Let’s hear Moore about the environment

Thompson, Manitoba is getting a lot of press these days. As Vale Incorporated, the multinational mining company in Thompson, has announced the closing of the city’s smelter and refinery, it is estimated that at least 500 mining jobs will be lost. This figure does not include the jobs in other local industries that will also be affected by this closure. Clearly, these job loses will devastate the city, and they are fighting back with a vengeance. But what isn’t being talked about?

Thompson is a city that owes its very presence to the mining industry. In 1956, Inco Limited, a Canadian company, found ore in the vicinity of what is now Thompson and worked out an agreement with the Manitoba government to establish a town site, mine, mill, smelter and refinery. With the government’s permission, Inco funded this extensive endeavour and named it after Inco’s chairperson, John F. Thompson.

Just over 50 years later, Thompson is Manitoba’s third largest city with a population of over 13, 000 people. In 2006, Inco was bought by the Brazilian company Vale, making Vale the second largest mining company in the world. Of course, it is always heartbreaking to witness another Canadian company being bought out by a multinational corporation. But now, as the mining industry on which this city is premised threatens to collapse, Michael Moore, an American filmmaker, author and activist, has stepped in, voicing his support for this city.

Moore cites major concern over Vale’s violation of the Investment Canada Act (ICA) and the Harper government’s complicity in this. The ICA states that its purpose is “to provide for the review of significant investments in Canada by non-Canadians in order to ensure such benefit to Canada.”

Vale was first accused of violating the terms of its agreement with the federal government when they temporarily laid-off close to 5,000 workers in 2008, without any repercussions from the Conservatives. In fact, the Conservatives went on to loan Vale $1 billion through the Export Development Corporation, a Crown corporation, in late 2010. A large part of this loan was designated for the expansion of Vale operations in Newfoundland.

Referring to these violations, Moore states in his blog that there is only one major issue at stake in this situation: “[ . . . ] This is about one thing and one thing only: killing the social contract of Canada.” This is definitely a central issue here, but certainly not the only one. I can think of at least two more; the health impacts associated with workers in nickel refineries, such as the one being closed in Thompson, and the environment.

Are we so star-struck by this star’s endorsement that we are neglecting to address some of the larger issues involved here? There have been studies connecting elevated respiratory cancer rates among workers in copper and nickel refineries. This has to do with exposure to nickel sulfate. The refining process uses a lot of chemicals and a closer examination of cancer rates among Thompson’s mining employees may reveal that this industry is harmful to the health of the hard-working, dedicated people of Thompson.

And what about the environment? Smelting, the process through which metal is melted to separate impurities, has major environmental repercussions. The three main byproducts of smelting are waste water, slag (non-metallic solid waste) and air emissions laced with contaminants, which can lead to acid rain. Just look at what happened in Sudbury to see smelting at its worst. Home to one of the world’s largest smelting complexes, over 46,000 hectares of vegetation have been destroyed and 7,000 lakes have been acid damaged. The good news is there is now a major re-greening process taking place in Sudbury.

It is evident that the situation in Thompson is complex and multi-layered. It is the city’s people who are suffering as a result of government and multinational company collusion. They seem like the ones who are holding all the power, but there is a strong tide of resistance coming from the community and MP Niki Ashton.

If health and environmental concerns are taken into account, this may be an opportunity for the city of Thompson to do something truly innovative. Realizing that mining is an unsustainable industry that puts workers at risk, the industry must eventually collapse, whether it is through Vale’s actions, or when the mines are empty down the road. It may be time to embrace this inevitable change and leave mining behind in order to pursue more vibrant, sustainable industries.

Right now, Thompson is on the brink of what could be a ground-breaking, positive future — if change is embraced. Due to the Canadian government’s complicity in this city’s mining crisis, compensation in the form of new industry investment is not an unreasonable request. If Thompson can succeed in lifting the shadow cast by the mining industry, the city may also want to consider a name change.