1326 Witness to Canadian mining

Testimonio: Canadian Mining in the Aftermath of Genocides in Guatemala
by Catherine Nolin and Grahame Russell (editors)

Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 2021
$29.95  /  9781771135627

Reviewed by Howard Macdonald Stewart

*

Catherine Nolin and Grahame Russell both teach in the Geography Department at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George; she’s department chair and he’s an adjunct professor. Both have spent a quarter century focused, in one way or another, on the sorts of issues explored in Testimonio: human rights abuses, violence, corruption, and worse that have enabled Canadian mining interests to thrive in Guatemala. The book is not a “good read” but it is a necessary one for Canadians.

I normally skim quickly through the preface of most books but the preface to Testimonio, entitled “A story that can not be buried,” warranted closer attention. In it, Nolin and Russell allege that the academic publisher Springer Nature cancelled their publishing contract at the eleventh hour in response to threats of legal action from a “third party.” This, Nolin and Russell point out, was more of the same sort of bullying and intimidation that figures so prominently throughout Testimonio: business as usual from a mining industry used to doing and getting what it wants and ensuring no one talks about how they do it. I would have moved their preface into the introduction.

Catherine Nolin and Grahame Russell. Photo courtesy UNBC

Their introduction however, is no less compelling. Since the mid-1990s, we are told, Canadian miners have been an important part of a “fourth conquest” of Guatemala’s Indigenous Maya people. The first three were the sanguinary sixteenth century Spanish Conquista led by Pedro de Alvarado, the brutal installation of a nineteenth century plantation economy, and the decades of genocidal state repression that followed a CIA-backed coup against the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Árbenz in 1954. This is not the sort of company that Canadians normally like to keep. Yet the authors go on to show in great detail how our mining companies have participated enthusiastically in venture after venture steeped in this Guatemalan tradition of abusive violence against Indigenous communities for the profit of colonial extractive industries.

I didn’t enjoy reading this book, but I’m grateful to the authors for writing it. I’ve never been immersed in these issues in Guatemala the way Nolin and Russell have, but I’ve seen reflections of them in many places and often wished Canadians were more aware of such atrocities. It reminded me of an early boss, when I worked as a junior “environmental consultant” for the BC mining industry. “Look ‘em in the eye,” he whispered with a silly grin, “and lie like a bastard. That’s how you get their mines approved.” And it reminded me of a village in the Peten region of Guatemala, across the border from where I did my M.Sc. research long ago, home to a few hundred people in a place of no importance: the Guatemalan army went in one day and murdered half the citizens because they suspected them of withholding information about the ragtag local rebels. And it reminded me of an “environmental workshop” in Costa Rica a few years after that, where a former minister stole the show by driving us half way across his country (not as far as it might sound) to witness the toxic mess left behind by a Canadian gold mine, long gone. And similar stories from around the world.

Grahame Russell (front left), Catherine Nolin (centre right at back) at Rabinal, Guatemala, January 2020. UNBC photo
Catherine Nolin taking notes, Gautemala

Testimonio describes the extent to which the Canadian mining industry plays a dominant role in this sector around the world. We are now home to about half the world’s publicly traded companies involved in mineral exploration and mining. Two exchanges in Toronto raise more than two thirds of the equity capital being generated to finance this industry. The listed companies operate in over a hundred countries. It’s a safe bet that the sorts of excesses in Guatemala discussed in this book have been repeated, one way or another, in other countries. So why doesn’t our government rein in this rogue industry? Why indeed. Instead, as Nolin and Russell and their contributors describe it, our diplomats, and the government back in Ottawa that they represent, have consistently been among our mining industry’s most enthusiastic supporters in places like Guatemala. This too, I’ve seen close up, especially in South America.

Grahame Russell

There’s a lot more to this book. Among other things, it describes the ways in which the genocidal violence unleashed against the Mayan people in the decades prior to 1996 set the scene for the many abuses that followed, not only in the mining industry. The greatest strength of Testimonio, however, is also its greatest weakness (for this reader at least). As the title suggests, it documents a wealth of witnesses’ accounts of the serial abuse committed against rural communities by mining companies, Canadian and other, and the homicidal thugs, paramilitaries, and government forces who support them. But the format, wherein multiple authors and multiple witnesses discuss an overlapping set of incidents and crimes, leads to much repetition of details and stories.

It’s important that as many Canadians as possible read this book, but it would have been considerably more accessible to readers had it been more judiciously edited. The repetition could have been minimized by more extensive use of annexes, for example. One assumes the editors opted for this abundant repetition rather than risk marginalizing their witnesses’ stories by consigning them to annexes or fiddling more extensively with the writing of their contributing authors. It was, of course, their call, but they might want to consider a second, more tightly edited version of this book, more consciously aimed at a broader Canadian audience. The contributors’ messages are too important and powerful to be obscured by repetitious detail, a style likely to be tolerated only by other engaged academics or activists.

Stylistic issues aside, this is a valuable and important book for a country where the mining sector continues to play such a huge role. It’s not just on the international stage that this profligate industry needs to be reined in. While our domestic miners may not go so far as to commit murder in Canada, figuratively speaking they still get away with it in places like Mount Polley and many others that fly below the radar of our domestic media.

*

Howard Macdonald Stewart

Howard Macdonald Stewart is an historical geographer and semi-retired international consultant whose work has taken him to more than seventy countries since the 1970s. His memoir of a youthful bicycle trip down the Danube with war hero and debonair cyclist Cornelius Burke, Bumbling down the Danube, was published in The Ormsby Review in 2016, and his memoir, The Year of the Bicycle: 1973, followed in 2020. He is also the author of the award-winning Views of the Salish Sea: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Change around the Strait of Georgia (Harbour, 2017), as well as a popular Remembrance Day reflection, Why the Red Poppies Matter. He has lived on Denman Island, off and on, for more than thirty years. He is now writing an insider’s view of his four decades on the road that followed his perambulations of 1973, notionally titled Around the World on Someone Else’s Dime: Confessions of an International Worker. Editor’s note: Howard Stewart has recently reviewed books by Howard White, Wade DavisBill ArnottSeth KleinLiliane Leila JumaKate Harris, and Deni Ellis Béchard.

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