Joan Kuyek, veteran activist, community organizer and mining critic, says she’s not surprised that Canadian gold billionaire Pierre Lassonde would want his name on Mount Allison University’s School of Fine Arts.
“The mining industry has had a long history now of using philanthropy to try and blunt opposition to what they want to do,” Kuyek said in a telephone interview.
She was referring to the announcement on February 25th that the Toronto businessman’s family foundation is giving $5 million to Mt. A. for the Pierre Lassonde School of Fine Arts.
“For the people who have that wealth in the mining industry, they get quite enormous benefits, not just tax write-offs, but recognition and reputational advantage and so on,” Kuyek added.
“I think what’s required is an understanding of where the money came from and how it’s created,” she said.
“It’s really about extracting wealth, not just minerals,” she adds. “It’s about the system that enables that and then glorifies the people who’ve profited from it.”
Mining and colonialism
In her 2019 book, Unearthing Justice: How To Protect Your Community from the Mining Industry, Kuyek writes: “Mining is the ultimate expression of the violence of colonialism.”
“The nature of mining, which is a continuous assault on the Earth with long-term effects,” she explains, “expropriates the minerals that are in the land and destroys an awful lot of other things and takes the benefits of that…into the hands of the ruling people, the settlers in Canada’s case.”
She adds that Canada’s laws have always favoured resource extraction, most often at the expense of Indigenous peoples who live with its social and environmental consequences.
She says gold mining can be especially devastating because the metal is so valuable that it’s profitable to mine low-grade deposits.
“So that means that for a gram of gold you might have five tonnes of ore smashed up and turned into toxic tailings and another three tonnes of rock that have to be removed to get at the ore body,” she adds.
“What you end up with is a huge, long-lasting environmental mess that has to be contained, it can’t be totally remediated, it has to be contained forever and often it’s in rock that will leach toxins into the water and the aquifers and downstream from it for generations.”
Mt. A. book launch
When Kuyek visited the Mount Allison campus in the fall of 2019 to promote her book, two plainclothes RCMP officers showed up. Their visit concerned David Thomas, a professor of politics and international relations who organized the book launch.
He says the RCMP presence fits in with continuing police surveillance of activists opposed to resource extraction.
Thomas has written a book himself on Bombardier Inc.’s exploitative business practices in poorer countries and he questions at least some aspects of Pierre Lassonde’s $5 million gift to the university.
He points out that in the last 20-30 years universities have increasingly turned to wealthy donors to make up for cuts in government financial support and that this increasing dependence on private wealth raises questions about academic independence.
“I don’t think we’ve really had a good discussion or debate on campus about this issue and about whether there are limits, reasonable limits, around when we should say yes or no to money coming in from the private sector,” he said in a telephone interview.
“There are individuals like me and some students and others who occasionally raise concerns, but they’ve never really been taken up in any serious way by [the university’s] leadership.”
Thomas also wonders whether the university scrutinized Lassonde’s gift carefully enough.
He says Canadian mining companies have been implicated in violating human rights while poisoning land and water all over the world.
“So I think, especially in a case where we’re accepting money from someone who’s made their fortune in the mining industry, this is especially an instance where I think some scrutiny in required,” Thomas says.
Philanthropy as public relations
According to a 2010 study by Stuart Tannock of the University of Cardiff in Wales, Pierre Lassonde’s $5 million gift to Mount Allison is part of a mining industry pattern that began in the 1990s.
“[M]ining executives around the world had grown concerned over the course of the 1990s that their industry faced a global crisis of legitimacy caused by a series of major ecological disasters involving open pit mines, tailings ponds and mine waste dumping, the growing political influence of the environmental movement, and the organized resistance of Indigenous communities whose lands are home to many of the world’s active and prospective mining areas,” Tannock writes.
He adds that in 1996, Lassonde gave $5 million to the University of Toronto to create the Lassonde Mineral Engineering Program and the Lassonde Institute of Engineering Geoscience and raised an additional $20 million from mining companies to fund faculty chairs, research labs and student fellowships.
Tannock writes that the Lassonde Mineral Engineering Program offers a four-year undergraduate degree that trains students for careers in the mining industry.
“Thanks in part to its well-endowed fellowships, and in part to a Toronto-based youth marketing company that the program hired early on to help market itself to high school students, enrolment in the Lassonde Program rose quickly over the first decade of its existence,” Tannock adds.
He points out that Lassonde made his fortune with Franco-Nevada, a gold royalty company and that he later became president of Newmont Mining, then the world’s largest gold company.
“Lassonde, through his executive positions and financial investments, has both profited from and promoted some of the most contested and controversial mining sites on the planet including the Minahasa Raya mine in Indonesia, the Yanacocha mine in Peru, the proposed Rosia Montana mine in Romania, and the Cerro San Pedro mine in Mexico,” Tannock writes.
To read his full study, click here.
Lassonde responds to critics
For his part, Lassonde has argued that environmentalists and other critics have vastly overstated the harms from mining while minimizing its benefits.
“This is all part of the myth-making of the mining critic’s movement – myths that are propagated by some members of the press in search of flashy news and readership; politicians in search of cause and votes; and the special interest groups’ movement in search of campaign money,” he told the Mining Club in Melbourne, Australia in 2003.
“Life is not fair, but you’d better get used to it! Unfortunately, most special interest groups cannot offer jobs, training, medicine, roads, power and water, like mining companies can,” Lassonde added.
He urged mining executives to seek community approval or social license for new projects.
“Sit down with the local communities and understand their needs, wants and customs,” he said. “Tell them what you will do and live up to your promises.”
To read his speech, click here.
Mt. A. gift policies
“Pierre Lassonde and members of his family have a very well established record of activity and participation and contribution in the fine arts,” she added. “So, for us, he’s really somebody who cares about the fine arts.”
The university’s announcement of the $5 million gift mentions that Lassonde is a “noted collector of contemporary Canadian art,” that he is a former Chair of the Board of the Musée National des Beaux-arts du Québec as well as a past Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts.
Jollymore says that before the university accepts a gift such as Lassonde’s, an internal committee made up of professors, students and staff decide whether to recommend approval to the advancement committee of the Board of Regents. She adds that the university’s Senate is always informed before the full Board makes the final decision.
She says the Lassonde gift will support student scholarships as well as paid internships in places like art galleries or museums.
“One of the things that’s really important to us is that any internships that we have are paid internships and sometimes, particularly in the arts, the organization just doesn’t have the wherewithal to pay their interns, but the interns get fantastic experience, so we pay them and we pay them through philanthropy.”
Jollymore says the gift will also support an artist-in-residence program allowing students to benefit from the work and ideas of someone from outside the university.
When asked about Professor Thomas’s concern over the lack of dialogue on campus about the growing acceptance of private gifts, she replied:
“We talk about a culture of philanthropy and when we use that phrase, we really mean a community-wide engagement in the process of philanthropy.
“So I think that’s a terrific idea. I’ll note it and I’ll follow up.”
Bruce Wark worked in broadcasting and journalism education for more than 35 years. He was at CBC Radio for nearly 20 years as senior editor of network programs such as The World at Six and World Report. He currently writes for The New Wark Times where this story first appeared on March 7, 2021.