Joan Kuyek, one of this country’s most distinguished community organizers and analysts of the mining industry, will be in Nova Scotia this weekend to promote her new book, Unearthing justice: how to protect your community from the mining industry.
In 1999, Kuyek co-founded MiningWatch Canada, and was its national coordinator until 2009.
She has taught at Algoma University in Sault St. Marie and Queen’s University law school in Kingston, and has worked extensively with many First Nations and other communities to help them understand the mining industry and how best they can protect themselves and the environment from harm it causes. She is also the author of the 2011 book, Community organizing – a holistic approach.
While in Nova Scotia, Kuyek will be launching her new book at a panel discussion on gold mining on Saturday, October 19 in Halifax, and then again in Tatamagouche on Sunday, October 20.
Her visit will also coincide with the province’s first ever “Gold Show” slated for October 17 – 18 in the Alt Hotel at the Halifax airport. It is billed as “a private event but free to attend for industry and government representatives” by the Mining Association of Nova Scotia (MANS) that is hosting it with $52,000 from the citizens of Nova Scotia, via the Department of Energy and Mines. (The Gold Show is not “free” for others, apparently; when I wrote to MANS to request a media invitation, the reply I received was: “The Nova Scotia Gold Show is a private conference and there are no media events.”)
Kuyek has also been invited by community groups to attend the “Water Not Gold Rally” that they are organizing outside the airport hotel on October 18, as a “counter-campaign to the Nova Scotia Gold Show,” and in opposition to what they call “destructive open-pit gold mining in Nova Scotia.”
In advance of her visit, Kuyek agreed to speak with me on the phone about her book, her work, and about mining in general. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Halifax Examiner: What drove you to write this book and when did you start it?
Joan Kuyek: I started writing the book when I started trying to put together a course on mining about eight years ago. And certainly I had in my life been in touch with hundreds of people who had become mining activists involuntarily because the industry had disrupted their lives in some way. It was very challenging [to put the course together] because there was very little research that wasn’t paid for and driven by the industry.
There was very good work on Canadian mining companies operating internationally, usually written by people who had been in solidarity with African nations or people in Central America or the Global South in one way or another. But nobody talked about the industry in Canada except the companies themselves, and those were either heavy-duty legal texts, or they were just promoting it.
This book is my life’s work all tied up in one package.
Halifax Examiner: How much has mining shaped Canada and its economy, and how heavily invested are Canadians in mining?
Joan Kuyek: Mining — the extraction of copper, gold, and other metals — was one of the major reasons why Canada got settled in the first place. The people from Europe who wanted these metals spread across the country in enormous numbers from the beginning of the 19th century. And they pushed the Indigenous people out of the way. Most of their first discoveries were based on stories from Indigenous people. Because the settlers carried disease, the Indigenous people were being depopulated at unbelievable rates, like 90% would be wiped out by an epidemic. They could take advantage of these traumatized people who had been decimated by disease. The whole settler state got built around the extraction of these metals, and also furs and wood. This was a colony that was there to extract. And our laws, our regulations, and policies are all shaped by facilitating extraction.
Halifax Examiner: In the book you write that, “Mining is the ultimate expression of the violence of colonialism.” Can you elaborate on that?
Joan Kuyek: First of all, it was stealing the resources that people had. It comes from an understanding of metals that’s completely different from the Indigenous understanding of metals. Traditionally, many Indigenous people see rocks as living beings, and you have to treat them with respect. And if you’re going to use some of them, you give thanks. You take care to not damage much, and you give back in one way or another. That it isn’t part of the European consciousness at all. That by itself is such a violation.
Some of the stories in the book around uranium are particularly poignant that way. They just extracted everything they could, as fast as they could, and continue to do that. For a mining company, you get it out and find more reserves as fast as you can. You turn them [metals] into commodities as fast as possible. And then they formed settlements around mining, and governments around this, which completely and totally excluded Indigenous people and stole their lands.
In Sudbury, they designed the boundaries of the [First Nation] reserve so that all the places where they thought there would be metals were excluded. That’s the basis of a lawsuit by the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek for $550 billion dollars. And there’s a whole range of things like that that were designed to decimate the Indigenous owners of the land, and take it from them, and then extract whatever metals they had. The culture that Europeans brought with them excluded and nullified Indigenous cultures.
When we talk about reconciliation, unless we’re talking about some kind of restitution for the things we’ve stolen and are not doing it anymore, I think it’s totally empty words.
Halifax Examiner: What you’re describing is environmental racism, isn’t it?
Joan Kuyek: It’s the original environmental racism and it’s continued to inform everything we do. It’s enshrined in our laws. It’s enshrined in our institutions. And it’s enshrined in our political system. I go to a number of utterly desolate Indigenous reserves. I can’t imagine that that is happening by accident. That’s deliberate. They’re being constantly disempowered and dispossessed by the interests of mining and other extraction.
Halifax Examiner: Another thing you write about in the book is Canada’s National Orphaned and Abandoned Mines Initiative, or NOAMI, and the toxic legacy of mining in Canada, where there are more than 10,000 abandoned mines. Do you think Canadians are aware of just how big the toxic legacy of mining is?
Joan Kuyek: Well, I have to say I lived in Sudbury for 30 years and I actually didn’t know what mine tailings were until I started reading about them for the job at MiningWatch. I didn’t know that the reason the ground was orange where I tried to build my garden in my front yard was that it was built on tailings. The tailings had corroded the water pipe from the city, so I could hear water running all the time, and when the guy came to fix it, he told me it was completely rotted out because it was built on tailings. It was unbelievable. People who lived in that town would occasionally talk about the “slime,” which was the old word for the tailings. But nobody really talked about the toxicity of them. The companies knew, but nobody talked about it. There are places I’ve been where people are running their ATVs across the tailings beaches. Unbelievable. And then they talk about how it’s not a great idea because it rusted out so bad.
People didn’t know about this stuff. I think there were probably huge amounts of public relations efforts that went into making sure it didn’t slip out. And I think there’s also an unwillingness of people to know. We don’t want to know that we’re poisoning our kids. So when in Sudbury, when we organized around the soil study, most people didn’t want to hear what we had to say. They didn’t want to deal with the fact that maybe their garden in the front was contaminated or that they were living with this nightmare. People live with denial as long as they can because they don’t know how to cope with it. They feel powerless. They’re not sure. They get manipulated by company-driven technical arguments about how risk can be managed, and they don’t say they don’t know what to do.
Halifax Examiner: Until gold the exploration companies show up at people’s doors, it seems to me that many people in Nova Scotia and probably elsewhere in Canada have no idea that they own only what’s on the surface of their property because of laws governing minerals and mining that stipulate everything underground belongs to the Crown. What is the origin of laws that so favour mining?
Joan Kuyek: That free entry stuff is a European historical fact. The king wanted access to the gold, and other metals, like copper or iron, that he might need. So the kings owned all the mineral rights in Europe. When the settlers were first coming to North America, they brought that idea with them. As governments were established, created in the interests of mining companies, they generally severed the mineral rights from surface rights.
Halifax Examiner: How deeply dependent on the metal mining industry here, and around the world, are we as Canadian citizens through our pension funds and investments?
Joan Kuyek: I think that’s a really good question, and I don’t know the answer. Between fossil fuels and mining, I think most of our financial system is set up on those kinds of extraction. And we don’t get much in taxes back from it, but the little bit we get is probably still important. Fossil fuel companies are members of the Mining Association of Canada, as are tar sands miners. So in a way, they’re mining too, and we’re deeply dependent on it.
But we could stop primary extraction and still do very, very well by moving to renewables from fossil fuel. It can’t be done piecemeal; it requires a major shift in focus to the creation of sustainable, closed-loop community-driven business. Changes from the production of cars, for example, to excellent public transportation systems. It requires changing our focus from mining to re-mining tailings and mining garbage dumps for copper, and reusing and conserving. We can do it.
And in fact those kinds of things probably wouldn’t affect smelters and refineries very much, because they’d be reusing stuff. Most of the mines that were built before were high-graded, so their tailings are very rich in minerals. And a lot of those tailings impoundments need to be improved, so the re-mining of tailings would not increase the footprint of a mine, but in fact reduce it. So I think there’s a number of ways we can change how we do things. It is absolutely urgent that we do it.
The other thing we need to do is a lot more research on how we handle these toxic legacies, like Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories. Giant has 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide stored in underground drifts and shafts, enough to poison the entire planet. It’s horrific. And even a serious leak could poison the entire MacKenzie River system.
And our only answer is to freeze it in place. That doesn’t change the problem, and intensive research is needed on how we handle metals like arsenic and mercury in these toxic sites, and how we contain them in a way that will make sure they don’t harm future generations.
Halifax Examiner: One of the arguments that the Mining Association of Nova Scotia makes is that we need gold for technology and medicine. So do we need to mine more gold?
Joan Kuyek: Well, no. Most of the gold that’s been mined is used for jewellery or sitting in vaults. It’s a wonderful metal, infinitely recyclable, so there is no reason why we should be mining any more of it. Gold mining is very destructive. The gold grades that we’re getting now are so low that the footprint of the mine is huge compared to what they remove from it. It’s often associated with arsenic and mercury. And it’s a metal that doesn’t bring out best in people.
There are books about the history of gold that make your hair stand on end. So there is no reason to mine it, or diamonds for that matter, as they’re in the same category. I know there is a demand for gold, and the demand goes up when politics are unstable and we treat gold as a repository of wealth. But that’s a social construct. There is no reason why that can’t be undone and there’s no reason why we should feed into that.
Halifax Examiner: There is a great deal of gold exploration going on in Nova Scotia by junior exploration companies, but it’s hard to see what their assets are, apart from speculating and trying to capitalize on our underground resources.
Joan Kuyek: That’s exactly right. Most of them are junior companies and they’re not finding anything that’s mine-able. They’re just promoting themselves to investors. And they’re creating havoc and misery on the ground when they do it, because people get scared, or they get greedy and say, “gee I’m gonna have a gold mine in my yard so I’m going to get rich.”
Halifax Examiner: Is there one message that comes from your book that you wish every Canadian could hear?
Joan Kuyek: I want us to respect the awesome cost of the minerals we take for granted, and enshrine that in law and policy. If we don’t respect the cost of these things we take for granted, we’re doomed. We’re destroying the planet because we don’t respect what we’ve got, and where it came from.
We’re up against a discourse that’s been shaped by the extraction industry.
Halifax Examiner: Our governments seem to be working with industry to promote mining, not just the provincial government that finances the work of the Mining Association of Nova Scotia and much of the gold exploration, but also the federal government with its Canadian Minerals and Metals Program?
Joan Kuyek: Well, of course, because they call the mining industry their “client.” When I started at MiningWatch, I was horrified when we went to meet with Natural Resources Canada, and they were talking about their “client,” the mining industry, when they should have been seeing the public as their client.
They were set up originally as the Ministry of Mines and they see the industry as their client. They’ve swallowed the Kool-Aid. They’re there to promote the mining industry. That’s why they exist.
So our job is to take our governments back.