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Interview / ​Catherine Nolin & Grahame Russell

Interview / ​Catherine Nolin & Grahame Russell

[Brian Gorlick]

In November 2020, the Canadian Association of University Teachers Council passed a motion condemning the last-minute cancellation of a book deal by Springer Nature, allegedly following third-party interference, as its suppression threatens academic freedom and scholarly communications. The book, Canadian Mining in the Aftermath of Genocides in Guatemala, details mining company-linked human rights violations, forced evictions, repression, health and environmental harms, and corruption and was co-edited by Catherine Nolin and Grahame Russell.

Catherine Nolin is Chair of the Geography Program at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), as well as Chair of the Conference of Latin American Geography (CLAG). She and lawyer Grahame Russell, an adjunct professor at UNBC and Director of Rights Action — a human rights, disaster relief and environmental protection organization — have worked together for 20 years to organize and facilitate field schools to Guatemala for undergraduate and graduate students.

Tell us about your work in Guatemala.

Since 2000, we’ve worked together to lead field schools from UNBC to examine issues of social justice, the legacies of genocide, the really dynamic and inspirational community responses to all of that, and the powers that people there must face when defending their rights and communities. Many are criminalized and endure all sorts of pressures related to the opening up of the Guatemalan economy after the genocide to corporate interests and investment from around the world, much of which is connected to Canada, the United States, Europe, and so on.

The book you co-edited focused on mining. Why?

We became particularly interested in 2004 when a Canadian mine that had previously been owned by INCO was coming up to renew its concession. We hadn't really been focusing on mining issues before then, but people started asking us to pay attention.

There is no way for Canadian mining companies, let alone mining companies from other countries, to operate these large-scale mines in a country like Guatemala and not benefit from political and judicial corruption, and then, in turn, actually cause human rights violations, forced evictions, environmental harm, and health harms to the local communities. They benefit with impunity from the corruption which is the norm. That's a pretty clear conclusion we've arrived at by looking at all these different mining-related struggles in the country, and the other main conclusion which we include in our book is that these are not just Guatemalan problems. These are very much Canadian problems; what we are really trying to do is shine a light, not just on Guatemala and issues there, but the Canadian decisions, decision-makers and policy to support the Canadian extractive industry at all costs. Our book is an accumulation of evidence from varying perspectives from a range of actors and it paints a really terrible picture.

Who are the people most impacted in this terrible picture?

Not all the mining struggles are Indigenous but the vast majority of the population in Guatemala is Indigenous, living in Mayan communities. Mines have been set up so that one per cent of profits remain in the country while 99 per cent flow to the corporations. This is plunder, exploitation, and we're being told it's “development.” I think that's a shocking reality that most folks here in Canada don’t know. When we listen to the corporate social responsibility spin of these companies they say they’re bringing development to Guatemala, bringing jobs to these poor people. Yet in every mining struggle we document, the people we work with want two things: accountability, remedy and justice; and they want the mining companies out. The people impacted say they want to be asked what they need to develop their rich land. They want irrigation systems, access to markets, to grow their own crops and create a local economy.

Your book deal with Springer was abruptly and unilaterally cancelled by the publisher recently. What happened?

We were very clear with Springer about the approach we were taking in the book, and we stuck with the proposal we submitted to them. Faced with the kind of overwhelming evidence we had, I think our conclusions were quite strong; we weren't tepid in what we were saying through the material, the images, the testimonies and interviews we included. This was our proposal and it's not like we veered off at some point and created something they weren't expecting. We still don't really know exactly what happened other than what they have shared with us through email, as they have not communicated with us in person or on Zoom. After a lot of prodding, they said they wouldn’t proceed because the book contains unsubstantiated defamatory content, and apparently so extensive that no editing could possibly adjust it.

What did you do?

That's when CAUT entered the picture and conducted a full libel review, an amazing support for us that makes us feel really confident that there isn't any defamatory content. We put out our public letter and had some media coverage. Suddenly we were approached by several different publishers wanting to have a look at the book, and at this point it is actually under an expedited review with another publisher based in Canada.

What would you like to see happen in response to the issues you raise?

Going back 50 years, there have been lawsuits in Canada, with victims asking for civil justice to be done in Canadian courts. But that isn’t nearly enough. We have two big asks for Canada: one is serious criminal and civil law accountability in our courts that is binding and punitive, the way law should be. In certain cases, some actors should go to jail at a given point, but there's a huge impunity gap on criminal liability in Canada and for a country that prides itself on the rule of law and accountability, it's a sad double standard. On the civil law side there are now, finally, a handful of precedent-setting lawsuits working their way through our courts, so it's not zero, but it’s still minimal. Our second ask is for political accountability as there is almost no Parliamentary oversight on what our companies are doing abroad. We need a much broader debate on what is an appropriate global economic model. Why do we claim that our mining interests are good for their development? The whole thing begs the question of the global market system, and who should be its controllers and its beneficiaries.

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