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Activists give room full of miners a taste of their own exploration

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Image: Allan Lissner

This week, keynote speakers at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) mining convention found themselves persistently drowned out by the sound of jackhammers. Once the first audio recording -- played from the bag of an undercover activist -- ended, the 500-plus person audience breathed a sigh of relief that the disruption had been contained. Until another jackhammer started. And another. Eventually, five separate sound disruptions were occurring in multiple locations in the room as attendees and panelists looked around, confused and irritated.

As activists exited the convention space, they tried to put onlookers' irritation into perspective: "These are your sounds, not ours. Does it bother you? Does it disturb your quality of life?"

Free entry laws in Ontario: a colonial system by design

This intervention was staged by members of the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network as a critique of Ontario's "free entry" system, which puts the rights of resource extraction companies before the rights of Indigenous nations and other communities to give free, prior and informed consent. Free entry gives mineral prospectors the exclusive right to look for minerals wherever they stake a claim, as long as they have the proper permits and licenses, have submitted an exploration plan and as long that land fits within certain criteria. Preliminary mineral exploration can then begin before any environmental assessment is conducted and before communities living on that land can have a say in the matter.  

"The laws governing exploration in Ontario are reflective of this country's colonial origins and present colonial practices," said MISN organizer Rachel Small. "People across Turtle Island are watching the violence being enacted on Wet'suwet'en land right now, and more and more people are waking up and realizing that this is how Canada works… it's designed from top to bottom to serve the extractive industry at the expense of Indigenous communities."

No longer tolerating "business as usual"

Just a day before, hundreds of Torontonians surrounded the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in solidarity with communities around the world who have faced violence and environmental destruction at the hands of extractive industries. Organized by a coalition of a dozen activist organizations and endorsed by over 50 community groups, the rally was called "People Before Profit: Evict the Corporate Criminals!" and was designed to bring people in Toronto together to reject the occurrence of the world's largest mining convention in the city.

The PDAC convention has been running for more than 85 years and attracts more than 26,000 people from over 130 countries. This year, as with all other years, exhibitors and sponsors were a veritable Rolodex of some of the world's biggest climate and colonial perpetrators.

"Business as usual cannot be allowed to continue," says MISN activist Val Croft. "Resource extraction -- including industrial mining -- is responsible for putting our planet into major crisis. Now, mining companies at PDAC 2020 are promoting themselves as the solution to climate change in the transition to a so-called green economy. But you can't cure the disease with the cause of the problem."

Another rally organizer, Charlene Houlden, commented: "The fact that thousands of people are gathering this weekend at PDAC to discuss advancing, expanding and discovering new extractive projects tells me that the gravity of the climate crisis isn't being taken seriously by industry or by the government that is supposed to regulate it."

The keynote panel that was disrupted featured three industry representatives talking about innovations in exploration practice: Mark Bristow from Barrick Gold, Robert Friedland from Ivanhoe Mines and Joe Ovsenek from Pretium Resources. These three companies (or, the people who lead them) represent a laundry list of environmental harm and human rights violations, from tailings collapses to worker deaths, from gang rape to police violence. Robert Friedland, especially, has earned himself the nickname "Toxic Bob" because of his legacy of environmental destruction.

"If these three are considered to be leaders in exploration practices, it doesn't bode well for communities around the world impacted by this industry," said organizer Caren Weisbart, one of the activists who disrupted the keynote. "Mark Bristow from Barrick Gold, in particular, commented in his speech today that exploration practices needed to be brought 'off the reservation' and that those investing in exploration geology should 'go where the elephants are' (i.e. underexplored areas, mainly in Africa). These comments were tasteless and frankly disrespectful to Indigenous communities around the world who the mining industry claims to care about."

Free entry for prospectors, little control for communities

The free entry system allows prospectors to stake a claim on what's below any Crown land in northern Ontario (with some exceptions, like First Nations reserves, provincial parks, cemeteries, etc.), even if somebody else owns or has a relationship to what's above the ground. There are thousands of mining claims in Ontario, and to keep these claims active, prospectors apply for an exploration license and carry out surveys to determine the size and quality of the minerals that they expect might be underground. Before amendments to the Mining Act between 2009 and 2013, mineral exploration used to be a lot less regulated; even now, mining companies can engage in all of the following activities without needing the permission of land occupants:

  • Ground surveys;
  • Airborne surveys;
  • Removal of vegetation and soil up to 10,000 cubic metres (or less if within 100 metres of a body of water);
  • Removal of large quantities of ore up to 1,000 tonnes from the surface;
  • Various forms of drilling to remove rock samples from deep in the rock; and
  • Trail, road and water crossing construction.

Merle Davis, an activist and PhD student studying the practices of junior mining companies, explains: "Free entry means that, as long as I don't live somewhere where there are restrictions on mineral claims, mining companies don't have to ask my permission before going in to see whether there are minerals under the ground where I live. They're supposed to tell me they're doing it, but they don't need my permission. We wanted people at PDAC to feel what it's like for somebody to come traipsing into your space against your wishes and make it impossible to live life normally."

Some argue that the intensive revisions to the Mining Act that took place from 2009-2013 were not enough to ensure that the law is just. Some even argue that the free entry system as governed by the Mining Act, even after the revisions, is unconstitutional. But representatives of the mining industry often claim that critiques of the free entry system are unfounded because the impacts of the preliminary mineral exploration process are said to be minimal at best.

In reality, even exploration can be very disruptive to the people who have to try and live their lives on that land while it's happening. Exploration usually includes bringing in equipment like trucks, backhoes and helicopters, drilling into the ground for samples, stripping the surface of trees, vegetation and topsoil, and setting up work camps. All of these things have an impact, and the recent inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has brought to light the impacts of work camps in particular on Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people, including high rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Exploration not only disrupts the experience of daily living for humans, but can have serious impacts on birds and animals in the region. Prospectors are encouraged to "be respectful of, and give consideration to, other uses and users of Crown land when carrying out mineral exploration activities," but they are not always required to by law if the activities being carried out are deemed by the government to be "low impact."

"Junior" mining companies, mega impact

Canada is well-known for its number of junior mining companies, most of whom will never actually operate a mine. Their business model is to explore for minerals, go through the permitting and environmental assessment process, and then sell the deposit to the highest bidder. The decision about who the mineral claim is sold to often occurs without the consent of the communities and/or Indigenous governments involved. This means that even if positive relationships were formed between a company and a community during the exploration phase, all is rendered meaningless as a new company steps in to take over. It also means that communities have little recourse to reject mine operators with notorious reputations for destruction in other areas of the world if they are the ones who buy up the project.

There are many examples of communities that have been impacted in devastating ways by mining exploration. Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation, for example, saw its leadership jailed for saying no to the exploration aims of Platinex Resources. Ontario is not the only province with laws like these. The Algonquins of Barriere Lake were also forced to establish a land protection camp along Highway 117 to protect itself from the encroachment of Copper One, a company claiming its right of access to their territories. Another example is the Tsilhqot'in First Nation, who had to go to court to fight off Taseko Mines, who kept trying to drill to explore for resources despite the community saying it will never allow this open-pit mine on its territory, and despite the project having been rejected twice by the federal government on environmental grounds.

At the "People Before Profit" rally on March 1, speakers advocated that the city of Toronto denounce all companies, governments and other actors that attempt to remove the rights of Indigenous nations in service of resource extraction. Ontario's free entry laws are just one example of the many mechanisms by which the rights of corporations are prioritized over the rights of all else.

The demands that 50-plus Toronto organizations endorsed in the lead-up to the "People Before Profit" rally reflect a strong commitment to a badly needed vision of a just and liveable future planet. These demands include:

  • No more pipelines
  • No fossil fuel extraction
  • No more open pit mines
  • No more land theft and forced displacement
  • No more corporate impunity
  • Status for all, including all those displaced by extractive industries and their destructive impacts
  • Full recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and respect for local self-determination

Abolishing Ontario's free entry laws would be an important step in making these demands a reality. 

Kate Klein is an organizer with the Mining Injustice and Solidarity Network.

Image: Allan Lissner

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