Content note: racist language, colonialism, climate change
The Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s (PDAC) annual conference is a place where mining companies from around the world converge to make deals and ensure they can continue operating in ways that prioritize profit no matter the other costs. It’s the biggest mining conference in the world and has been dubbed the “Oscars” and the “Superbowl” of the mining industry.
Because of COVID-19, this year’s conference went online from March 8 – 11. Dominating PDAC 2021 were sessions focusing on stronger Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors — or as many speakers put it, being better neighbours — and positioning the mining industry as a key player in the so-called ‘green’ energy transition. While there were a handful of newer topics (like interspace travel and mining on the Moon), this year’s conference just used new language to say the same thing as always: unchecked resource extraction will continue and much of the world is ‘open for business.’ PDAC is all about shutting out dissent and this year’s conference was no exception.
So why attend? Attending PDAC gives some important insights into how the mining industry presents itself, what it takes as standard practice, how attendees pitch their projects, what they say when they think they’re only among friends, what they take for granted, and what they hold as unquestionably true. Attending PDAC can help inform our organizing strategies as we share information with communities most impacted by Canadian mining projects. It helps counter the industry narratives. And we hope it disrupts and draws attention to this self-congratulatory echo chamber that allows the industry to continue operating as if it’s business as usual, even during a global pandemic.
In our report back below, we discuss the violence of the mining industry from the seemingly mundane, to the more explicit use of racist language, to coercion disguised as consent. We describe the pats on the back the industry gave itself during the conference:
- Hosting an online conference (that still managed to be less accessible for those opposed to extractivism
and kept CEOs safe while pushing for consultations in remote communities to continue in a pandemic!)
- Celebrating Canada as the belly of the beast (and happy about it)
- Coming up with yet another voluntary framework (ESG) that allows them to pretend to change their
behavior while doing nothing substantive
- Using climate change as a business opportunity
As attendees, we were struck by the sharp contrast between the lived experiences of many impacted communities and the ways that mining projects and exploration were discussed without any reference to substantive critiques of the industry. This echo-chamber atmosphere, where only mining-friendly perspectives are allowed in, is what PDAC tries to achieve in all of its events, both in person and online. This makes PDAC’s talk of ‘diversity and inclusion’ especially hypocritical, particularly this year when the online format could have made the conference inclusive to a diversity of participants and perspectives.
And while PDAC may suffer from a failure of imagination, impacted communities do not. People all around the world continue to challenge these industry narratives in a number of creative ways, fighting to protect their communities from harms caused by the Canadian mining industry. Read more below and take heart in the many ways communities are building a future without PDAC — a future beyond extractivism.
While mining execs met online to stay safe from COVID-19, impacted communities remained shut out while still being put at risk
By virtue of being held online, PDAC 2021 had the potential to bring together a broader range of perspectives on mining — most importantly, from directly impacted communities — without the barriers of travel and visa restrictions. However, conference organizers went out of their way to ensure that dissenting opinions were not even allowed in the door. The significant cost of attending the conference acted as a barrier (the cost of a non-member all-access pass this year was $700). Upon registration, participants were required to agree to a lengthy list of terms and conditions which, among other restrictions, explicitly banned protest. Presentations and sessions were strictly moderated, making it very difficult for participants to express dissenting opinions or ask critical questions and highlighting PDAC’s ‘diversity and inclusion’ rhetoric as empty.
While the conference went online due to COVID-19, continuing to insulate CEOs and investors from the worst of the pandemic, multiple speakers focused on big industry wins this past year. There were congratulations all around for being an industry which has continued to work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (after insisting mineral exploration and extraction be deemed essential activities) and one that has kept its workforce safe — applause that runs in stark contrast to the reports by civil society and impacted communities citing numerous examples where mining operations have put the health of workers and impacted communities at serious risk. Last year’s in-person PDAC conference likely led to COVID-19 outbreaks in some remote communities and companies in attendance at PDAC 2021 benefited from mining projects being pushed forward this past year in remote Indigenous communities with little infrastructure to cope with a COVID-19 outbreak. Add to this the number of mining projects that were imposed around the world with the help of lockdowns and significant restrictions on community protest and a very different version of “success during COVID” emerges.
Of note, CEO of Equinox Gold Christian Milau — championed during PDAC 2021 as an example to follow in Brazil, who, two weeks later, had a major dam overflow at their Aurizona mine on March 25, 2021 — said they’d been approached to provide vaccines in the country. The public-private partnerships around vaccine distribution that appear to be emerging in Brazil and possibly elsewhere may mean handing over important health priorities to an industry only interested in expanding its profit margin. (Check out the Toronto Star’s series on the issues with partnerships between NGOs and mining companies to get a glimpse of what can happen with these types of public-private partnerships).
And expanding profit margins is undoubtedly the key focus for those in attendance at PDAC 2021. While COVID-19 swept across the world, taking lives and devastating the livelihoods of millions of people, the global mining industry raked in obscene profits. And the general sentiment heard by analyst after analyst at PDAC 2021 was that the profitability margin will just increase this year. Massive government stimulus packages are now being rolled out that prioritize building new infrastructure projects to stimulate failing economies, and this means that demands for base metals will increase substantially. Pair this with the demand for critical minerals required in the energy transition and investors are having a field day.
“Success” during COVID-19, indeed.
Canada is still the belly of the beast (and happy about it)
Much of the capital required to expand mining projects is being raised right here, in Toronto. Over the last five years, more than 50% of global mining financing was raised on the Toronto Stock Exchange and TSX-Venture Exchange (TSX-V). The 1146 mining companies listed on these exchanges raised $7.5 billion in equity capital in 2020 alone to finance mining expansion around the world — all this amidst a global health pandemic. As Dean McPherson, head of Global Mining at the TMX Group said, “It was a good year to say the least.”
Toronto’s dominance in mining finance is sustained by government support and, like in years past, Canada’s unshakable commitment to the mining industry was front and centre at PDAC 2021. Representatives from across the federal and provincial governments, such as Global Affairs Canada, Export Development Canada, and federal Minister of International Trade Mary Ng, networked with attendees and promoted Canada’s ongoing and unchecked resource extraction, both at home and abroad.
By far, Canada’s top focus this year was positioning itself as a key player within the critical mineral supply chain, playing catch up behind China in prospering off the “green” energy transition. Most of the minerals currently necessary for electric batteries can be mined in Canada and the country’s strategy to compete globally is to market a responsibly mined and made in Canada brand of green tech — saying that Canada has everything in place to ensure key minerals for electric vehicles, windmills, and solar panels are mined in an environmentally- and socially-responsible way (not like those “other” places).
Minister Ng sums up much of what we heard: “Canada is primed to lead the future of sustainable mining.”
Yet only two years ago, at PDAC 2019, the industry was concerned at the possibility of a new corporate watchdog — an Ombudsperson set to investigate allegations of abuse tied to Canadian mining activities abroad. Before the office could even get off the ground, lobbying by the Mining Association of Canada and members of PDAC succeeded in gutting the office of its powers to meaningfully investigate allegations of abuse, including the power to compel documents and testimony from uncooperative companies. Following the exact path laid out by Harper’s Conservatives, the Liberals responded to serious allegations of human rights abuse — we’re talking slavery, forced labour, sexual violence, murder, land theft, and more — with an office powerless to uphold Canada’s human rights obligations and instead, one mandated to promote Canadian business abroad while allowing Canada to perform transparency and corporate accountability.
Years in the making, the office of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) opened only days after PDAC 2021. The fact that the CORE didn’t even warrant a casual mention by Minister Ng at PDAC shows how little this office (as it currently stands) really matters. With almost guaranteed impunity, Canadian officials aren’t wrong in saying Canada continues to be a great place for mining — a leader in sustainable mining however, is questionable.
Yet Another Voluntary Framework that Changes Nothing
While Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors have been a hot topic at PDAC for a number of years now, 2021 was the first year it captured such an industry focus. Session after session described ESG as “the new cost of doing business,” where companies must have a good handle on ESG factors that affect their projects and (more importantly) be skilled at painting themselves as good neighbours to investors. Recent laws passed in the European Union now require investment funds to back up their claims to ESG through specific measurables; the focus remains on investors rather than impacted communities.
Glaringly absent from the discussion, however, was any reference to the actual consent of impacted communities. Sessions focused on partnering with Indigenous communities encouraged the practice of promising infrastructure projects to communities that give their consent to mining. Communities that very much need infrastructure projects are, arguably, being coerced into accepting mining projects.
Executives and exploration geologists highlighted that ESG factors are now as important to investors as a viable deposit. The emphasis was on performing these factors to potential investors, whether or not they reflect reality for impacted communities. Any conflict was emphasized as an opportunity for dialogue but no one spoke of the right to say no.
This is further emphasized by the many sessions in which government representatives from Canada and around the world spoke about major reforms in their countries, making it easier and easier to access land for mining. The Brazilian Minister of Energy and Mines spoke openly about supporting President Bolsonaro’s plans to expand mining into Indigenous territories and other protected spaces.
This year’s “Profits with a Purpose” seminar featuring Barrick Gold President and CEO Mark Bristow was also exemplary of the ESG discourse. With no mention of Barrick’s horrific track record of social and environmental abuses around the world, Bristow focused on how mining companies can more effectively communicate all the ESG work they do. In reference to Barrick’s increasingly diverse staff following mergers and acquisitions of companies from around the world, Bristow stated that they have “brought a whole pile of Africans into the team.” Though Mark Bristow has a particular way of being overtly racist, it would be a mistake to assume the more “refined” voices advocating for ESG factors aren’t masking similar attitudes.
Using climate change as a business opportunity
The anticipated massive global divestment from fossil fuels currently underway is freeing up a lot of investment dollars. And the mining industry is clambering over itself to capitalize on this moment. The general consensus at PDAC 2021 was that climate change requires a shift away from fossil fuels to renewables and this technology requires more and more mining — good news for the mining industry! Without a doubt, the only future being imagined at PDAC 2021 is one firmly rooted in expanded resource extraction.
What was promoted were greenwashed solutions firmly entrenched in ongoing colonialism; the industry gets to choose who gets bulldozed in “sacrifice zones” in the rush to mine the minerals required for so-called green tech.
This capitalist greenwashing was really underscored by First Cobalt CEO Trent Mell’s presentation. Electric vehicles are now First Cobalt’s primary focus, since advances in battery technology now allow for electric SUVs, Hummers, pick-up trucks, and other large vehicles demanded by the US and Canadian market. It’s a good scenario for mining companies: by focusing on the actions of individuals (like whether their Hummer runs on diesel or electricity), the industry gets to displace responsibility. And by positioning themselves as the central, necessary drivers behind these new technologies, mining companies then become key to addressing the climate crisis. Through the strategic shifting of this narrative, those who have long been resisting extractivism around the world are framed as being opposed to that liveable future. Of course, the opposite is true.
In conclusion… while PDAC suffers from a failure of imagination, impacted communities do not!
At PDAC, we witnessed a complete failure of imagination. The mining industry’s version of a ‘different’ future, which includes things like the expansion of EVs to address the climate crisis or the development of space mining, is simply a further entrenchment in the extractive, capitalist mindset which has led us to where we are now. It is a doubling down on the exploitative interactions with land and people that are pervasive throughout the industry. Theirs is a strategy to increase profit margins in what they hope are more widely acceptable ways, so as to keep their businesses booming.
We know that this failure of imagination suits them, and it suits their bottom line.
The industry speaks about themselves as if they are a critical component needed to address the climate crisis and are confronting numerous ESG factors, when the reality is that we cannot mine our way out of this crisis and ESG measures fail to address past and present socio-environmental injustices. They make claims about community engagement, but time and again communities have been denied the right to say “no” to mining, and the industry continues to block out dissenting voices in their curated, PDAC echo-chamber. All because it suits them. They sing the praises of PDAC sponsors who have recently been involved in devastating instances of harm rather than imagining what accountability, responsibility and real change could look like for their industry because it suits them.
From numerous Candian government officials we heard similar stories and witnessed this same failure of imagination. The government has made apologies, stated their commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and have claimed to understand the need for action with regards to the climate crisis. What we have seen from the government, and which was crystalized further by government officials’ speeches at PDAC, is that they fail to imagine and make real a future of Indigenous sovereignty and a liveable planet. They envision a future in line with the mining industry, where extractive capitalism thrives.
Resistance to the mining industry continues…
and this resistance is what will achieve an actual liveable future.
In the face of these failures, lies and violence, resistance to extractivism has been permanent and is ongoing. People around the world have been fighting to protect life in many ways since the emergence of extractivism. Imagining and creating worlds beyond and away from extraction has also been a part of resistance to colonial, extractive capitalism.
Here are just some of the many forms of resistance to the Canadian mining industry that took place around the time of the 2021 PDAC convention.
Resistance to exploration and development of the Ring of Fire in the James Bay Lowlands continues with a call for a moratorium. Indigenous, environmental and civil society organizations have called on the federal and provincial governments to cease operations in this area until protections for watersheds and the protection of Indigenous rights have been secured.
While dissenting voices were blocked out of PDAC, around the world people continue to resist extractivism. A human rights organization in Peru wrote an open letter to the Peruvian delegation to PDAC to denounce police repression against protesters at HudBay’s Constancia mine.
PDAC sponsor Rio Tinto continues to push through their proposed lithium-borates mine in Jadar Valley, Serbia. At PDAC we heard that bootsting lithium mining is essential for a green transition, but we know that more mining is not the solution to the climate crisis. In Jadar Valley, “local residents and allies defend the right to say NO, denounce the lack of participation and information” (ejatlas).
Massive protests took place in Chubut, Argentina, in part to denounce PDAC sponsor Pan American Silver and the Ministry of Energy and Mines for their role promoting the province as a go-to destination for mining, ignoring the hard-won environmental legislation that bans open-pit mining in the province. “Chubut is not for sale! Chubut is not a sacrifice zone!”
For years, people have been resisting Pan American Silver’s Escobal mine in Guatemala. People have faced horrific violence, and the company continues to interfere and fuel violence. Sign this petition to demand that Pan American Silver stop fueling violence.
On the first day of this year’s PDAC convention there was a session called “Ireland Open for Business”, but residents of the Sperrins are saying “no poisonous gold mining in the Sperrins.” Canadian based Dalradian Gold has been operating in Ireland since 2009, and are facing strong opposition from some residents of the Sperrins who are asserting their right to decide the future of their community and land.
Just before the start of this year’s PDAC, the Atikamekw of Manawan First Nation resisted what would be North America’s largest graphite mine, blocking trucks from entering or leaving their territory.
On one of the last days of PDAC, we had the chance to hear what is never shared at the convention… the stories of those directly impacted by Canadian mining. At an event co-organized by Peace Brigades International-Canada and Amnesty International-Canada in collaboration with PBI-Mexico, Isela Gonzalez (ASMAC) and Neftali Reyes (Educa Oaxaca) spoke about the impact of Canadian mining companies on Indigenous communities in Mexico:
Call for Imaginings
Knowing that we would be facing an online PDAC meant that we were forced to reimagine what resistance to this conference could look like. Since the halls of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and the streets of Toronto’s financial district would be empty, we began thinking about what a world without PDAC and a world without extractivism could look like. We put out a call for artistic imaginings, and received incredible submissions from around the world. We are currently in the process of curating the submissions and look forward to sharing them and continuing this conversation.