Edward Andrew (Emeritus, University of Toronto), Martin Breaugh (York University), Philip Resnick (University of British Columbia), Max Roy (President, Quebec Federation of University teachers), Michel Seymour (Université de Montréal), Daniel Weinstock (Director, Center of Research in Ethics at University of Montreal)
Censorship is not a problem exclusive to authoritarian states. The contributors to a book entitled Imperial Canada Inc.: Legal Haven of Choice for the World’s Mining Industries, edited by Alain Deneault, have recently experienced censorship first hand. On February 17, no fewer than two publishers, seven authors, and the two translators of a manuscript that had not even been fully completed received a preventive formal notice from the world’s largest gold producer, Barrick Gold. These formal notices threatened to sue whoever published a work judged “libellous” in their regard. Moreover, the company required all concerned parties to surrender any relevant material that they had at their disposal (something that they refused to do).
Intimidated by the financial consequences of such a potential law suit, the Vancouver publisher, Talonbooks, immediately removed the title from its web page and replaced it with an eloquent note of surrender: “publication cancelled”. The web page didn’t even mention Barrick Gold.
Among the contributors to the book were Alain Deneault, Delphine Abadie, and William Sacher who, like the Quebec publishing house, Écosociété, (also indirectly targeted though it is not participating in this project), have the impression of reliving a misadventure that they know all too well. In spring 2008, Barrick resorted to the same method with the goal of stopping the publication of the book, Noir Canada. Pillage, corruption et criminalité en Afrique [Black Canada. Pillage, Corruption, and Criminality in Africa]. Refusing to yield to the pressure, those concerned decided to carry on. Barrick then launched a libel suit for $6 million in Quebec Superior Court. Those concerned were also sued in Ontario some time later by another goldmining company, Banro Corp. These events caused dismay in the population at large: a petition of support gathered more than 12000 signatures. Despite all this, Noir Canada remains available in bookstores.
It is not possible to say the same about Imperial Canada Inc., whose contribution to public debate has been censored solely on the basis of conjectures made by Barrick as to its contents. The authors were de facto denied the right to publish the results of several months of research. For the threat by Barrick, a corporation with very deep pockets, would have exposed the authors to proceedings with serious financial consequences.
Revelations that are Too Compromising?
In the summary that was posted on-line on the site of Talonbooks, the authors noted that Canada is home to nearly 70% of the mining companies in the world. According to them, speculation is encouraged and the flow of investment capital is authorized towards overseas projects that are sometimes dubious. The authors also suggest that these enterprises are promoted by a pro-active diplomacy in international institutions and that they benefit from fiscal bloodletting to tax havens in the Caribbean, or from important government subsidies. The authors conclude that Canada constitutes a true “judicial paradise” for the mining industry, actively refusing to make those companies accountable.
From Intimidation to Censorship
As professors, teachers, researchers, and scholars, we are shocked to see this new use of the law to block the dissemination of a work of scholarly research. We are very worried about academic freedom and, as Canadian and Quebec citizens, we wonder about the application in Canada of the principles of liberal democracy that we cherish.
Why did Barrick attack a book not yet published, or even finished? On what basis did the company feel entitled to serve formal notice capable of leading to judicial action? What does this imply for freedom of expression, academic freedom, and the democratic right to discuss controversial issues in Canada?
A “SLAPP” in the Face?
Barrick’s letters argue that the process is justified by the “impressions” that it has from the summary of the book available on-line. The company assumes that the eventual propositions contained in the book will be “accusatory”, “false”, and “libellous”. That says much about how little justification is required for an institution today, as well as its law firm, to announce its intention to take legal action. These formal notices aim to induce a submissive behaviour on the part of the targeted individuals by recourse to legal proceedings. Quite often however, the only thing that explains the silence of the defendants is their lack of financial means to defend themselves in court.
The term, SLAPP, is the acronym for “strategic lawsuit against public participation”. Sooner or later, those responsible for the machinery of the law, be they lawyers, judges, or ministers, will have to prevent this destructive use of their institutions and stop lawsuits whose primary objective is to block the participation of citizens in public debate. If not, freedom of expression in Canada is much more vulnerable than Canadians suspect.