By James Wilt
Joan Kuyek has been fighting mines for half a century. In that time, she’s worked with injured and disabled miners at the Sudbury Community Legal Clinic, investigated perpetual care at Yellowknife’s abandoned Giant Mine, served as the founding national coordinator of MiningWatch Canada, and organized support for Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation during its militant standoff against a junior exploration company. Since retiring from MiningWatch, Kuyek has worked as a consultant for communities battling mining proposals and taught a class on mining in Queen’s University’s law school.
In other words, she knows what she’s talking about.
Unearthing Justice, published in September by Between the Lines Books, is an encyclopedic yet eminently readable encapsulation of Kuyek’s five decades worth of knowledge about mining, rich with examples of wins and losses. It covers in detail almost everything one could want to know about the industry: the lifecycle of a mine; its social and environmental impacts; the exploitation of workers and role of unions; how it’s financed, regulated, and taxed (or not taxed); the activities of Canada’s mining sector in the Global South; and how exactly to stop a mine. It doesn’t pull any punches: Kuyek argues in the introduction that mining is “the ultimate expression of the violence of colonialism.”
Spring spoke with Kuyek about her book, career, and activism.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first get involved in mining activism?
Well I think it was 50 years ago. I moved to Sudbury in 1970 with my then-husband. The town at that point was so totally dominated by the mining industry. It still is, but it’s not as obvious because there’s not as many people employed there. You are just immediately sucked into the living conditions, the environment, the position of women. The mining industry affected everything. I lived in Sudbury for 30 years. By the time I got the job with MiningWatch, it was just part of who I was: dealing with the power of the mining industry and its impacts socially and environmentally and in terms of the people who worked there was who I had become.
This book is encyclopedic in its detail and scope. Why did you decide to write this book now and what was your process in putting it together?
There were a couple of milestones on the way. One was going to work for MiningWatch. We thought that all the information we’d need must be out there somewhere. Frankly, if it was, it was in a language and a form none of us knew about. Most of the research had been controlled by the industry for so long that we found ourselves digging trying to find everything we could about the externalized impacts of the industry and working to interest academics in that kind of work.
I retired from MiningWatch after about 10 years and started working as a consultant instead, partly paid and partly unpaid. I kept accumulating so much information. I got a contract with Algoma University in the Soo to do a one-week intensive on mining and communities. I had to put together a course for people who were not industry knowledgeable but might be the lands and resource person from their First Nation or dealing with the economics of the industry. Having to pull together this course meant taking a 360 degree look at mining. I didn’t need to do the stuff the industry always does because that’s well funded and out there. But I did need to look at all these externalized costs.
That was really challenging. Then I was approached by a professor at Queens about teaching it at the law school with him. I did that for about five or six years, pulling together all this information for law students. That is really the table of contents for the book.
I decided I should probably be getting what we learned written down because I was getting old and afraid that I was going to pop off or lose my marbles before I had a chance to share this with people. I was thinking about it when I was approached by a Cree friend who gave me tobacco and asked if I would mentor her on mining issues. I thought “well, I guess I gotta write the book.” A lot of the book had in some ways been written before, from other people’s writings and things we’d done at MiningWatch. A lot of it was pulling together and updating and re-referencing and thinking about stuff that I’d already at least participated in creating.
There’s an estimated 10,000 abandoned mines across Canada, with many requiring perpetual care. Abandoned mines seem like a ticking time bomb of massive financial liabilities, with the Mount Polley tailings disaster demonstrating what happens when plans fail. Why aren’t politicians taking this issue seriously?
I don’t actually think most politicians and corporations that want to run them have a timeframe beyond the next election. It’s not on the bottom line so they don’t really give a shit what happens in the future. They may personally care but in terms of the way the political and economic structures are currently organized they’re only looking at the immediate bottom line. You look at something like Giant Mine and instead of saying “money will never pay for this: we’ve got to figure out what we do to prevent it ever, ever, ever leaking or if you’re building a new gold mine how do we stop it from happening in the first place?” they say “we can estimate it’s going to cost this much over the life over 1,000 years and we’ll discount it” so you’re paying peanuts. By the time these things still have to be looked after, we probably won’t even have currency.
As you stress throughout the book, mining isn’t just about digging holes in the ground: it creates all kinds of often unrecognized impacts like roads, transmission lines, noise, dust, socioeconomic changes, and all the rest. How do you go about explaining to people that a mine isn’t just about “little holes in the ground” but a particular vision of extractive development?
I don’t think people learn anything by being terrified, actually. People learn new things because they think they can do something about it. I think that’s the real challenge here. People also learn in the middle of a crisis. If they’re faced with something they perceive is going to damage them and those things they cherish, they learn very, very fast if they think they can do something about it. Otherwise they’re just going to go into denial and ignore it. But people also learn when they’re in the midst of creating something new and something important.
Some of the parts of the Green New Deal are really exciting for that. They make it possible to think about other ways of living on the earth. I think for Indigenous communities, reconnecting with their culture and reclaiming what colonialism has destroyed makes it possible for people to start thinking about other ways of getting their energy, their housing, their food. About other ways than extractivism to get the kind of resources they need. People learn because they’re hopeful. People learn because it’s safe to learn.
You bring up the Green New Deal, and there’s obviously a lot of conversations happening around that idea — especially within labour and unions. Based on your experience working with workers and unions, do you have a sense of what needs to happen to get them on side for a transition away from mining?
It’s a real challenge because unions’ mandates have been so narrowed over the years through the restrictions on the collective bargaining process. Really, they’ve only been able to operate as a defense for the existing labour force. They haven’t been able to challenge management rights. They’ve had more and more problems working to actually educate their members about anything except the contract. And they’ve got smaller: they’re under attack. Labour’s an important organizing force and some of the unions have really good educational departments. But frankly, I think people are going to learn more as union members in their community and engaging in community struggles than engaging in ones at the workplace.
If you look at what’s going on in Oshawa now, there’s real possibilities around worker control of the plant and maybe producing public transit instead of cars. But if the union is engaged in trying to just manufacture electric vehicles, they’re not going to be challenging the dominant paradigm that’s causing the problem in the first place. There is not enough lithium to give everyone an electric vehicle without destroying the planet. We need to be rethinking how we do things. I’m not very hopeful about unions actually changing how they actually educate their members. Over and over again, we see unions fight to protect mines, fight to protect industrial infrastructure. We need to some extent deindustrialize: looking at other ways of living on this planet, learning from Indigenous people around the world.
El Salvador banned all metal mining in 2017 due to concerns about the industry’s impacts on water supplies. Do you think there’s merit to a similar campaign in Canada: that instead of trying to pursue piecemeal demands through better consultations or regulations that we should just try to stop this industry entirely?
Any campaign has to look at who’s going to take it up. If you look at fossil fuels and the tarsands and the “leave it in the ground campaign,” people can do that partly because it’s so evident that climate chaos is upon us. At the beginning, that was a very, very difficult argument to make.
I think we should be saying “no more gold mines.” Quite frankly, it’s just absurd to build whole economies on gold and diamond mines. It’s an emperor’s has no clothes kind of gambling. But we continue to do it. When you raise that, you’re still attacked so much. I think the gold industry in Canada is dying because there’s not much left that’s mineable — but the consequences of mining these low-grade deposits is just unbelievable. More and more, I am hearing arguments like “no to gold” or the NOPE campaign in Nova Scotia and so on. There’s places there where that makes a lot of sense.
Part of the reason I wanted to write the book was so I could say those things. They’re constant discussions in places like MiningWatch. NGOs and campaigns can’t step too far outside the frame of reference of their supporters. They’re always dismissed anyways as being anti-mining. What’s wrong with being “anti-mining”? Why is that a swear word? It’s kind of bizarre, really. The industry should be having to prove that it isn’t anti-environment.
You concluded the book by posing the question of how to put “mining in its place.” What exactly does that mean to you?
The big thing is we’ve got to learn to respect the awesome cost of these minerals we take for granted. If we really respect those costs, then we’ll develop a totally different kind of economy. We do want long-term work for our kids and for our grandkids. We want livelihoods that can sustain the planet and communities. Mining isn’t going to do that. It’s going to undo it. We’ve got to start putting money into healing those sacrifice zones that we’ve already created; we’ve got to stop producing the minerals that don’t have any real social value; and we’ve got stop mines that are going to create more damage.
It’s important for people to realize that what’s happening here is part of a global movement for a whole different way of living on the planet. There are examples in Canada and outside Canada where people have been able to push back effectively. We need to be hopeful this is possible because that’s the only way we’re going to create any change.
Disclosure: The author of this article is also publishing a book with Between the Lines Books, which published Kuyek’s book. The publisher had no editorial control over this discussion
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