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Ecological imperialism and the Canadian mining industry

In 2013, Edward Snowden’s leak of documents pertaining to the inner workings of National Security Agency (NSA) sparked international revelations about the reach and unaccountability of Washington’s international surveillance apparatus. One series of documents that remain understudied, however, concern similar activities orchestrated by the Canadian government, including Ottawa’s influential but highly secretive surveillance agency, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), now simply called the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). Amongst other things, Snowden’s leaks revealed that the CSEC was conducting illegal spying operations on the Brazilian government, specifically Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy, with the apparent purpose of monitoring the security of present and future Canadian resource investments.

The CSEC has a long history of cooperating with the United States in unsanctioned intelligence gathering activities. In the 1960s, the CSEC tapped the private conversations of Cuban leaders from an interception post in the Canadian embassy in Havana, sharing the information with their U.S. counterparts in the NSA. In the 1980s, the CSEC planned to open a communications site in Algeria to help the NSA intercept communications within Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. The CSEC also monitored the activities of Palestinian organizations on behalf of Israel and the U.S., with former CSEC officer Michael Frost noting that “Yasser Arafat’s name…was on every [CSEC] key-word list. NSA was happy about that.”1

Canadian journalist Yves Engler found that a paper from 2000 cites Côte d’Ivoire, China, Romania, Morocco, Jamaica, Mexico, Italy, Costa Rica, Poland, and Japan as countries where the organization likely collected information. Later, an NSA document revealed that the Canadian spy agency conducted secret surveillance activities in “approximately 20 high-priority countries.”2

Following the Snowden leaks, former navy officer turned security analyst Paulo Pagliusi analyzed the documents pertaining to CSEC activities in Brazil and stated:

They could map the networks, the email path…the phone calls, who called who, who was in touch with whom.… I think there is no limit.… They can achieve everything they wish.3

When the 2013 leaks revealed that the Canadian intelligence agency was collecting metadata on phone calls and emails to map the mining ministry’s communications, Brazilian officials expressed their opprobrium. According to the Guardian, Brazil’s foreign minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo summoned the Canadian ambassador to “transmit the indignation of the Brazilian government and demand explanations.” He added that Canada’s unsanctioned intelligence gathering against the Brazilian government was a “serious and unacceptable violation of national sovereignty and the rights of people and companies.” Meanwhile, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff accused Canada of “industrial espionage.”4 Despite the furor that the revelations caused in Brazil, Canada’s representatives refused to comment on the matter, and Canadian media did not press the Stephen Harper government (2006—2015) for an explanation.

Edison Lobão, then Brazil’s mines and energy minister, identified Canada’s extremely powerful mining industry as a potential reason for the CSEC’s industrial espionage in the country: “Canada has interests in Brazil, above all in the mining sector. I can’t say if the spying served corporate interests or other groups.”5

Canada is currently home to 75 percent of the world’s mining companies. Extractive companies receive financing from the Canadian state through government arms like Export Development Canada (EDC) and Global Affairs Canada (GAC), and the full diplomatic backing of Ottawa in disputes over tax evasion, workers’ rights, and ecological degradation. This industry-state alliance, a defining feature of the capitalist state, first emerged on the North American continent as a way to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their land and extract value from settler agriculture and resource extraction. As Warren Bernauer, Henry Heller, and Peter Kulchyski write:

Beginning with the fur trade and fisheries in the colonial era, and later turning to lumber, agriculture, mining, hydroelectric dams, and fossil fuel extraction, Canada has long sought to develop its economy through the export of raw resources. Except for the fur trade, these “staple” exports are all premised on the dispossession of land and resources from indigenous peoples.… In the 1870s, the Canadian state manipulated famine to exert political control over the indigenous peoples of western Canada and confine them to small tracts of reserve lands. The goal was to “clear the plains” for settler agriculture, and to transform the Canadian prairies into a source of grain exports to Europe and the United States. When Métis and Cree communities militantly resisted the Canadian state’s authority in 1885, the participants were charged as treasonous Canadian citizens, rather than foreign combatants.6

Current Canadian investments in resource extraction in the Global South follow a similar pattern: violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples by state forces followed by the ecologically destructive extraction of resources from their lands and the underdevelopment of the relocated communities. David P. Thomas and Veldon Coburn explain: “For Indigenous Peoples, the imperative of organized capital incursions into their jurisdictions has remained largely unchanged from the early days of colonialism.… Like their early colonial forebears, contemporary land grabbers, both at home and abroad, are a significant driver of economic activity in Canada.”7

A key theory for understanding the imperatives of Canadian investment within Canada and in the Global South is that of “ecological imperialism.” As elucidated by writers like John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, ecological imperialism involves “the growth of the center of the system at unsustainable rates, through the more thoroughgoing ecological degradation of the periphery,” a dynamic that is accompanied by the expansion of “relations of economic and military domination, driven by the ecological rupture inherent in the capitalist mode of production (or ‘metabolic rift’).”8 Examples of ecological imperialism include nineteenth-century soil nitrate extraction in Peru and Bolivia, the 2003 war in Iraq, and the Canadian state’s ongoing incursions into Indigenous lands to develop industry while repressing Indigenous resistance to these efforts (see Muskrat Falls, the Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory, and the Ring of Fire mineral crescent).

As Bernauer, Heller, and Kulchyski note, “a thread of state repression runs through the recent history of this supposedly liberal nation,” from “Anishinabe Park (1973) to the Native Caravan (1974) to the Temagami, Haida Gwai, Nitassinan (all 1980s) conflicts, through to Oka, Ipperwash, and Gustafson Lake (all 1990s), and then Caledonia, Burnt Church, and the arrest of chief and council of the Kiichenumaykoosib Inninuwug (Big Trout Lake) in the first decade of this century.”9

Recently, the United Nations has issued three letters urging the Canadian government to end the surveillance, forced eviction, and overall criminalization of Indigenous communities resisting fossil fuel extraction projects in British Columbia. The latest letter, released on April 29, 2022, noted:

The Governments of Canada and of the Province of British Columbia have escalated their use of force, surveillance, and criminalization of land defenders and peaceful protesters to intimidate, remove and forcibly evict Secwepemc and Wet’suwet’en Nations from their traditional lands, in particular by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Community-Industry Response Group (CIRG), and private security firms. The information received specifies in particular that the Tiny House Warriors, a group of Secwepemc women, have been the target of surveillance and intimidation, and that numerous Secwepemc and We’suwet’en peaceful land defenders have been victims of violent evictions and arbitrary detentions.10

In their resistance to the Coastal GasLink pipeline, members of the Secwepemc and Wet’suwet’en nations are defending many sensitive waterways and wetlands from degradation resulting from the pipeline’s construction, including harms to fish habitats and water sources. By September 2022, the province of British Columbia had warned Coastal GasLink against violating environmental regulations fifty-one times, warnings which did nothing to stop the company from continuing such violations which “damage water quality and fish habitat, reduce sunlight in the water, and settle on wildlife and vegetation.”11

Of particular note is the vulnerability of Wedzin Kwa, a river running through the heart of Wet’suwet’en territory, to pollution resulting from the pipeline’s construction. Coastal GasLink “plans to run pipe underneath the Wedzin Kwa, potentially interrupting the salmon migration routes relied upon by the Wet’suwet’en and threatening the purity of the river’s drinking water.”12 Despite the existential threat that the pipeline poses to the livelihoods of the Wet’suwet’en people, Canadian courts continue to criminalize their resistance to the extractive project. If Coastal GasLink and its allies in the Canadian government get their way, the pipeline will be built and the Wet’suwet’en people will be left to struggle against its devastating ecological consequences—consequences that are unavoidable if the racist and expansionary logic of extractive capitalism is accepted.

The logic of ecological imperialism also dominates Canadian extractive investments abroad. One notable case is that of Canadian mining company Equinox Gold in Brazil. In March 2021, a dam at a gold mine owned by Equinox collapsed, contaminating the water supply for a nearby community of 4,000 people in the Aurizona district. The company, which received CAD $500 million funding from Canadian banks in March 2020, promised to distribute clean drinking water to the locals. However, the community said this never happened. Instead, they asserted that the water Equinox delivered “present[ed] traces of mud and a strong odour” and that contact with the water caused rashes. Equinox said their claims were “total lies.”13

When locals began protesting Equinox’s activities, multiple protestors were arrested, intimidated, and threatened after their release. Jonias Pinheiro, a resident of Aurizona who worked for Equinox for several years, reported:

The company controls the municipality.… There have been cases of criminalization and even assassination of social leaders. The company acts as if all Aurizona district is its private property, preventing local residents from catching crabs and collecting fruits the traditional source of livelihood for families in the region…It is very important to spread the word about what is happening here throughout the world, including in Canada, [where] the company is headquartered.14

Equinox Gold faced similar accusations in Mexico, specifically at the site of their mine in the ejido of Carrizalillo. After the mine became operational, locals reported that their water sources became contaminated and health problems including eye irritation, skin conditions, respiratory trouble, premature births, and birth deformations proliferated in the community. The company disregarded their complaints.

Like the Coastal GasLink pipeline in British Columbia, Equinox Gold’s actions in Brazil and Mexico point to the centrality of ecological imperialism to Canadian extractive industry. Throughout its history, Ottawa has supported the dispossession of Indigenous peoples domestically and in other mineral-rich nations, participated in the industrial pollution of local communities’ water sources and the destruction of local economic traditions, and sought to manipulate industry regulations for the benefit of extractive companies. These actions, including the CSEC’s spying activities in Brazil, are a direct outgrowth of Canadian colonialism and imperialist incursions into Indigenous lands, of which covert intelligence-gathering is an essential component:

When one considers the lack of clean water in some communities impacted by Canadian mining, or the fact that Canada deployed its surveillance agencies against a country in which it felt that its extractive investments were threatened, the domestic parallels are obvious. It is difficult to avoid connecting these events to Indigenous communities within Canada that lack clean water due to industrial pollution, or to revelations that [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service] has collected intelligence on peaceful climate activists and Indigenous-led protest movements for years.15

In his 2015 book Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation, Yves Engler identifies sixteen African countries where Canada-based mining interests have, with the support of the Canadian state, negatively impacted local communities and sought to evade consequences (this is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather a glimpse into a series of illustrative examples).16 In their 2016 book Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America, Todd Gordon and Jeffrey R. Webber note ten countries in South and Central America where similar disputes over Canadian extractive investment have erupted in particularly violent ways.17 In his 2010 book Imperialist Canada, Gordon identifies nine countries in Asia where Canada also has notable mining and energy interests.18

Investments in these regions increased in the second half of the twentieth century, and with them rose the importance of the Global South in the proportion of investment income earned abroad by Canadian companies. Gordon writes: “income from direct investment in the [Global South] as a proportion of total investment income earned abroad has risen significantly, from just under twenty-five percent for the years 1973—79 to over forty-five percent for 2000—07.”19 Gordon also notes that “in 1980 profits from Canadian Third World investments were $3.7 billion, while by 2007 they were $23.6 billion after tax—an increase of 535 percent, which is greater than the increase in profits earned at home over the same period of time.”20

In some countries in the Global South where Canadian investments are prevalent, Ottawa has attempted to influence domestic politics in order to secure a more profitable environment for its transnational mining industry. In 1997, for instance, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) partnered with the Canadian Energy Research Institute and several Colombian law firms that specialized in representing multinational corporations. CIDA gave them $11 million to rewrite Colombian mining laws, which they did, lowering royalty payments for foreign companies from a minimum of 10 percent to 0.4 percent.21 Such rewritten mining codes also tend to reduce environmental protections in the relevant countries, a clear example of ecological imperialism.

In September 2009, Congolese president Joseph Kabila withdrew Canadian mining company First Quantum’s rights to a copper mine in the Congo’s east. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government immediately released a statement calling on Kabila to “enhance governance and accountability in the extractive sector.” Later, the Financial Post reported that “Harper will raise the case of Vancouver-based First Quantum Minerals Ltd. with representatives from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other governments that do business with the DRC.” The Congolese information minister called Canada’s response “unacceptable,” but Harper continued to apply pressure, threatening to prevent a much-needed restructuring of debt accrued during the Mobutu dictatorship.22

In response to Kabila’s nationalization, First Quantum sought to influence the country’s next election and place a more industry-friendly president in power. The company turned to an Australian lobbying firm called CT Group, which promised to work against Kabila in the upcoming 2011 presidential election. First Quantum offered CT Group £1.2 million for the seven-month project, alongside a £1 million bonus if the firm “met certain targets.” As reported by Jim Waterson and Harry Davies in the Guardian:

Documents show CT Group—then known as CTF Partners—told First Quantum in May 2011 that elections in the DRC later that year represented “a real opportunity to influence the future of the country.” The firm’s “expertise and discretion,” executives promised, “can ensure this opportunity is harnessed.” To “secure the most favourable possible outcome” and “add value” to the mining company, CTF said it would provide “direct support to the most likely person to beat the current president” and carry out “indirect activity” to undermine the president inside the DRC and internationally. Another part of CTF’s plan proposed to discredit the country’s then president, Joseph Kabila, to “create a climate of opinion” that would encourage any international court to find in favour of First Quantum in its legal dispute with the DRC government.23

Ultimately, Ottawa and First Quantum backed off when the Kabila government gave concessions to First Quantum. Their aggressive response becomes even more shameful when one learns that, of the $41 billion produced by the Congolese mining industry between 2007 and 2012, less than 3 percent went into the country’s national budget.24

Tanzania offers another example. In 2017, the Tanzanian government was considering a ban on gold concentrate exports, prompting Canadian mining company Barrick Gold, whose subsidiary Acacia Mining is the largest foreign investor in the East African country, to seek “emergency help” from Ottawa. Dodoma had also accused Acacia of owing billions in unpaid taxes, penalties, and interest. The Canadian high commissioner in Tanzania advised Barrick Gold to “collect evidence to cast doubt on the accuracy of Tanzania’s tax assessment.” In another advisement, “Canadian officials said Mr. Sargent could suggest that Barrick should ‘spell out’ to Tanzania that the dispute might cause a loss of jobs and revenue and could damage Tanzania’s reputation as an investment destination.” In another e-mail, government officials claimed that they were seeking a meeting with Tanzania’s president at the time, John Magufuli, “to advocate on Acacia’s behalf.”25

That November, the Canadian high commissioner met with the Tanzanian mining minister and urged him to lift the export ban on gold concentrate. During the meeting, the Canadian officials “also emphasized Canada’s foreign aid to Tanzania,” according to the Globe and Mail.26 In the context of the Canadian government’s plan to “advocate on Acacia’s behalf,” it is hard to read this reference to foreign aid as anything other than an attempt at leveraging Tanzania to adopt an economic position more beneficial to Canada.

The Canadian state has intervened directly in the domestic politics of many countries, either to dismantle left-wing or nationalist reforms or to rewrite mining codes to be more neoliberal. This history reveals that Canada’s apparent industrial espionage activities in Brazil were not a one-off: they are part of a long history of public and clandestine state support, rooted in colonial capitalism, for ecologically harmful extractive industries. While working to guarantee favorable investment climates in targeted countries, the state also provides “loans, insurance, knowledge, and other material support” to Canadian firms abroad through parastatal agencies like EDC and GAC.27

By their very nature, these Canadian mining and energy investments have a tendency to generate tension, discontent, and popular resistance in their areas of operation. This fact derives from the logic of transnational capitalist investment in a peripheral state: the company seeks to lower costs while maximizing returns, while the peripheral state is likely to allow cost-cutting measures in the areas of workers’ protections and environmental protection. Additionally, the peripheral state’s desire to open more territory for resource exploitation may lead it to seek to dismantle Indigenous rights, reducing cultural and territorial protections for the benefit of investors. These attacks on Indigenous rights and local ecologies tend to initiate resistance of the type that erupted in Ecuador and Panama in 2022—resistance that the state may answer by dispatching police or army contingents (which, more often than not, are equipped with North American-made weapons), assured of the silence of their partners in the Global North.

When popular resistance to Canadian extractivism in the Global South is repressed by police or military force, Ottawa almost always remains silent or offers diplomatic support for the violent measures. In the midst of the bone-chilling repression that followed the Honduran military’s 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya, Canadian official Michael Kergin dismissed the arrests and murders, saying that “there is in Honduras a traditional culture of violence.”28 At the same time, Canadian mining companies poured into Honduras as soon as the coup regime lifted Zelaya’s mining regulations. Later, in June 2022, the Canadian embassy in Ecuador demeaned Indigenous-led protests against inflation, neoliberal economic policies, and extractive industry as “violent riots.”29 In July 2022, when nationwide protests rocked Panama for similar reasons, the Canadian embassy simply noted “Demonstrations have been taking place around Panama.… Canadians should remain vigilant at all times, avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings.”30 None of the statements mentioned the police violence, the killing and wounding of protestors, or the illegal arrests of protestors such as Leonidas Iza, president of Ecuador’s Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador.

From its founding up to the present day, Canada has criminalized Indigenous resistance to extractive industry through efforts so extreme and unremitting that the United Nations has condemned them numerous times. The international expansion of Canadian extractivism has meant the globalization of this dispossessive logic throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, a devastating development that constitutes a specifically ecological form of imperialism in which environmentally destructive outcomes are offloaded onto colonial or imperial subjects whose resistance is demeaned, disregarded, and illegalized by Canada and its allies.

This ecological imperialism is a consequence of the capitalist logic that guides Canada’s domestic and transnational investments; in other words, the colonial-capitalist structure of the settler state itself. Decolonization of the Canadian state apparatus and the end of ecologically destructive projects at home is thus the prerequisite for Canada to establish more ecologically harmonious.


  1. Quoted in Yves Engler, “New Bill Will Give Ultra-Secret Spy Agency Extensive Powers,” Canadian Dimension, May 15, 2018.
  2. Quoted in Engler, “New Bill Will Give Ultra-Secret Spy Agency Extensive Powers.”
  3. Quoted in Susan Ormiston, “Canada’s Spying Touches Nerve in Brazil,” CBC, October 15, 2013,
  4. Associated Press, “Brazil Accuses Canada of Spying after NSA leaks,” Guardian, October 8, 2013.
  5. Quoted in the Associated Press, “Canadian Spies Targeted Brazil’s Mines Ministry: Report,” CBC, October 7, 2013.
  6. Warren Bernauer, Henry Heller, and Peter Kulchyski, “From Wallmapu to Nunatsiavut: The Criminalization of Indigenous Resistance,” Monthly Review 69, no. 8 (January 2018): 33—40.
  7. David P. Thomas and Veldon Coburn, “Corporate Canada, Capitalism, and Dispossession,” in Capitalism & Dispossession: Corporate Canada at Home and Abroad (Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2022), 7.
  8. Bernauer, Heller, and Kulchyski, “From Wallmapu to Nunatsiavut.”
  9. Bernauer, Heller, and Kulchyski, “From Wallmapu to Nunatsiavut.”
  10. Quoted in Owen Schalk, “UN Urges Canada to End Criminalization of Land Defenders,” Canadian Dimension, June 27, 2022.
  11. Betsy Trumpener, “Coastal GasLink Warned More than 50 Times over Environmental Violations during Pipeline Construction,” CBC, September 22, 2022,
  12. Brandi Morin, “The Last of the Untamed: Wedzin Kwa and the Wet’suwet’en Fight to Save Her,” Ricochet, January 29, 2022.
  13. Quoted in Schalk, “First Nations in Northern Ontario and Mexico Struggle against Gold Mining Giants,” Canadian Dimension, March 24, 2022.
  14. Quoted in Schalk, “First Nations in Northern Ontario and Mexico Struggle against Gold Mining Giants.”
  15. Schalk, “First Nations in Northern Ontario and Mexico Struggle against Gold Mining Giants.”
  16. The list also includes Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Western Sahara, and Zambia; Engler, Canada in Africa, 151—182.
  17. These ten countries are Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela; Todd Gordon and Jeffrey R. Webber, Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America (Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2016).
  18. These nine countries are Afghanistan (under the NATO occupation), Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Philippines, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam; Gordon, Imperialist Canada (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2010).
  19. Gordon, Imperialist Canada, 178.
  20. Gordon, Imperialist Canada, 11.
  21. Schalk, “How Canada Benefits from Crisis in Colombia,” Alborada, September 9, 2021.
  22. Quoted in Engler, Canada in Africa, 215.
  23. Jim Waterson and Harry Davies, “Tory-Linked Lobbying Firm Agreed to Help Swing DRC Election, Leak Suggests,” Guardian, November 3, 2022.
  24. Engler, Canada in Africa, 156.
  25. Schalk, “Documents Show How Ottawa Intervened in Tanzania to Benefit Canadian Mining Firms,” Canadian Dimension, July 4, 2022.
  26. Geoffrey York, “Canadian Foreign Aid Was Discussed During Barrick Tax Dispute in Tanzania, Internal E-mails Show,” Globe and Mail, May 24, 2022.
  27. Thomas and Coburn, “Corporate Canada, Capitalism, and Dispossession,” 6.
  28. Quoted in Schalk, “Xiomara Castro’s Victory in Honduras Is a Win Over Imperialism,” Canadian Dimension, December 4, 2021.
  29. Quoted in Schalk, “Trudeau Silent on Police Crackdown in Ecuador,” Canadian Dimension, June 25, 2022.
  30. Quoted in Schalk, “Canadian Mining and the Uprising in Panama,” Canadian Dimension, July 23, 2022.