inspiration from frontline communities and fellow activists

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A concern about the social and environmental destruction caused by Canadian mining companies brought me to the fourth annual Mining Injustice Conference organized by the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network, held at the University of Toronto.

The conference was made up largely of panels and keynote speeches, and one breakout discussion group at the end of Saturday.

Given that the convergence took place in the wake of the announcement of the federal budget, its effects on mining justice issues were on many people’s minds. During the caucus Mining Struggles Within Canada facilitated by Jamie Kneen from Mining Watch, many people raised concerns over the gutting of the environmental assessment process which will hand off assessments to the provinces, introduce fixed timelines to large projects and require no assessments for smaller ones, and eliminate opportunities for those not “directly affected” by a project to participate.

This conference built on a similar conference put on last week in Montreal called Resistance in the Americas: Environmental Crimes and Canadian Mining. Ramsey Hart of Mining Watch reported that a major concern brought up by frontline community members and allies was the kind of development model the Canadian government under Stephen Harper’s rule is putting forward: dig up the earth, stick in the pipelines and ships, and export it. There is no concern for value added, or for other industries, like manufacturing, renewable energy, or the arts.

Ramsey Hart further explains that this is not just Harper’s agenda. Many provincial jurisdictions across Canada are also suffering from what we might call “an extractivist epidemic”. There is the Plan Nord put forward in Quebec by Charest, which will open up Northern Quebec to industry, the Ring of Fire in Ontario, an area Northeast of Thunderbay where Premier Dalton McGuinty has plans to develop the world’s largest chromite deposit and other minerals, and B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s plans to open eight new mines by 2015, to name a few. 

At the conference in Toronto, we heard from communities facing this “extractivist agenda”. Elizabeth Babin of Wahgoshig First Nation in North-Eastern Ontario shared her community’s struggles with mining. Polluting the water through dumping was a dominant concern. She is explained that “if water is in trouble, the community is in trouble”. As she told us about how not long ago, her community had been displaced from their homes and had to live in tents, it became clear that mining is just one part of a broader struggle to have control over their future and territory, which she said is now being treated as a mere “postage stamp”. She says they are finding ways to reclaim their land.

It was inspiring to hear from communities resisting un-wanted mining on their territories, and defending their land, ways of life and our environment. Michel Thursky and Norman Matchewan explained how their people, the Algoinquins of Barriere Lake stopped mining before it could begin, asking workers not to proceed with exploration drilling on their territory and participating in a shareholder meeting to let Cartier resources know the community would face severe consequences if it went ahead. Since then, Copper1 has bought up the mineral claims, but the Algonquins  say they will continue to defend their land and way of life.

Avi Chomsky, who has worked in solidarity with workers and nearby communities impacted by the mine provided some interesting insights in how to work as an ally with frontline groups. She started by explaining how mining is at the heart of global capitalism and colonialism, something you might hear from her father, Noam Chomsky. She continued from where he left off, building on an analysis of the problems to talking about solutions.

I took away four key ways to organize against unwanted or unsustainable mining from Chomsky’s presentation: educating people about the impacts through human stories, moving beyond ‘personal purification’ (for example, not just stopping using coal yourself, but supporting a frontline community’s struggle against coal mining), targeting a companies’ public image, and through international law, explaining that winning the case does not matter so much as frightening the company into better behavior.

The conference gave me a sense of the incredible work being done to resist unwanted and unhealthy mining, and to defend a healthy today and tomorrow. What would a nation and world that is not based on unsustainable mining or the negation of indigenous rights look like? As people resist, they are not only defending their land, they are protecting our environment and defending a safe future for us all. More than this, they are helping us to imagine another way, where health and community needs come first.   

By Brigette DePape, Intern with MiningWatch Canada

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