A Message to the Prime Minister of Canada

Updated Feb 25, 2010

I’ve started this blog by posting an email exchange between the office of our prime minister, the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, and me. At the very end I list some minor changes (updated as of Feb. 25, 2009) that I’ve made to my original letters to replace some links that have gone dead and to fix some minor errors.

It’s possible to jump directly to any of the three letters in this post.
My first letter to the Prime Minister is here.
The Prime Minister’s reply is here.
My second letter to the Prime Minister is here.

The exchange started with the following email that I sent to the office of our prime minister, the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, using the address pm@pm.gc.ca.

October 1, 2009
Dear Prime Minister Harper,

Thank you very much for taking the time to read my letter. I’m a Canadian citizen. I partly want to address your statement about Canada not having a history of colonialism, but the contents of my letter go beyond this topic. I understand that a lot of letters pass through your office, so I have put a lot of thought into the content of this letter.

In addition to the issue of Canada’s Aboriginals who are undoubtedly upset by this comment, I would like to point out another issue that I have not seen raised as often.

As we know, your comment was made in the context of the G20 conference where much of the discussion involved the topic of international trade. It’s clear to me that several Canadian mining companies are operating in economically underdeveloped countries around the world, and are doing so in a way that is unmonitored by us in Canada. These operations are often carried out under the pretext that they bring economic development to poor regions of the world, which is in part true. However, at the same time there is the implicit assumption that the countries where these operations are occurring are sufficiently developed to be able to deal with the dangers to life and health and human rights that are brought about by these activities.

In the interest of keeping this letter short, I won’t give a long list of examples. One example that comes to mind due to its immediate urgency is the North Mara mine in Tanzania. This mine, which is operated by Barrick Gold Corporation with headquarters in Toronto, has been accused of spilling toxic chemicals into a river that supports people, their livestock, and wildlife. The North Mara mine is expected to increase production this year. I don’t understand how we in Canada could allow companies such as Barrick Gold to continue to operate unmonitored while such a reality exists. Certainly such a thing would never be allowed to occur in Canada.

I would like to bring attention to the fourteenth report of the Canadian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade which unequivocally states that “more must be done to ensure that Canadian companies have the necessary knowledge, support and incentives to conduct their activities in a socially and environmentally responsible manner and in conformity with international human rights standard.”

In addition, the Committee urged our government to “establish clear legal norms in Canada to ensure that Canadian companies and residents are held accountable when there is evidence of environmental and/or human rights violations associated with the activities of Canadian mining companies.”

As such, I would like to respectfully recommend a retraction of the colonialism statement that has caused so much controversy. I would also like to request the acknowledgement of two important realities: 1) that Canada has a history of colonialism that has impacted and is continuing to impact our own Aboriginal population; and 2) that Canada is currently allowing companies, that are based in Canada, to operate abroad in a manner that is endangering human life, human health and human rights.

Again, thank you very much for taking the time to read my letter. I understand that you and the people in your office are very busy, so if you can find the time to respond I would be extremely grateful.

Some links of interest follow.

1) The Fourteenth Report of The Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade:

2) An article from a Tanzanian newspaper discussing the pollution created by the North Mara mine:

3) An article from Dow Jones Newswire discussing the same issue:

4) An article by Ray Naluyaga from Bloomberg.com stating that the North Mara mine is expecting to increase production this year:

The link from the Tanzanian newspaper was available at the time that I sent the letter, although it’s currently not available. The article in question was published in the newspaper ThisDay. It’s titled Independent researchers detect high levels of pollution around North Mara gold mine. After it disappeared from ThisDay’s website, and before it disappeared from Google’s cache, I downloaded Google’s cached version. I have reposted its contents here. If you google the title, you’ll find that other people have also reposted it.

What follows is the reply that I received from the Prime Minister’s office. I didn’t have the foresight to inform them that I may decide to publicly share their reply. However, given that their response is very similar to public statements that I’ve seen made by them about the colonialism comment, I decided that the fairest thing was for their point of view to be presented here. I’ve excluded the name of the person who wrote on behalf of the Prime Minister.
October 23, 2009

On behalf of the Prime Minister, thank you for your recent correspondence regarding statements made by the Prime Minister at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, and your concerns over the international operations of Canadian mining companies. We are pleased to have this opportunity to respond.

The Prime Minister’s remarks at the G-20 concerning “colonialism” were in regard to Canada’s history in foreign relations and were clearly understood as such by those that were present. The marginalization, mistreatment and racism towards Aboriginal people in the context of Canada’s domestic history, including colonialism within Canada, has never been denied or minimized by our government.

This past June marked the first anniversary of the Prime Minister’s formal apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools. We recognize that while the formal apology put all Canadians, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, on the road to reconciliation together, there is still a long journey ahead. We are moving forward with implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Agreement and have established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document that sad chapter in our history and help chart a new course of reconciliation.

Our Government has taken real and tangible actions to come to terms with Canada’s past treatment of our indigenous people. We look forward to building on this progress, and continuing to work together to better the lives of Aboriginal people throughout Canada.

With regard to Canadian mining companies, we have taken the liberty of forwarding a copy of your correspondence to the office of the Hon. Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Foreign Affairs. His office is in the best position to respond to the concerns you have raised.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to write.

cc The Hon. Lawrence Cannon, P.C., M.P., Minister of Foreign Affairs

After a month, I decided to send another email to the Prime Minister’s office. That email follows.
November 23, 2009
Dear Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my letter. Let me start by saying that I’m very happy to be a citizen of a country where we are able to engage in open and free dialogue with our government and to make our concerns heard.

Thank you also for taking the time to pass my concerns on to our minister of foreign affairs. A month has passed since your office sent my message to the Hon. Lawrence Cannon. I have not heard from his office. As such, I feel that the concerns that I expressed regarding the international operations of Canadian mining companies were not addressed. I understand that both of your offices deal with a lot of correspondence, and I understand that the work that you are doing is important, so I have put a lot of thought into what I am writing, and I am writing to you only because I consider my concern to be an important one.

We are in agreement that your statements at the G20 summit were made in the context of foreign relations. Let me remind you of what statement it is that I’m referring to. The press quoted you as having said the following: “We also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them.” [1] In my previous letter, I mentioned the Fourteenth Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade [2] where it’s stated that “mining activities in some developing countries have had adverse effects on local communities, especially where regulations governing the mining sector and its impact on the economic and social well-being of employees and local residents, as well as on the environment, are weak or non-existent, or where they are not enforced.” Given this observation, I believe that the statement that you are quoted as having made at the G20 summit is false. From the conclusions that were given in this report, it is clear that companies with headquarters in Canada are being allowed to operate in a way that does threaten and bother people. We all say things that we later regret, or that come out differently from how we intend, so my interest is not to dwell on something that you have said. Instead, I would like to take this opportunity to bring awareness to the issues that the Committee has addressed, in the hope that we can fix the problems that their report has brought attention to.

In my previous letter, I provided the example of the North Mara mine that is run by Barrick Gold Corporation with headquarters in Toronto. This mine is located near Serengeti National Park in Northern Tanzania [3] and has been widely accused of poisoning people, livestock and wildlife following a spill of toxic chemicals from a mine that is expected to increase production in the coming year [4]. I also pointed out that I was aware of other issues, but did not discuss them in the interest of keeping my letter short.

I would like to now provide another example. About twelve kilometers outside of the highly-populated city of San Luis Potosí in Mexico, New Gold Inc., with headquarters in Vancouver, has been involved in a project that entails the demolition of the small mountain of Cerro de San Pedro [5]. Metric tonnes of explosive and sodium cyanide have been used daily in order to leach out silver and gold from the demolished remains of this mountain. If the project were to continue to completion, a crater measuring approximately a kilometer in width and 250 meters in depth is what would remain of Cerro de San Pedro, along with some heaps of waste and demolished rock that may pose a toxic hazard to the surrounding community.

For a moment, let’s pretend that it could be considered reasonable to allow a dangerous operation such as this one to be carried out a few kilometers away from a heavily populated area, in a country that’s known to be afflicted by corruption, unmonitored by us. Let’s also assume that, if something were to go awry, the safety of the people of San Luis Potosí would be considered to be more important than the uninterrupted operation of the mine. It would still be essential to consider that the demolished mountain is a site of important historical and cultural significance, and that explosions have been taking place only dozens of meters away from a centuries-old church.

San Luis Potosí itself is a very beautiful city of important historical and cultural significance. UNESCO hosts on its website a list of sites that signatory countries of their World Heritage Convention, countries such as for example Canada and Mexico, hope will be nominated for inclusion in UNESCO’s List of World Heritage sites. Mexico’s list has an item pertaining specifically to San Luis Potosí in which the mountain of Cerro de San Pedro is mentioned as being the genesis of this historical city [6]. On the coat of arms of San Luis Potosí, their patron saint, King Louis IX of France, is shown standing atop Cerro de San Pedro. This coat of arms was given to the people of San Luis Potosí by Viceroy Francisco Fernández de la Cueva, Duke of Albuquerque, at the time that San Luis Potosí was officially granted the title of City in 1656 [7]. I hope therefore you will agree that Cerro de San Pedro is of very important historical and cultural significance to the people of Mexico. Imagine for a moment how Canadians would feel if a foreign entity, motivated by profit, were to arrive in Canada and to obliterate an equivalent cultural landmark. Fortunately, the most recent news of this project is that it is in the process of being shut down by the Mexican authorities, although cyanide leaching operations are still continuing and the small mountain of Cerro de San Pedro has for the most part been destroyed [8]. If we in Canada had been more watchful, it would not have been necessary for things to go so far before the mine was shut down. It would have even been possible to prevent the project from going forward at all.

I would therefore like to ask you, our prime minister, if you would consider fixing this situation. Do people feel bothered or threatened when their sources of water are contaminated by toxic waste, or when a historical symbol that supports their patron saint on their coat of arms is demolished, soaked over a period of years in highly toxic substances, and replaced by an enormous crater and piles of rubble, a few kilometers outside of a city inhabited by a million people? Do you think that the reputation of Canadians around the world might not be affected by activities such as these? Please consider fixing the problems outlined in the Fourteenth Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. For your convenience, I’m providing the following assertions that have been extracted from this report:

  • The Government of Canada has a stated commitment to corporate social responsibility standards and international human rights norms.
  • Canada does not yet have laws to ensure that the activities of Canadian mining companies in developing countries conform to human rights standards.

It’s important for us to be clear that Canadians do indeed believe in social responsibility and human rights, and that we value the environment that we live in and care about other people’s cultural heritage.

Let me close by pointing out that it does not make sense for us to argue in favour of hazardous operations such as the ones that I’ve discussed as a way of bringing economic growth to poor regions of the world while simultaneously implying that the countries where the operations are occurring are sufficiently developed to be able to handle the challenges of these operations on their own. Furthermore, how can we argue that we can bring forward a positive example by doing trade with countries that are struggling with corruption if we then allow our own companies to engage at their own discretion in harmful practices in these same countries? I do not believe that the mining business is inherently bad. There are obviously very many good, honest, hard-working people who are involved in the mining sector. But hoping to navigate by chance the difficulties that these activities present is a very serious mistake.

Thank you very much for reading my letter and for hearing my concerns. I will be sharing the contents of my letters as well as the contents of your reply with fellow Canadians and with other people who care about and are affected by the issues that I have addressed in this letter. I look forward very much to receiving your reply.

[1] An article that discusses this statement can be found here.

[2] The report may be found here.

[3] A map showing the location of the Tarime District where the North Mara Mine is located can be found here.

[4] In my previous letter, I also provided a link to the following article from the Tanzanian newspaper This Day:
If that link is unavailable then it is cached here.
Another article that discusses the same issue is available here:
http://www.thisday.co.tz/News/5970.html or here.

[5] A map that shows the location of the mine and the city of San Luis Potosí can be found here. San Luis Potosí has a population of about one million people.

[6] To read the mention of Cerro de San Pedro, see the item on UNESCO’s website that is titled San Luis Potosí on the Mercury and Silver Route of the Intercontinental Camino Real, which is located here.

[7] One possible place to read about this piece of history is the website of the tourism office of the municipality of San Luis Potosí which can be found here (in Spanish). A rough computer-generated translation of this site can be found here

[8] For more information about the shutdown of this mine, you may see this article written by Mark Stevenson for the Associated Press.

Updates as of January 25, 2010

The letters that I’ve written have been modified slightly from the original versions for readability to replace some links that have gone dead and to fix some errors. What follows is a list of the changes that were made.

Link 3) from the October 1 article went dead so I changed it to direct to the same article hosted at another website.

In footnote [7] of the email of November 23, I had said that the link on the history of Cerro de San Pedro was from the San Luis Potosí state tourism office. It’s from the tourism office of the municipality of San Luis Potosí. I fixed that error directly in the text of the letter.

The URL of the link in footnote [7] of the November 23 email changed, and the page has undergone a slight change of appearance, but the text at that link is unchanged.

I carelessly referred to the article in footnote [8] of the email of November 23 as a Forbes article when it belongs to the Associated Press. I fixed that error directly in the text of the letter. The original link to that article directed to the Forbes.com website. It has since been taken down from the Forbes.com AP feed, so I’ve posted a different link that directs to the same article.

Typos were also fixed involving capitalization of the words aboriginal, prime minister, minister of foreign affairs, and some occurrences of the word the.

To read the communication that follows, please click here.

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3 Responses to “A Message to the Prime Minister of Canada”

  1. The human cost of gold: And a deadly price to pay « Canadian mineral operations Says:

    […] the two letters that I’ve written so far to the Prime Minister on the topic of Canadian mining abroad, I included links to articles from the […]

  2. Penny Vatnsdal Says:

    Your writings about the abuses going on in Tanzania and Mexico by Barrick Gold are alarming and I for one had no idea such actions were happening. Your letters to P.M. Harper are forceful and I hope will result in some positive action. I just read in today’s Globe & Mail that 3 men with links to a Canadian mining company have been charged in the killing of a Mexican activist. This activist was a leader in an organization called Mexican Network of People affected by Mining REMA). The slain Mexican had publically protested against Blackfire Mine saying they had damaged the environment and contaminated rivers. He was gunned down in a drive by shooting. . The Govenor General is currently visiting and protestors are expected to greet her. The situation in Africa with the Barrick Gold is so disgusting- everything dying from the mining pollution. Good luck and well done and keep up the blog.

  3. Independent researchers detect high levels of pollution around North Mara gold mine « Canadian mineral operations Says:

    […] following article is one that I referred to in my first and second letters to the Prime Minister of Canada. The article was published in the Tanzanian newspaper ThisDay on […]

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