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Sep 24, 2020

It Was As Though We Had Been Asleep

By Tara Scurr


This profile was part of MCEA's 2020 State of the Environment: Voices Driving Change celebration (9/14-9/24). 

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Canadian protesters gathered for a group photo

It Was As Though We Had Been Asleep

By Tara Scurr

Human rights don’t defend themselves. And rarely are people and the environment put before profit. These are some of the difficult truths that I have learned over 25 years of social justice work.

Amnesty International Canada campaigns for justice and accountability for communities harmed by Canadian extractive operations. Even when everything goes as planned, mines typically have a large environmental and social footprint. Therefore governments and companies need to be bound by clear laws and accountability mechanisms. Too much is at risk for anything less.

Over the last two decades, I have worked to understand how Canadian trade and investment policies have a real-life effect on the lives of ordinary people. Around the world, Canada’s mining industry has had a profound effect on people’s lives.

Mining is a part of Canada’s colonial history. More than half of global mining capital is raised on Canadian stock exchanges and over 100 countries host Canadian owned and operated mines. Canada’s brand of mining capitalism reaches every corner of the globe. In many cases, people have obtained jobs and training, improved their finances, and achieved personal satisfaction from working at Canadian mine sites. The Canadian government actively promotes the Canadian mining industry, advertising it as ‘world class’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘responsible’

It is part of our national mythology.

Six years ago, we were rocked by a disaster in our own backyard. Early on the morning of August 4, 2014 the Mount Polley copper mine in British Columbia burst the banks of its tailings dam, releasing 25 billion cubic litres of toxic mining waste into pristine Quesnel Lake, destroying the most anticipated wild salmon run in years.

This was the largest environmental tailings dam disaster in Canadian history, and my in-box quickly filled with messages from friends and colleagues around the world saying things like: How could this have happened in Canada? Isn’t Canada a global mining leader? There must be some mistake? It must not be as bad as it sounds. And more ominously, now you will understand what we have been through.

It was as though we had been asleep, thinking the problems were elsewhere, and the ear-splitting rumble of broken trees, rushing water and toxic tailings that left a 9 kilometre path of destruction in their wake was our alarm clock. It was bad, but we were finally awake.

As the weeks and months passed, it became clear that despite Canada’s assertions that the Canadian mining industry is safe and responsible, this mine wasn’t safe, and no one was going to take responsibility.

In 2017, we published a report about the human rights impacts of the Mount Polley disaster. It’s important to understand how people were harmed. Indigenous peoples’ wild salmon source was decimated right at the height of the annual salmon run, leaving freezers empty and cupboards bare for the winter. People lost trust in the health of the salmon they relied on. The disaster prevented Secwepmc, Tsilhqo’tin, Stat’im’ic and Lhtako Dene people from exercising their collective rights to food security, cultural and spiritual practices and the enjoyment of their lands and territories. A member of the Xat’sull First Nation likened the disaster to a death and said that her community was in mourning for Quesnel Lake, or Yuct Ne Senxiymetkwe, as if for a relative. Settler communities reported significant financial impacts on their businesses, mental health, and access to healthy food and water.

Shortly after we published our report, I was contacted by a friend from Duluth (who is now a member of the MCEA team) to talk about Mount Polley and its parallels to a new Canadian copper mine proposal in the North Star State. I was intrigued, and after I learned more about the proposed PolyMet mine, itself a Swiss-owned Canadian junior operation, I became very worried for Minnesotans.

I travelled to Duluth in 2018 with a community member from BC and an Amnesty USA colleague from the Twin Cities to learn more and to share our experiences.

We joined MCEA in making it clear that mining disasters can happen anywhere, especially (in our experience) when inexperienced companies place profitability above people and the environment. Our community partner from Likely, BC was quite clear: you don’t want this to happen to you.

We have just marked the sixth anniversary of the Mount Polley disaster. A criminal investigation is still ongoing. The company has not been fined or penalized or faced any charges. In fact, more than anything it has benefitted from the disaster in the form of tax credits for clean up costs, deferred electricity bills, an out of court settlement worth millions from its engineering contractor, and -- perhaps most incredibly -- a new permit to dump minimally treated mine waste-water into Quesnel Lake where no discharge was ever supposed to take place.

Although we are in the midst of a global pandemic, mining is an “essential service” in Canada. The Mount Polley owner recently announced it was starting new exploration work and is seeking to further expand its operations. The struggle goes on.

As my colleague, Jennie Green from AI USA asked Duluthians in 2018, “The question for Minnesota is: Does Minnesota want to be next?” This remains an important question for Minnesotans and First Peoples to answer. That’s why we will continue to work with MCEA, Duluth for Clean Water, the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Law Clinic and others to ensure Minnesotans have access to all the information they need in order to make an informed choice. When we work together with communities to protect human rights and hold companies and governments to account, we can make a difference.

Amnesty International acknowledges, celebrates, and stands with community activists, the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and organizations like MCEA that work tirelessly in defense of human rights and a healthy future for all. Experience has taught me that when people come together in mutual aid and solidarity to protect what they cherish, they can accomplish the seemingly impossible. Please keep it going.

TARA SCURR is a Business and Human Rights Organizer for Amnesty International Canada, based on Vancouver Island. She has spent the last 25 years working with communities across the Americas on social justice issues. Amnesty International does not take a position on any mining project (it is not pro- or anti-mining); rather, Amnesty believes that voluntary measures are not enough to protect human rights and the environment.

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