Canada’s Dirty Secret

Canadian mining and petroleum companies rank among the most world’s most abusive and destructive.

Tar sands in Alberta, Canada. NWFBlogs / Flickr

In downtown Vancouver on September 12, activists in solidarity with the Standing Rock protesters occupied a TD Bank, one of several Canadian financial institutions backing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

TD’s support for the project shouldn’t be surprising. As Canada’s economy now heavily relies on the finance sector and resource extraction industries, many corporations invest in such international projects. TD’s recent history exemplifies this. In 2004, it expanded into the United States and is now the nineteenth largest bank in the world. Many of Canada’s largest corporations followed TD’s lead and now wreak havoc across the globe.

Since the beginning of the neoliberal era, Canada’s economy has become dominant in many ecologically destructive industries. This has upended traditional leftist analysis of Canada’s economy as one completely subservient to the United States. Canadian activists have begun organizing against them; international activists should do the same.

Canada: Imperialist Power?

In the 1970s, Canada’s left was dominated by nationalist ideology that ran all the way from Pierre Trudeau’s governing Liberal Party to small Maoist sects that joined the New Communist Movement. This historical orientation left today’s activists ill-suited to fight corporate power on an international scale.

The radical version of the nationalist position argued that Canada was either a resource colony or an American dependency. Some went so far as to categorize Canada not as a core country, but as one languishing on the semi-periphery. Critics used phrases like “wealthiest colony” and “rich dependency” to describe the country. Canada’s economic development was argued to be stunted in manufacturing, dependent on American imports of its resources, and unable to chart its own economic destiny.

The Liberal government enacted a number of economic policies in the 1970s to improve Canada’s profile on the global stage. It tried to spur Canadian ownership in the petroleum industry and created the state-owned Petro-Canada. It also set up the Foreign Investment Review Agency to ensure that foreign investment benefited Canada. These policies did drive out foreign ownership, which peaked in 1970.

But in the 1980s, this left-nationalist view came under increased scrutiny. Paul Kellogg’s recent book, Escape from the Staple Trap, demonstrates that Canada has long been a major player in the global economy — and an imperialist country in its own right.

Left nationalism was always a mirage. Canada is a settler-colonial state with a subjugated indigenous population. The old nationalist narrative is insufficient to deal with an imperialist country that exploits the Global South and participates in military adventurism abroad under NATO and the United Nations.

In fact, as Kellogg argues, Canadian capital has used military parasitism to benefit from its close relations with the United States. This allows Canada to benefit from the global order of capital protected by the American military at minimal cost. Even with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s increases in military spending, NATO recently reported that Canada only spends 0.98 percent of GDP on its military — a bargain, to be sure, to enjoy the spoils of American military hegemony.

An examination of Canada’s economic history further shows that it was never an American dependent. After confederation in 1867, the National Policy — designed to lessen the country’s reliance on the United States — became Canada’s primary development plan. In the 1878 election, Conservative John A. Macdonald campaigned on this policy and defeated the pro–free trade Liberals.

Though met with some protests from farmers and regional interests, the National Policy built a high tariff wall to protect domestic industry. The government also completed a transcontinental railway to link British Columbia with eastern Canada.

The prairies were settled at a genocidal cost to indigenous peoples. The policy did not significantly differ from American industrializing strategies, which descended from Alexander Hamilton’s ideas. What was different was Canada’s integration within the British empire’s preferential trading system. It took until 1930 for the United States to become Canada’s top trading partner.

Further, Canada was arguably the world’s first branch-plant economy. To avoid tariffs, American companies set up branch plants in Canada to produce for the domestic economy — to both nations’ benefit.

The General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler plants around Toronto and in southwestern Ontario — only a short drive to the border — are legacies of the National Policy, which was slowly dismantled after World War II. The automobile industry became fully integrated in 1965, and in 1988, the nations agreed to a full free-trade deal.

That deal, however, didn’t signal Canada’s submission to its more powerful neighbor. The national bourgeoisie pushed hard for it. During stagflation in the 1970s, the Business Council on National Issues — today the Business Council of Canada — was formed in direct imitation of the US Business Roundtable.

The Business Council played a major role when Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government pursued that first free-trade agreement with the United States. Clearly, Canada’s bourgeoisie was capable of articulating its own interests — which would be less likely if it were a resource colony or dependency of the United States.

Nevertheless, the feeling of Canada’s economic inferiority has lingered. Few iconic brands are globally recognized as Canadian. Despite a sizable amount of automobile production, Canada never developed its own national automaker. Even small countries like Sweden have produced more than one.

Major aerospace and transportation companies like Boeing and Airbus, for example, sell their products all over the world. But Canada’s Bombardier — which recently received bad press recently due to its delayed delivery of Toronto’s new streetcars — seems to need government aid every few years.

But Canada’s most powerful global corporations tend to be those that people don’t interact with directly. One look at the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) will show which Canadian corporations project the most misery and environmental degradation internationally.

Global Damage

The TSX, the world’s eighth-largest stock exchange, lists more oil, gas, and mining companies than any other. Over half of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada.

Toronto-based Barrick Gold is both the world’s largest gold mining company — and its most abusive. In 2011, Human Rights Watch published a report that alleged that Barrick’s security at Papua New Guinea mines committed gang rapes and other violent assaults. In 2015, the company ended up compensating eleven women for the attacks. New rape allegations emerged later that year.

Barrick’s founder and chairman Peter Munk shrugged off his company’s liability, saying, “Gang rape is a cultural habit. Of course, you can’t say that because it’s politically incorrect. It’s outrageous. We have to pretend that everyone’s the same and cultures don’t matter. Unfortunately, it’s not that way.”

Barrick flouts indigenous rights in Latin America, profits from unsafe working conditions from Peru to Russia, and wreaks major environmental damage. Just last month, a Tanzanian inquiry heard that police killed sixty-five people and injured 270 others in the area around Barrick’s North Mara gold mine.

Barrick isn’t the only bad apple. Vancouver-based Nevsun Resources was recently sued for allegedly using forced labor in its gold mine in Eritrea. The brutal dictatorship that condoned the practice holds a 40 percent stake in the mine.

Colluding with violent regimes is a regular industry practice. For example, Tahoe Resources has benefited from the Guatemalan government’s pacification” of villages around its Escobal mine.

Canada, of course, has passed no meaningful legislation to deal with its mining companies’ abuses and has faced criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Committee as a result.

But curbing Canadian mining companies shouldn’t be Ottawa’s only priority: it must also rein in the petroleum industry.

Canadian oil companies enjoy a significant amount of power. Their lobbying in Ottawa outpaces every other industry and special interest group. These lobbyists and the companies’ massive public-outreach efforts argue that Alberta produces “ethical oil.”

By contrasting Canada’s democracy with Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s human rights records, Canadian oil companies are trying to distract from the oil sands’ catastrophic environmental impacts. New reports indicate that fully exploiting this resource will make climate change irreversible.

Indigenous, labor, and human rights groups have begun calling on the government to condemn these practices. Last month, eighty-five First Nations and tribes demanded that Trudeau denounce Enbridge’s involvement in DAPL. Despite their campaign promises, the Liberals don’t seem interested in creating an ombudsman to oversee Canadian corporate practices.

Opposition, Divestment

Canadian activists must hold Canadian corporations liable for crimes committed internationally. They also need to raise more global opposition.

Both Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and Rachel Notley’s Alberta New Democratic Party claim to offer friendlier governments that will increase regulation while still building pipelines. Not only will this strategy fail to meet carbon emission targets, but it’s an economic fantasy in an era of low global oil prices. International pressure would significantly boost domestic activists, especially in the wake of the recent controversy over the Canadian government’s military sales to Saudi Arabia.

After activist pressure, Norway’s trillion-dollar Government Pension Fund and its state-owned oil company, Statoil, divested from a number of dirty energy projects, including the Alberta oil sands.

This is the kind of international action that needs to be taken against Canadian resource corporations. Not only does it challenge corporate power and neoliberal globalization, but our survival depends on it. We have to realize the role that Canadian capital has come to occupy in the global economic system — and figure out how to fight it.