8. 4. 2021
Unsealing the Echo Chamber
Let me start with a story.
In 2016, I walk into a plush room in a Toronto conference centre, just before the start of the annual general meeting of a large Canadian mining company – call them Rockpoint Resources. Hoping to give off an air of nonchalance, I wear a blazer covering my tattoos and carry a large bag concealing a collection plate borrowed from some radical minister friends. Although we pretend not to know each other, I’m there with a handful of fellow activists to create a moment of disruption inside an otherwise slickly curated corporate performance.
My co-organizers and I plant ourselves in seats around the room, ignoring each other and trying to seem like business types. Looking around, I notice a number of signs notifying guests that video recording and photography by anybody except authorized personnel are strictly prohibited. The room is loaded with security staff, placed strategically up and down the aisles, monitoring the crowd. I see one guard photograph my friend on the other side of the room and then point at me. Almost instantaneously, another guard appears by my side, pretending not to watch me. They all seem nervous. I put my phone away and try not to seem nervous, too.
2016 marks six years since the beginning of a very costly criminal trial in Guatemalan courts against the former head of security at one of Rockpoint Resources’s mines, a man accused of murder and other brutality. We’ve been to many Rockpoint events before and know the company won’t be discussing any of these realities without a little help. Our goal is to see how far we can pass a collection plate down the rows of attendees before it gets intercepted by security. The plate has a note on it, asking Rockpoint’s shareholders to donate their dividends to cover legal fees for community members in Guatemala. A minor intervention, really.
When an opportune moment arises, I subtly lift the collection plate from my bag and pass it to a friend, who stands up and carries it to the end of the row. Predictably, nobody donates. Attendees look at the plate like we’re trying to pass them a pile of garbage, and my friend is promptly ejected from the room. I try to look unfazed.
During the scheduled Q&A, an audience member – not one of my co-organizers, but from a peer organization – requests the microphone to ask a question about Rockpoint Resources’s stance on the court case in Guatemala. Adhering to the meeting’s protocol, but pursuing the same goal as me and my friends: force the company to acknowledge what they’re so desperately trying to gloss over. Despite this audience member being entitled as a shareholder to ask her question, the room fills with deep sighs and rolling eyes. A man behind me puts his head in his hands and massages his temples, as though deeply burdened by this momentary breach of typical shareholder meeting decorum. “I imagine she will be swiftly escorted from the premises,” tuts one older woman to another. As though on cue, I can hear another friend a couple of rows behind me get escorted out by security, who’s caught them trying to video-record the company’s response to the question. Rockpoint’s president and CEO gestures to a security guard, who extracts the microphone from the question-asker’s hand mid-sentence. “Can I have the mic back?” She cannot.
After the meeting adjourns, I help myself to a bottle of cranberry juice. A man in a suit glares at me and mutters something about me being a freeloader. Outside, when I find my friend who was ejected for filming, they tell me they were tailed by security staff for blocks.
I’m a member of a grassroots activist group called the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network (MISN). Up until early last year, these kinds of strange, securitized interactions in mining industry spaces were typical for us. As with many contentious industries, Canada’s mining sector pours vast resources into controlling and cleaning up its image. It’s imperative that shareholder meetings, especially, remain positive and full of corporate self-praise, since investor confidence is so central to mining companies’ bottom line. For MISN, a group that works in solidarity with mining-impacted communities around the world, it’s always been important to make sure the most villainous companies headquartered in Toronto can never attempt to misrepresent their work to investors at those meetings without somebody standing up and saying, “No, you’re lying. Here’s the rest of the story.”
It used to be that you could just pay a buck for a share in a company and gain easy entry into insider spaces typically shielded from outsider critique. This tactic allowed us to gather information withheld from impacted communities in the Global South, including land defenders with whom we are in ongoing relationship. It helped us cause some much-needed ruptures in rooms full of people who are very skilled at insulating themselves from challenges to their worldview. It let us expose shareholders to information about justice issues that are also financial concerns for them. And it created a particular kind of accountability mechanism, where companies could no longer claim that they “just didn’t know” about the suffering they leave in their wake – because we told them, in front of so many people, on this day and at this time.
COVID changed all that.
The digital filter
The first sign that the pandemic would facilitate a new era of heightened control in mining industry spaces came with the release of a code of conduct before the 2021 Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention, the world’s largest mining conference, which takes place in Toronto every year. The new rules included bans on “any action that will cause disruption to the event,” “uncooperative behaviour,” disruptions during presentations “including but not limited to off-topic communications and protests,” and taking screenshots or audio/video recordings of conference proceedings.
In the past, the public could attend two major parts of the convention: some workshops and panels; and the “convention floor,” where you could interact with mining companies’ representatives and others connected to the industry, at public-facing booths. My co-organizer who attended this year’s virtual convention reports that many sessions consisted of pre-recorded speeches, offering little to no opportunity for audience participation. On a couple of occasions, attendees apparently hadn’t been informed that a session wasn’t live, and left questions in the chat for the absent speaker. These events all ended with zero response from the mining companies: the lights are on, but nobody’s home. Other sessions were live, but presenters reviewed attendees’ questions and chose which ones they wanted to respond to. Many questions went unanswered.
This year’s PDAC conference contained more references than ever before to accountability, transparency, and what the industry calls ESG (environment, social, and governance) factors. Yet this rhetoric of openness is escalating at the same time as the mining industry expands what I have been calling a “digital filter” against dissent. Even faithful believers in the industry are taking notice, with eyebrows raised; a recent article in the Globe and Mail accuses mining annual general meetings of “muting” shareholders, arguing that online AGMs “appear to be limiting investor participation and shielding corporate boards and management teams from an appropriate level of shareholder scrutiny.”
At in-person AGMs, if you raised your hand to ask a question and your hand got ignored, you had options – even if they were messy. You could loudly demand to speak. You could start a chant. You could be a human being in a space full of other humans, with all the accompanying awkwardness and discomfort. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
Curious to see for myself how things would be different in an online annual general meeting, I logged into Rockpoint Resource’s virtual AGM this past spring. Because one of MISN’s members owns a single share in the company, every year we’re mailed instructions on how to attend the meeting, and this year was no different. Well, it was a little different. The document we received in the mail gave us something called a “control number”; it wasn’t until I scrolled down to page 91 of a vaguely titled information circular posted on Rockpoint’s website that I found the convoluted login instructions. Five minutes before the start of the AGM, I clicked the link I was supposed to click, typed the numbers I was supposed to type, and…“Incorrect login or password.” No suggestion of what could be wrong, or how to fix it. After trying many variations on the password with no success, I was forced to log in as a guest, which meant I could no longer vote in the meeting, ask a question, or see what questions were asked.
Jazzy elevator music was playing as I entered the meeting. There was no way of knowing who else was in the room. There was no chat. When the meeting began, it became clear to me that I wouldn’t be seeing a single human face. The presentation was just the disembodied voices of the company’s chairman and president speaking overtop of PowerPoint slides. It could have been pre-recorded, but I don’t know. The business was brief, and there were no questions. No expressions of dissent. I left feeling even more numb than I usually feel walking out of mining industry spaces.
It’s so much easier to gatekeep digitally. MISN’s Rockpoint Resources share is registered under the name of a well-known opponent of the company. Maybe the fact that I couldn’t get into the AGM was just a glitch; maybe we missed a step in the new maze-like registration protocol; or maybe company staff saw that name appear on the registration list and said no thank you. These are companies that leave photos of known activists with front desk staff to prevent those activists from entering an in-person AGM: is it so hard to believe that a company staffer might see the name of a potential “problem guest” from a “problem organization” and conveniently overlook it?
It’s not that AGMs were good before and bad now. They were bad before, and now they’re worse. The virtualization of mining industry gatherings has created a more efficient way for mining companies to exclude opponents from their spaces and shield shareholders from the realities on the ground. More than ever, it’s enabled them to get on with business as usual and face no opposition, no demands that they account for the harms they cause. Where once we had a slight opening that certain people could slip through, now there is a mirrored gate. The echo chamber has been sealed, and we don’t know when or how it will open again. What will it take to find another sliver of access to a human encounter?
Breaching the filter, or swerving around it
The mining industry has always been and will likely remain slippery. In response, the mining justice movement has learned to be creative and incredibly nimble. For example, after the first time a company we’d been fighting for years got sold, renamed, and relocated, MISN pivoted away from solely targeting specific corporations or executives. We realized that we needed to prioritize fighting the drivers of the industry at large: corporate networks, extractivist ideology, major industry gatherings like PDAC. Still, the changes we have seen in the last year remind me how important it is to avoid becoming complacent or fetishizing specific resistance tactics. As maddening as it is to see a previous pathway to solidarity become unavailable to us, we can also treat this kind of obstacle as a chance to take a step back, reflect on our strategy, and reorient.
Like many people’s, my personal experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has involved a great deal of slowing down. In my first few years of mining justice organizing, spring was always MISN’s busiest season. What we called “shareholder season” – that is, the period between May and July when all the Toronto-based mining companies tend to hold their annual general meetings – was a high-speed race to intervene in industry spaces as much as possible. It wasn’t unusual for us to hold multiple actions in the span of a week, for a month straight; we would usually need to take August off to rest and recover. There was something exhilarating about this mode of organizing. Some of our most creative ideas emerged through adrenaline-fuelled brainstorming sessions in the lead-up to shareholder season. We never wanted to do the same thing twice. “This time, with helium balloons! This time, with Santa costumes! This time, with a giant 10-foot puppet of a mining exec with blood on his hands! Now with the sound of jackhammers drowning out the panel!” But, in a way, we were staging the exact same kind of intervention again and again. We were operating on the mining industry’s timeline, and it was burning us out.
During the pandemic, we haven’t organized a single in-person action, but we’ve still been busy. We’ve been developing an app-based self-guided walking tour of Toronto’s financial district, and curating an art project that gathers imaginings about a post-extractivist world. We’ve been working in coalitions, and engaging in the slow, careful process of building new relationships of solidarity with mining-impacted communities. We’ve spent a whole year researching a new campaign that we’ve wanted to work on forever, but never thought we had time for. Working outside the mining industry’s timeline has felt good. It’s made two dreams that I’ve had for years about the future of this work feel more possible.
I dream, first, of less corporate confrontation and more organized communities. Right now, for example, MISN is working on that new campaign I mentioned: a project supporting teachers and students to organize in service of mining justice. The campaign is focused on encouraging schools to divest from mining industry propaganda, and helping kids understand resource extraction in ways that centre environmental justice and Indigenous sovereignty. Schools can be sites of mining justice struggle as critical as AGMs, since the mining industry has put a great deal of resources into distributing pro-industry teaching and learning materials to schools across the country, through an organization called Mining Matters.
MISN can get a hundred people to come out to a hundred protests, and that’s great. But if we can help a hundred networked communities get organized enough to take action in service of mining justice on their own terms, in their own spheres of influence…that’s transformation. This kind of activism doesn’t involve interacting with the mining industry at all. Instead of looking mining executives in the face, the people we’re looking at are each other.
Mining companies headquartered in downtown Toronto drive ongoing colonization here in Canada and all over the world. In Toronto today, it’s pretty much impossible to exist without in some way giving your money to mining. The industry is ingrained in almost every facet of life here, through investment in universities, hospitals, museums, pensions, banks, and more. One could see that as overwhelming, but as Crimethinc says: “To change anything, start everywhere.” Organizing teachers to push mining propaganda out of schools is one place to start. Organizing auto workers to reject the current greenwashing of the car industry under Canada’s “critical minerals strategy” is another. What if artists got organized and pressured arts institutions to divest from extractivism? What if University of Toronto students finally said enough is enough and went on strike until Peter Munk’s name were removed from the School of Global Affairs? What could a movement of geology students for mining justice look like? What if the workers at every Ontario mining project followed the lead of workers at the Baffinland mine in Nunavut and declared their solidarity with the rightful stewards of the land? All of this is possible. It’s slow, deep work, and it’s possible.
My other longtime dream that’s felt more possible lately is an increased focus on stopping harm by directly intervening at its source. After years of disrupting the mining industry narratively (by trying to interrupt lies and tell a different story that might influence shareholders), as well as legally (by attempting to change laws that support the impunity of these corporations), I believe the North America-based arm of the mining justice movement must get better at disrupting the industry materially through direct action. The meaning of the phrase “direct action” has become a little fuzzy in recent years; often it’s used as a catch-all to describe any sort of confrontational or law-breaking tactic. But I define direct action as anything we do that makes change happen ourselves, rather than appealing to politicians or bosses or corporations to make change for us.
Many of the mining-impacted communities with whom we have relationships of solidarity use direct action as a central tool: they run longstanding blockades, maintain land reclamation sites, and launch mass uprisings. They are often severely punished for this activism, through militarized policing (backed by the Canadian government) and insidious threats. In MISN, we’ve tended to think of the work we do in Toronto as supporting direct action that’s happening elsewhere. But lately I’ve been wondering: what is the Toronto-side version of a mine site blockade? What might it look like for a movement to defend the land both on the threatened territories and in the backyard of the enemy? What sorts of actions could we take that don’t rely on CEOs or politicians having a change of heart, but instead make it impossible for them to carry out their agenda?
I take inspiration from the recent re-popularization of supply chain disruption tactics, used notably in early 2020 by the movement in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation’s sovereignty struggle. As Indigenous people and settlers across the Canadian state blocked railroad tracks, more of the public seemed to discover that bodies placed strategically in physical space can have magnificent impacts. While these blockades had a broad range of motives and results, they were all fierce in their directness. These actions showed that we don’t have to wait around for people in power to change their minds. These actions said: if politicians won’t stop plans for this pipeline, the public will stop the pipeline infrastructure in its tracks. People have that power. I remember how terrified the Canadian government seemed about this awakening. 2021 has seen a spate of similar tactics: from the truck blockade in Hamilton, Ontario, preventing weapons from being supplied to the Canadian-backed war on Yemen, to the work refusals carried out by Italian port workers unwilling to be complicit in airstrikes on Gaza.
All of these actions are ways of asking: how do those of us who live in the commercial capitals of the Global North ensure that the tools of violence don’t even get where they’re going? And what does effective intervention look like when those tools are as abstract as futures trades on stock exchanges?
Deepening our capacity for direct action at these sites will require us to intensify solidarities across struggles locally, in order to enhance these actions’ power and create more safety in numbers. It will demand that we knit together many of the communities I mentioned earlier – teachers, auto workers, artists, students, geologists, and more – to create a mass movement for mining justice in the streets below the boardrooms.
Multiplying the sites of our direct intervention will also involve building new skills, or connecting with allies (even unlikely ones) who have those skills already. We need people who know about finance to help us understand the factors that influence share prices. We need people with tech skills to help us navigate the digital filter. We need young people with wealthy parents to help us identify the social spaces that decision-makers move through. We need working-class industry insiders with no emotional attachment to mining (admin assistants, communications interns, co-op students) to feed us information and help us predict what’s coming next. The motlier the crew, the better.
With the help of these new allies, we also have to take our research skills to the next level. Mind-numbing corporate documents can help us predict a company’s plans, offering us a more complex understanding of potential sites of intervention than we could ever gain from an AGM. In Canada, for industries like mining, there are many sequential steps a company must follow before it can render a project operational. Two layers of environmental assessment (federal and provincial/territorial) must be conducted; access roads, mineral processing smelters, and other infrastructure may need to be built. The process can take years, and companies must retain shareholder confidence all the while. With so many steps along the way, the possibilities for intervention are countless – if we can learn to predict how a given company might navigate those steps.
Of course, whatever new tactics we embrace, we must continue to foster deep relationships with activists organizing on the front lines of extraction around the world, and take our lead from them, so we remain in tune with their needs and goals. When the ferocity of movements in global mining finance hubs matches that of movements in regions threatened by mines, winning everywhere will feel much more possible.
A human scale, but scaled up
2017. I approach the booth of a small mining company at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada convention. An older white gentleman greets me warmly. “Oh, hi! How are you doing today?” I ask. He tells me he’s great. I flash him an innocent-young-white-lady smile and tell him I’m glad he’s great. I ask him about a legal case that’s just entered Canadian courts: the company he works for is accused of profiting from forced labour, slavery, cruel and inhumane treatment of workers, and other crimes against humanity at one of its mines. He becomes increasingly flustered as he realizes that my questions don’t match my friendly smile. The case hasn’t yet gotten much media attention in Canada, and this man is not prepared. Eventually he just stops talking.
The next year, as those legal proceedings make their way to the Supreme Court of Canada, that company has no booth on the PDAC convention floor. When you know you don’t have answers to people’s questions, you try not to let them ask. This is what’s happening in today’s virtual annual general meetings.
There is something deeply satisfying about looking a representative of an abusive corporation in the face and knowing that you are making an impact, even if that impact is just a slight emotional stirring. It’s an opportunity many people resisting Canadian mining projects on the front lines never get. Knowing that you’re being heard, that your emails are not going into a spam folder, that your questions aren’t being digitally filtered, is powerful.
I think there’s meaning in that feeling, and I wouldn’t want to lose it. I’m not suggesting that we stop seeking those human encounters entirely. But I also don’t want to be seduced by them. If disturbing the people who run mining companies were a direct route to justice for communities, we would have won a long time ago. We can allow the digital filter to discourage us, and bemoan the further narrowing of already-narrow cracks in the echo chamber. Or we can ask ourselves what trying to slip through these cracks has cost us, and take this moment as a chance to develop a more multifaceted strategy. How much must we shrink to slip through a crack? How big must we become to win? Is it time to choose one over the other – shrink or grow? Or can we do both?
Author’s note: While I wrote this piece on my own behalf and it may not reflect the views of the entire MISN collective, my analysis is always deeply informed by my co-organizers’ brilliance and our many years of thinking alongside each other. I’d specifically like to acknowledge Merle, Erin, and Val’s generous contributions to this piece.
Kate Klein is a community-based facilitator, teacher, and activist. She organizes with the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network, a grassroots group based in Toronto that works in solidarity with impacted communities around the world to resist the harmful practices of the Canadian mining industry.