Laurentian the latest university to be mined by rich Canadians

He who pays the piper picks the tune.

This bit of folk wisdom seems not understood or ignored by many institutions of “higher learning.”

The neoliberals running Canadian public universities have signed a slew of deals with mining companies that are engaged in violently extracting resources from the Global South.

In two of the more high-profile endeavours, Simon Fraser University set up a Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, and the University of Toronto jumped into bed with Barrick Gold’s Peter Munk, establishing the Munk School of Global Affairs.

In an initiative more directly tied to a single controversial project, Laurentian University recently partnered with the University of Limpopo in South Africa at the request of Vancouver-based Ivanhoe Mines.

Over the next five years Ivanhoe will give $2.5 million US to “improve training and curriculum choices in economic geology and mineral exploration at the University of Limpopo.” As part of the agreement, Ivanhoe’s South African subsidiary Ivanplats will also “provide in-service training opportunities for students from both universities and assist them in conducting research on the Northern Limb of the Bushveld Complex,” where the Canadian company operates a massive platinum mine.

The Ontario government has put $500,000 CDN worth of scholarship money into the partnership, and Ottawa’s International Development Research Corporation added $570,000 CDN.

While a public university entering an international partnership instigated by a private corporation ought to be controversial under the best of circumstances, Laurentian’s partner has a highly questionable track record. Companies led by Ivanhoe CEO Robert Friedland were responsible for major cyanide spills in Colorado and Guyana in the mid-1990s, and throughout the first decade of the 21st century Ivanhoe did business with the military regime in Myanmar (Burma).

In April 2006, thousands of protesters in Mongolia’s capital burned an effigy of Friedland after he reportedly told an investors’ forum the country had “no NGOs” and “lots of room for waste dumps.”

In South Africa, many of those living near Ivanplats’s Platreef mine in the province of Limpopo oppose the project. Over the past five years, protesters have damaged company equipment, blocked a highway near the project with rocks and tires, and demonstrated in front of the Canadian High Commission in Pretoria. Community members were angry at the mine’s preferential access to water, lost access to their ancestors’ gravesites, and the company’s influence over local politics.

The Platreef project dates to the final days of South African apartheid when Friedland quietly began laying the groundwork for the platinum project.

In January 2015, the Globe and Mail reported on Ivanhoe’s use of “court injunctions, ultimatums to government, and digging up dirt on opponents” during a two-decade-long effort to establish operations. Friedland’s company coerced a villager into surrendering her farm and spent years wooing the chief of the Mokopane traditional council, which holds most of the area’s land in trust on behalf of the community.

Ivanhoe began making donations to the council in 2001 and in 2010 it signed an agreement with Chief Kekana for “all reasonable access” to test drill on the community’s land for a “monthly stipend” of 30,000 rand (about $4,000 US). The deal also included a laptop, use of a farm, an annual “gratuity” and a lump-sum payment to a “trust” of the chief’s choice, as well as monthly payments of 3,000 rand (about $400 US) to the chief’s adviser and five village headmen. Ivanhoe also paid 10,000 to 30,000 rand per month, in addition to computers and cellphones, to the “community mining committee” in a number of villages near its mine.

At the national level, Ivanhoe forged close ties to the former secretary general of the African National Congress, the ruling party in South Africa. Cyril Ramaphosa resigned from the Ivanhoe board of directors in 2013 after his election as deputy president of the ANC. The following year, he became South Africa’s deputy president, but for a decade he sat on the ANC’s national executive and Ivanhoe’s board.

The company’s high-level political connections helped it secure permission for Platreef. It may also have protected local partners, according to a report by the Daily Maverick. The South African news agency suggested that Ivanhoe’s support for the local Mogalakwena government led the provincial and national governments to turn a blind eye to their “serious corruption and mismanagement.”

Is this the kind of behaviour that Laurentian University wishes to be associated with?

Is it appropriate at all for our taxpayer-funded universities, tasked with serving the public interest and seeking the ‘truth,” to be taking money directly from those with such clear self-interest in limiting our musical choices to tunes that praise the virtues of neoliberalism?

This article first appeared in Ricochet

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