Photo by Mert Alper Dervis/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Justin Trudeau’s heartless hypocrisy

Has the Canadian premier’s shameful silence been bought with Tigray gold?

War and gold lust. They have been part of the human experience for thousands of years, and they don’t seem to be getting any less popular. 

Gold deposits, along with other precious minerals, in the northern Tigray region appear to be a significant reason behind why Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not spoken out more forcibly against Ethiopia’s now 18-month-long conflict and all its crimes. The quiet is very much at odds with his pledge that Canada stands for “democracy, peace and security at home and around the world”.

The United Nations has accused the Ethiopian government and its allies of deliberately starving Tigrayans through a de facto blockade of the region, preventing much needed humanitarian aid getting through. One report by researchers at the University of Ghent in Belgium estimates that 500,000 people may have died as a direct and indirect result of the conflict. In addition, the war has been riven by atrocities and war crimes committed by all sides as centuries of simmering ethnic hatred have combusted: extrajudicial killings, massacres in churches, rape — including forced incestuous rape — used as a psychological weapon of war, while millions have been displaced from their homes. 

But Trudeau has said nothing about any of this. When he or the Canadian government has commented on the conflict, it has been done in round-about platitudinous terms supportive of the Ethiopian government that never actually mention Tigray itself.

“The most overwhelming amount of evidence suggest that the atrocities committed by the Ethiopian government forces are the most horrendous, very systematic and widespread in scale,” Lucy Berhe, a freelance journalist who has reported on the conflict, says in a harrowing interview with Al Jazeera.

Tigray is seen as a potential treasure chest for Canadian gold-mining companies. Canada is one of the leading mining countries in the world. In 2013, over 50 per cent of the world’s publicly listed exploration and mining companies were headquartered in Canada, with some now estimating that figure is 75 per cent. 

The leaked report criticises Canada’s relative silence on war crimes

Current mineral deposits in Tigray could be worth $4 billion, though they require the technological knowhow and equipment of foreign mining companies if their extraction and export are to become a reality. Currently the largest exploration licence areas in Tigray are held by Canadian mining companies — at least six companies headquartered in Canada currently have active mining licences or applications to operate in Tigray — followed by US and UK mining interests. While the US has been relatively outspoken about the conflict, the UK government has been almost as silent as Trudeau’s administration. 

“The Canadian government has kept out of the discussion because it does not want to compromise its mining and other commercial interests in the country,” says Michael Gervers, a University of Toronto history professor who has been visiting Ethiopia for research since the early 80s. “To the best of my knowledge, no politician here in Canada has spoken out about the devastation in Tigray.”

Canada’s developmental assistance to Ethiopia has included $15 million to reform its mining sector through the Supporting Ministry of Mines (SUMM) Ethiopia project. The reforms have created an impressive geo-database of minerals and generated policies, speeding up exploration and mineral discoveries in Ethiopia and Tigray with an ardour undampened by the conflict.

“New investments by Canadian mining companies in Tigray have increased as the region has been plunged into a major humanitarian crisis from military attacks by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments,” Fitsum Areguy writes in his article, “Leaked report accuses Canada of covering for mining companies in war-torn Ethiopia”.

Fitsum notes that the leaked report criticises the Canadian government’s relative silence on war crimes and human rights abuses in Tigray. It also focuses on how Canada’s developmental assistance to Ethiopia has failed to adhere to its own standards of gender equity, environmental protection and responsible business practices.

In 2017, Trudeau launched Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), which takes an explicitly feminist approach to Canada’s foreign policy and international development to target gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. 

Hence the irony of how the leaked report came from a gender equity consultant tasked with evaluating the Canadian-funded SUMM project for one of its partners, the Canadian Executive Service Organisation. The consultant was so appalled by her discoveries — in short, that Canadian mining exploration wasn’t considering local women in the slightest — that she compiled an additional report and after submitting it to no effect, chose to leak it

“It seems super hypocritical,” says Patrick Wight, who studies conflict and state formation in the Horn of Africa at Montreal-based McGill University and edits Ethiopia Insight. “Canada supposedly has this feminist foreign policy and then a key feature of Ethiopia’s war has been rape used as a weapon — you’d think they might have something to say about that.”

Canada has been criticised before for its mining practices in the region. It is also mining just north of Tigray in Eritrea, apparently at ease with the country’s long plight at the hands of authoritarian strongman Isaias Afewerki. Vancouver-based mining company Nevsun Resources was previously accused of using slave labour at its Eritrean mine. 

Tigray has held a mirror up to a darker side of Canada

“So you have these similarities in both Ethiopia and Eritrea,” Wight says. “Both Abiy and Isaias have teamed up against Tigray during the conflict, while Canada is mining in both and has not spoken out against either government.”

Gold and Tigray go way back. In addition to legendary stories of the fabulous wealth of the Queen Sheba and King Solomon’s Mines, the first recorded mention about gold production in Tigray came from the seventeenth century Portuguese traveller Barradas. Local research during the 1960s and onwards confirmed ample reserves of not only gold, but base metals such as copper, zinc and lead. This is due to the extent of Tigray’s Precambrian basement rock, especially in the north-western and central areas.

Current active Canadian mining licences in Tigray account for thousands of square kilometres. Even if Tigrayans didn’t have to deal with a war going on, the leaked report warns that Tigrayan communities risk being displaced by land expropriation for mining roads, new rail beds and power lines serving the mining sector. The mass displacement of people due to the conflict is a convenient side effect for mining companies that need access to land and homesteaders out of the way. 

The general consensus among those following Canadian mining interests in Tigray and the war, is that the Canadian government has made the call that speaking out won’t make any difference to ending the war. All it might do is antagonise the Ethiopian government, risking potential implications for mining contracts afterwards. Therefore, better to keep public pronouncements diplomatically restrained.

The situation in Tigray has held a mirror up to a darker side of Canada. It has also called the bluff on Trudeau’s underlying vapid wokeness and on his administration’s posturing as Canada being a world leader for peace and security while tackling climate change and protecting the environment. 

The truth is that Trudeau heads a country whose economic survival depends on extractive mining industries. When that coincides with a war that devastates the people of lands being mined for rich resources, the Canadian government’s stance is to say nothing of value and ignore the destruction and suffering.

The emperor doesn’t only have no clothes in Trudeau’s case, he doesn’t have much of a heart either. Yet the Canadian populace re-elected Trudeau last year. It’s enough to turn the traditional cry of “O Canada” into far more of a lament. 

“Tigray has illustrated what happens when push comes to shove and Canada’s economic interests are in conflict with its professed ideology,” Wight says.

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