Review: It’s How We Do Business

Colonial Extractions is an uncomfortable book – the best kind! Unique among 150-year old democracies, Canada prides itself for a clean past on foreign colonialism. Even the Pope has apologized for the great crime of empire-building: “There was sin and it was plentiful,” he said.

Not us. No gunboat diplomacy, no Opium Treaties, no rubber plantations. Then along comes Paula Butler of Trent University with this excruciating account of Canadian mining operations in Africa, and that sound you hear is the reader quietly dismounting from our high horse.

In a decade Canadian mining investment in Africa has grown tenfold, to some $24 billion. Canada is the largest offshore investor in African mines from Ghana to Madagascar. “Is Canada engaged today in colonialist resource appropriation?” Butler asks. In seeking answers, she interviews Canadian mining executives. Butler is white, her interview subjects are white; everybody relaxes. The result is striking. Butler hears “vintage colonial discourse characterized by a racialized world view. At one level, the narrative was cruder and starker than I had expected it to be.”

Miners are not social workers. The Prospectors & Developers Association still awards a Skookum Jim Award to “an Indigenous person who has made outstanding contributions to mining in Canada.” The Indian Joe prize is named for a Yukon Tagish First Nation prospector whose real name was K’eish. In his 1972 book Klondike Pierre Burton wrote, “Jim longed to be a white man – in other words, a prospector. He differed from the others in his tribe in that he displayed the white man’s kind of ambition.”

In Africa, Colonial Extractions introduces executives who explain they’ve ghostwritten industry-friendly mining codes for legislatures in Tanzania and Zimbabwe. “We’ve been one of the bigger helpers,” says an executive who co-authored a code on mineral royalties. Another explains that mining companies merely made “suggestions”. It’s not like Africans can do this: “People living with pigs in mud huts is not culture,” says a third.

Of course the point is to make money, a motive Butler does not disparage in any way. Colonial Extractions is not a Marxist treatise. More interestingly, it notes the plain economics of Third World mining are dressed up in parochialism and a casting of roles. One executive actually boasts of giving away 50 kilogram bags of sugar as a Christmas bonus. An unidentified manager grows angry in recounting the ingratitude of a local authority: “She said we are not employing enough Black nationals. I almost walked out. I’ve invested $25 million in this country. I don’t need this crap.”

Colonial Extractions explains, “Colonialism may be principally about acquiring land, resources, ‘cheap labour’ and markets, but it requires a massive program of popular consent”; “The mythology of the Good Canadian via corporate social responsibility discourse, the mining industry and the Canadian state are drawing Canadians into widespread and largely uninformed and therefore uncritical support for publicly-subsidized African resource appropriation.”

Colonial Extractions is fresh, provocative and unsettling. Butler leaves readers with a lingering image of one mine manager who explains how to get along with the villagers: “Just like now in Canada, we have to do this with Aboriginal groups,” he says: “Once or twice a year we’ll buy stuff for them; we’ll buy a radio that the whole village can use.”

By Holly Doan

Colonial Extractions: Race and Canadian Mining in Contemporary Africa, by Paula Butler; University of Toronto Press; 400 pages; ISBN 9781-4426l-9968; $52.95

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