Canadian mining and settler nationalism:  legitimizing possession by erasing indigeneity behind the guise of modernity, expertise and benevolence

Canadian mining and settler nationalism: legitimizing possession by erasing indigeneity behind the guise of modernity, expertise and benevolence

By Leilah Elmokadem

The recent death of Peter Munk, chairman of Barrick Gold, flooded Canadian media with glorifying obituaries and odes to the supposed philanthropists’ accomplishments, contributions and achievements. Described as a renowned man of “lofty global ambitions”, Munk is praised for his leadership as an entrepreneur with “willingness to take risks, spot overlooked opportunities, and challenge the status quo” (Bickis, 2018). He is said to have pursued his national loyalties and global ambitions with “audacious vision and a relentless internal drive”. His legacy is considered one of “business success, charitable donations, and an outspoken defender of the benefits of capitalism” (Bickis, 2018). Left-wing activists and academics certainly did not hesitate to disrupt the celebratory narratives of Munk’s legacy, calling out Barrick Gold’s atrocious legacy of corruption, abuse, exploitation and environmental degradation of indigenous lands.

newsfrontLA_DSCF9806_px626Protest Barrick rally, Toronto, Tuesday, April 26, 2016 (Image: Tanja-Tiziana, Now)

The debates that ensued in light of these contesting narratives highlight the crucial placing of mining within constructions of Canadian history and national identity. The Canadian mining industry appropriates and reproduces a unique type of imperialist rhetoric to orchestrate a certain imagination of the Canadian miner’s personality traits—in ways that align with Canada’s national identity, hereby legitimating colonial settlement by fostering an unquestionable sense of righteous and deserving entitlement to land and resources. This post seeks to dissect this relationship with special attention to the erasure of indigeneity and settler nationalism as historically persistent enablers of resource extraction in Canada.


            As primary evidence, I deconstruct narratives from Canadian mining company reports and legal documents dating back to the 1800s, as well as contemporary texts sourced from present-day affiliated institutions such as the Canadian Mining Journal, the Fraser Institute, and the Canadian Mining Association. The intention here is to discern the ways in which “discovered” resources are described by miners (individuals and institutions), how miners themselves are constructed as “explorers”, and where indigenous peoples are included (or omitted) from these texts. To analyse these findings, I draw from Paula Butler’s book: Colonial extractions: race and Canadian mining in contemporary Africa” (2015), particularly its anthropological insights regarding the historically constructed identity of the Canadian miner. Audra Simpson and Eva Mackey’s works offer the theoretical groundwork for understanding settler nationalism and European entitlement, which is central to the discussion on legitimized resource extraction on colonized land. Lastly, I engage with the works of Alejandro Paz and Edward M. Bruner in an attempt to situate the relationship I establish—between mining and Canadian nationalism—within a broader process of authoritative story-telling that maintains state secrets and emblems to secure white capitalist state sovereignty. Throughout the paper, I corroborate my claims and analyses using literature that demonstrates how orientalist constructions and erasures of the indigenous “other” have historically served imperialist purposes, such as Timothy Mitchell’s “Rule of Experts. Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity(2002).


            It is useful to first briefly clarify and justify my position on Canadian mining as an imperialist project. This is not a novel suggestion; several anthropologists have analysed mineral extraction as a manifestation of neocolonial capitalist globalization. The mining industry has served as a cornerstone of Canadian settler society since the mid-1800s (Butler, 2015). Mineral resource extraction was a key motivator of northward expansion in Canada, a colonial incursion into Native territory that has only recently, and inadequately, been redressed with legislative efforts such as land claims and impact and benefit agreements (IBAs) (Keeling & Sandlos, 2015, p. 22). Globally and contemporarily, as well, Canadian-led resource extraction serves to exploit, displace and dispossess indigenous populations across central America and Africa (Butler, 2015). The objective of this post is certainly not to test this claim, as it is already sufficiently justified by existing literature. Rather, my intention is to unpack how the romanticized nationalist construction of Canadian mining has historically and perpetually erased indigeneity to secure settler sovereignty. Although these ideas have been posed by the scholars I mention in the previous section, I attempt to complement their work by adding an analysis of “othering” and techno-politics to resource extraction as an imperialist project. A key point here is that the “erasure” of the indigenous, in the history of Canadian mining, has not simply entailed a passive omission of indigenous peoples from dialogue and text. Rather, it has relied largely on a conscious and strategic construction of the pre-modern, deficient native inhabiting a fruitful land of unrealized potential.


Settler colonies, such as the US and Canada, conjure “fictions of entitlement” that are tied to the idea of “first discovery” (terra nullius) that maintain, and make logical, an unquestionable European entitlement to native land, necessitating Western concepts of property/land ownership that are based on the rule of “first possession”. European settlers managed to utilize this rule despite centuries of Indigenous presence by constructing the colonized land as “vacant”. Despite being inhabited for centuries, Western notions of land ownership that deemed native lands as “not governed by human control” because Indigenous peoples occupied, used and related to land/nature in ways that were unfamiliar to colonizers. Claiming “first possession” depended upon misrecognizing non-agrarian relationships to land which was “occupied – not owned—and therefore empty of people/societies that mattered” (Mackey, 2016, p. 48). The history of legitimizing possession in settler colonies is evident in the historical processes and narratives of acquiring legal ownership for resource extraction in Canada.

Adolphus Hart was a barrister at law of “lower Canada” and counsellor at law of the state of New York. In 1867, he wrote and published a book titled Practical Suggestions on Mining Rights and Privileges in Canada.

Hart 1867 cover

Legal authorities and officials described the text as “very useful (…) for persons engaged in Mining operations” when “legal operations come in their way” (Hart, 1867, p. 4). Hart produced this piece with the intention of clarifying ownership rights to discovered minerals in Canada, and whether they legitimately belong to the Crown, the “proprietor” of the land, or the discoverer of the minerals in said land. The complexity of the language used in this text yields a level of difficulty in discerning the exact suggestions he poses, particularly without the legal expertise required to sufficiently understand some of the legal terminology used. However, I was able to discern that he draws from ancient Roman, French and English legislative frameworks to explain certain ownership rights of discovered minerals in Canada: He writes:

“By the ancient Roman law, they (mines) belonged, without restriction, to the proprietor of the land wherein they were found; he might freely dispose of them like any other revenues or profits derived from his property, and he who made the discovery could have no pretensions to the treasure, unless the mines had been found in lands which had been deserted and abandoned” (Hart, 1867, p. 12).

The strong emphasis on the “proprietor” is evident throughout the text, specifically where he cites legislation that states “by the law of nature mines belong to the proprietor of the soil, and in the present enlightened era of legislation it may be presumed that all restrictive rights, whether by the Crown or its representatives, would be regulated, and in many aspects modified, by due regard to the interests of the owner or proprietor.” (Hart, 1867, p. 14). Even under official property of the crown in the 1900s, mineral resources were often handed over to mining companies as part of the government’s approach to economic development; no special rights to lands or resources based on Aboriginal rights of historical ownership existed (Keeling & Sandlos, 2015, p. 237).

            The significance of these excerpts lies in one troubling fact: throughout this entire book regarding ownership of discovered minerals in Canada, the question of indigenous presence and ownership is completely omitted; not once mentioned. Mackey’s explanation of “first discovery” and entitlement can explain the logical and expected omission of indigenous presence from this legal document regarding ownership of resources. Specifically, the concept of “proprietor” in itself is one riddled with European conceptions of property/ownership in relation to personhood—specifically European ideals of improvement, individualism, civilization and “productive elaboration” and their centrality to “civilizational identity”, which serves to determine what kind of person is deserving of land ownership/citizenship/sovereignty (Mackey, 2016).

            The role of “civilizational identity” in delegitimizing, and even problematizing, Native presence is evident in past writings on resource extraction. “Eighty Years Progress of British America” is a report published in 1865 outlining the “wonderful development of (Canada’s) natural resources”.

Capture d_écran 2018-06-12 à 15.48.18

The section on mining articulates, as one of the “principle difficulties to be contended with”, “the hostility of the native tribes of Indians, who, though at present apparently friendly, are treacherous and capricious” (Hind, et al., 1865, p. 367). Another text narrating an explorer’s journey in Klondike, which is a gold-rich region in present-day Yukon, describes the tribe inhabiting the region as one that “seems to conform to the unprolific and dreary aspect of the country which they inhabit. They are very wretched looking objects, in a combination of civilized and native clothes” (Stansbury, 1897, p. 15).


Klondikers carrying supplies ascending the Chilkoot Pass, 1898 (Source: Wikipedia)

The construction of the Native in both cited examples serves to erase indigenous presence on land by delivering a notion of passive inhabitancy that is contrasted by the explorer/miner’s active desire to develop and utilize the land’s potential in ways that the native simply cannot due to their primitive, non-individualistic, ways of being. Stripping the native of a “civilizational identity” has been a prominent instrument of colonial rhetoric—as demonstrated by Mitchell’s analysis regarding the construction of the Egyptian peasant as “plural” because he lives “always as a member of a group” in a “formless” village where “all is dust and disorder” (Mitchell, 2002, p. 7).


            In my search through the “mining” section of the Fraser Institute webpage, I can confidently assert that “uncertainty” was the most frequently occurring word in publications pertaining to Aboriginal peoples. At least six articles problematize land disputes and Indigenous protests regarding land rights and mining practices; particularly how the resulting “uncertainty” is detrimental for investor confidence, hereby costing Canada billions of dollars:

Canada has a serious problem with land-use certainty that may threaten future investment in the sector. Across the country, uncertainty surrounding disputed land claims remains a significant barrier to investment in the development of natural resources, particularly investment in the mining sector” (Bains & Jackson, 2018).

Mackey traces how concepts and practices ensuring “certainty of settled expectations” of entitlement serve to deny Indigenous sovereignty. She poses the puzzle of how it can be that Indigenous peoples have a recognized “inherent right to self-government” yet remain in constant confrontation with the contradiction that they only have these rights as long as they can be “reconciled with the Crown’s assertion of sovereignty over Canadian territory” (Mackey, 2016, p. 42). The sense of entitlement within the mining industry, which poses land disputes as direct disruptions to the economic prosperity of the nation, can be understood using Mackey’s theoretical framework. Laws, she explains, were established to recognize certain aspects of Indigenous rights and occupation of their territories, yet such rights remain partial, limited and secondary so long as the ultimate and higher sovereignty is always the property of the settler government (Mackey, 2016, p. 43).

Ultimately, what we are seeing in the rhetoric perpetuated by the Fraser Institute is a manifestation of the fantasy of entitlement clashing with, disrupted and challenged by indigenous sovereignty. The settler nation was initially built on the assumptions of a vacant, ungoverned land—an assumption that remains in constant battle with Indigenous sovereignty (Mackey, 2016). Dispossession makes possible the conditions of settler states as they are predicated upon the active ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples from land and life (Simpson, 2011, p. 168) This battle, then, absolutely necessitates the framing of indigenous land rights as an obstacle to the nation’s sovereignty as a White capitalist settlement, which is largely perpetuated through resource extraction. It is useful to conceptualize Canada’s mining industry as an example of colonial continuity that is infused with contradicting functions: while it serves to maintain a nationalist “certainty of settlement expectations”, it also extends the ambit of the state to marginalized indigenous communities, hereby paving avenues for indigenous expressions of sovereignty in the form of resistance against environmental degradation and exploitation.


            Erasing and problematizing the indigenous other is only one part of a twofold process, in which the latter part typically entails the strategic construction of a landscape in a manner that necessitates action for improvement and advancement. A historical example of this is the French colonial construction of the Algiers as potentially fruitful due to its natural topography, yet untended and neglected by its native inhabitants, hereby necessitating French intervention to advance the agricultural practices for the purpose of realizing the land’s potential (Davis, 2007). In the context of Canadian mining, however, the process of “making-technical” and constructing the miner as the intelligent expert can be understood as a discursive instrument that serves to de-politicize and legitimize mining practices on indigenous land.

            In Canada, past northern development visions and policies have been tightly linked to the exploitation of the region’s natural resources. Particularly post WWII, mining was promoted by politicians and bureaucrats as the key to assimilating northern people and territories into the national economy. This agenda entailed an effort to transition Aboriginal economies away from traditional land-based subsistence and trade economies, and towards wage economies and settlement life (Keeling & Sandlos, 2015, p. 7). Bell (2013) examines how the issue of rural poverty in Northern Canada is “rendered technical” in relation to natural resource projects. In Canada, the promotion of careers in mining for Aboriginal persons is part and parcel of national policy and public culture. Aboriginal participation in resource industries has increasingly been framed as “access to the good life”. The problematization of northern populations is intimately connected to the practices of identifying certain deficiencies—strategically to reduce a range of complex social and historical issues simply to a matter of “employment” (Bell, 2013, p. 120).

            Upon a searching through the “mining” section of the Fraser Institute’s webpage and the Mining Association of Canada (MAC), extremely evident is this process of de-politicization that functions by positioning resource extraction as the technical, expert solution to a supposed livelihood deficiency that is attached to indigeneity. Under the “Aboriginal Affairs” tab on the MAC webpage, the following paragraph is found:

“Across the industry, significant progress has been made in the realm of Aboriginal participation in the sector. More than 300 agreements, including Impact and Benefit Agreements, have been negotiated between mining companies and Aboriginal communities since 1974. These agreements have set out such commitments as education, training, jobs, business development and financial payments to help ensure mining projects bring long-lasting benefits to Aboriginal communities. In terms of employment, the mining sector has become, proportionally, the largest private sector employer of Aboriginal people in Canada. Given the proximity of many Aboriginal communities to current and potential mining operations, as well as the large number of Aboriginal youth, employment in well-paying, skilled mining jobs is poised to increase well into the future.” (Mining Association of Canada, 2018).

This apolitical narrative that constructs resource extraction as philanthropic work serving indigenous people in Northern Canada also exists with respect to Canada’s global mining practices. The Fraser Institute, in an article titled “Mining helps build prosperous communities. So why do governments embrace anti-mining policies?”, asserts that “developing nations and their people gain substantially from resource extraction.” (McMahon & Cervantes, 2018). Butler challenges this narrative throughout her entire book, in which her interviews with Canadian miners in African countries reveal that mining in Africa is attractive due to the “cheap labour” and their “unexplored rich deposits” (Butler, 2015, p. 107). Yet, the exploitive neocolonial nature of Canada’s unruly mining practices abroad is shielded by, 1) the process of “rendering technical” that justifies the logic of bringing employment opportunities and mining expertise to the untapped natural resources of developing nations and 2) the benevolent, philanthropic identity of the Canadian mining industry, which I explore as part of a national emblem in the following section.


            This post has thus far discussed the erasure of indigeneity, the problematization of indigenous sovereignty, and the construction of Canadian mining as a benevolent development project. I now want to unpack how these interconnected processes function intricately to position mining within a national identity that serves to maintain settler sovereignty and legitimize colonial extractions. Butler suggests that mining activity is romanticized as an adventure story in which Canada becomes a nation through the vision, risk-taking and grit of geologists and prospectors willing to venture into Canada’s unexplored frontier territories (Butler, 2015, p. 61). Engaging with and appreciating the value of understanding this problematic historical narrative, I draw also from other ethnographic literature that reveals indigenous perceptions of mining in an attempt to conceptualize their interplay with state narratives as a form of dialogic narrative.

In imagining the mining industry as a cornerstone of Canadian history, miners are widely described in texts as brave explorers:

(…) the tenacity of our early explorers and prospectors”, men who “reserved” with the happy result that “thousands of jobs” were created along with “new communities”, “extended transportation networks” and “commercial development throughout the nation, thus helping Canadians attain one of the highest standards of living in the world (Butler, 2015, p. 62) (cited from “Longo’s Historical Highlights of Canadian Mining”).

In addition to this discourse which places emphasis on the miner’s praise-worthy personality traits, Butler reveals how an element of cooperation and friendliness with indigenous populations permeates the writings of early Canadian miners. She brings forth an example in which a miner narrates his experience sharing a tent with an Algonquin man and his two sons, who taught him how to work efficiently in the woods and to survive. He had gained appreciation of First Nations as it was “one of the richest times of (his) life because of (their) warmth and generous spirit” (Butler, 2015, p. 83). The strategic telling of such a story, Butler explains, reproduces a normative imaginary an conceptual order required to legitimize continued colonialist relations of power, control and resource appropriation (Butler, 2015, p. 83).

            Butler sets the stage for my analysis on Canada’s mining industry as a perpetuator of colonial secrets and emblems. The romanticizing authoritative story-telling of Canada’s mining history, akin to Paz’ example of Israeli state secrets that effectively erase the atrocities associated with Zionist settlement (Paz, upcoming), can be understood as part of a discursive national construction. While in the Israeli context, the emblem remains imbued in Biblical claims to territory, the Canadian emblem can be considered one of reconciliation and cooperation with indigenous peoples; an effort to legitimize settler presence by feigning a sense of recognition that effectively situates indigenous sovereignty in the past. Spectacles, apologies and recognitions are used in settler societies because they continue to redirect emotions, histories and possibilities away from the means of societal and historical production—indigenous dispossession, disenfranchisement and containment (Simpson, 2011, p. 207).

            In this analysis, however, I face the risk of discarding indigenous resistance, sovereignty, and historical memory that continually exist in constant dialogic narration with the authoritative nationalist story of mining. The notion of dialogic narrative suggests that a story cannot be viewed in isolation, as a monologic static entity, but must be understood in a dialogic or interactive framework; all stories are constructed and interpreted in ways influenced by historical memory (Bruner, 2005, p. 172). Importantly, authoritative versions of stories are derived from the power of the state, and therefore, if challenged, carry the risk of disintegrating the nationalist narrative which is often the fabric of settler societies. Native northerners in Canada embrace the complexity of their mining histories, critiquing colonialism and environmental degradation that was invariably tied to mining—but also retain collective memories of taking advantage of wage labour opportunities when presented and adapting to mineral development through strategies that ranged from engaging in ad hoc labour to eventually applying political pressure for the establishment of indigenous mineral rights and/or royalty regimes through IBAs and comprehensive land claims processes (Keeling & Sandlos, 2015, p. 10). It is this recollection of history in relation to settlement, livelihood, dispossession and resistance, that represents the ever-surviving indigenous sovereignty, which must remain secret in nationalist Canadian rhetoric.


            In this post, I have sought to explore the narratives reproduced within the Canadian mining industry as a case study that exemplifies the crucial role of erasure in maintaining settler sovereignty. The mining industry is historically intertwined with colonial discovery and exploration—in intricate ways that cannot be separated so long as Canada remains a white settler colony. My intention has been to engage with anthropologists, such as Paz, Bruner and Simpson, who have offered incredibly insightful frameworks of national discourses and identities; particularly their role in serving settler colonial purposes. I had initially intended on utilizing a larger body of archival texts from early Canadian miners, which Butler so effectively achieves in her book. However, I found difficulty accessing this material publicly or within the university database and therefore decided to draw from her findings and insights in order to inform my discussion of national identity and erasure of indigenous sovereignty. The colonial imaginary that is perpetuated in Canada’s mining industry can be traced back to conceptions of land vacancy that legitimized colonial acquisition of land—a concept that the industry continues to grapple with as indigenous peoples mobilize for their rights in ways that threaten the capitalist accumulation of wealth that relies on the perpetual extraction of resources from stolen land.

Leilah Elmokadem just graduated from UTSC

note: This post was originally written as a term paper for the UTSC course “Constructing the Other: Orientalism through Time and Place” (Winter 2018). Students were free to pick any topic of their choice related to the course’s broader theme, and this essay was chosen among 40+ papers by a jury of 3 faculty (Katherine Blouin and Girish Daswani, who were the course instructors, as well as Maggie Cummings). Leilah wishes to thank Prof. Cummings, whose course “Anthropological Insights on Race and Racism” (Fall 2017) inspired the topic for this paper, for providing her with some insight on finding sources.


Bains, R., & Jackson, T. (2018). Saskatchewan attracts mining investment while land-claims disputes damage Ontario and B.C. Fraser Institute.

Bell, L. A. (2013). Diamonds as Development: Suffering for Opportunity in the Canadian North. Toronto.

Bickis, I. (2018, March 28). Barrick Gold founder Peter Munk, a man of lofty global ambitions, dies at age 90. Financial Post.

Bruner, E. (2005). Chapter 3- Slavery and the Return to the Black Diaspora: Tourism in Ghana. In E. Bruner, Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel (p. 172). The University of Chicago Press.

Butler, P. (2015). Colonial Extractions: Race and Canadian Mining in Contemporary Africa. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Canadian Mining Journal. (2018, March 28). OBITUARY: Barrick Gold founder and chairman Peter Munk dies at 90. Canadian Mining Journal: Canada’s First Mining Publication.

Davis, D. (2007). Chapter 2: Nature, Empire, and Narrative Origins, 1830-48. In D. Davis, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa. Ohio University Press.

Hart, A. (1867). Practical Suggestions on Mining Rights and Privileges in Canada. Montreal.

Hind, H., Keefer, T., Hodgins, J., Robb, C., Perley, M., & Murray, W. (1865). Eighty Years Progress of British America. Toronto: L. Nichols.

Keeling, A., & Sandlos, J. (2015). Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, and Memory. Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press.

Mackey, E. (2016). Chapter 2: Fantasizing and Legitimizing Possession. In E. Mackey, Unsettled Expectations: Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization. Fernwood Publishing .

McMahon, F., & Cervantes, M. (2018). Mining helps build prosperous communities. So why do governments embrace anti-mining policies? The Fraser Institute .

Mining Association of Canada. (2018). Aboriginal Affairs. Retrieved from Mining Association of Canada:

Mitchell, T. (2002). Chapter 5: The Invention and Reinvention of the Peasant. In T. Mitchell, Role of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. University of California Press.

Paz, A. (upcoming). Settling History in Silwan: State Emblems and Public Secrets in Occupied East Jerusalem. 1-35.

Simpson, A. (2011). Settlement’s Secret. Cultural Anthrpology, 26(2), 205-217.

Stansbury, C. F. (1897). Klondike: The Land of Gold. New York: F. Tennyson Neely.

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