Canada’s shadow in Latin America
Canadian companies exploit our neighbours
On July 30, 2019, the University of Regina ran an ad on a website for international students called SI News. The article, one of several the university has shared on SI over the years, was titled “University of Regina: Preparing You for the Hottest STEM Jobs in Latin America.” It’s a fine sentiment – having a job is indeed hot – but it’s worth delving into the ad and the price that is paid for those hot jobs by the people and the environment of a region that has long been made unstable for the purposes of exploitation.
It’s important to note that it is entirely probable that the University of Regina had no part in crafting this ad. According to the editor of SI Magazine, Genna Ash, universities pay to become “education partners” and then SI “creates bespoke content and advertising campaigns” for them. However, universities are free to create their own content if they so choose. That being said, they do have a responsibility to know what kind of ad content is being produced for them, and recruiting students based on the potential for employment in Latin American resource extraction is a fraught topic.
Simon Granovsky-Larsen, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Studies at the U of R, and a fellow of the Latin American Research Centre and the York University Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean, said that even just identifying what Latin America is, is “a very political question with a lot of contested answers.” But for the purposes of this article, Latin America refers to Mexico, Central America, the continent of South America, and the Spanish-speaking countries of the Caribbean.
Granovsky-Larsen said that these regions have “a historical tendency” towards having economies based on the extraction and export of primary goods.
“There’s a lot of oil, a lot of minerals, forestry” and, perhaps most alarmingly, “a lot of fresh water that’s starting to become noticed as a natural resource.” He added that the region also sees a lot of “large agricultural monoculture plantations” that produce things like corn and sugar cane, which are used for biofuel.
It’s these resource-based industries – like mining and logging – where “the hottest STEM jobs in Latin America” can be found. It’s also where a lot of the human rights and environmental abuses that plague the region can be found, and Canada is right in the middle of it.
“Canada has an enormous presence [in Latin America] that I don’t think Canadians have caught up with yet,” Granovsky-Larsen said of the companies that have staked claim in the region.
“To say that you’re Canadian in a lot of countries in Latin America means something different than our reputation held decades ago.”
Much of Canada’s presence in the region centres on mining – Granovsky-Larsen said about 60 per cent of mining companies in the world are based in Canada. “Canada has a series of laws and regulations and tax breaks that incentivize forming mining companies” in this country. And it is those mining projects where much – but not all – of Canada’s negative influence in the region comes from.
“There are very few [mining] projects that have reached any stage of operations without having very serious, not just social conflicts, but reaching levels of human rights abuses and violence.”
“Canadians are starting to be associated with environmentally, and socially, and even violently harmful conflicts in the way the US has been associated with militarization and exploitation for quite a long time.” In fact, according to a scholarly paper published by Mercedes Garcia, “Canadian mining companies are known worldwide for being the worst offenders when it comes to human rights, environmental, and labor violations.”
And companies aren’t the only culprits. “Another piece is Canadian foreign policy,” Granovsky-Larsen said. “We have supported or participated in a number of political coups against democratically elected governments,” like the one in Haiti in 2004, where Canada hosted representatives from France, the United States, and Latin America – but none from Haiti – to discuss a military intervention in Haiti.
“Canada has without exception, been on the side of ousting those leaders in favour of others who usually end up promoting the types of projects that Canadian companies participate in.”
Even projects that Canadians see as progressive – like biofuels and hydroelectric dams for renewable energy – can have negative consequences for the people of Latin America. Granovsky-Larsen said that “Water that had been treated as a public good in lakes or rivers [is being] diverted towards those [monocrop] plantations and away from rural communities.”
And Granovsky-Larsen also said that hydroelectric dams that are being built to help ease America’s reliance on foreign oil by importing electricity “are often built in areas where rivers have traditionally been used by local communities, often Indigenous communities, that rely on water for their livelihood, but often the dams are built in ways that restrict their access.
“Something that gets thought of as renewable green energy actually has some questionable social and environmental policies underneath.”
Granovsky-Larsen said that being aware of Canada’s role in Latin America, and being cognizant of the realities of the companies that Canadians are going to work for – is an ethical imperative for Canadians.
“If the Canadian government or Canadian companies are acting in a way that’s promoting destruction in the Amazon, or promoting the types of human rights abuses and conflicts that we see in many other countries…we really do have a moral responsibility to hold those companies to account, to hold our government to account.”