Excavating the Truth on Canadian Mining in Africa

A case study on Canada’s odious role in the global capitalist economy

Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash

You may have heard that the world needs more Canada, right? Many Canadians are not alone in the prevalent illusion about Canada as friendly, benevolent force for good on the world stage. Such patriotic daydreams usually feature vague appeals to peacekeeping, diplomacy, human rights, tiny Canadian flags sewn to backpacks and other such cliches. The stark reality of Canada’s role in the world capitalist economy, specializing in imperialist resource extraction, could not stand in greater contrast.

Canadian capitalists have always been over-reliant on plundering natural wealth for profit. As a settler-colonial nation, dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from their lands to facilitate ruthless exploitation of natural resources has always been a core component of Canada’s capitalist political economy. Mining was particularly crucial in shaping the development of Canada as a settler-colonial extractive enterprise—therefore, it is no coincidence that today Canada is the mining capital of the world.

Naturally, the domestic drive of Canadian capital to dispossess in order to extract has been projected onto the backdrop of global capitalism. From a policy atmosphere of incredibly permissive regulations and lax taxation schemes for the industry, Canada has emerged as one of world’s most important facilitators of mining in the global capitalist economy.

In 2019, the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) hosted 48% of listed mining companies and was used to raise 56% of mining capital in the world. Among the most important Canadian enterprises listed on the TSX, over half are in the mining sector. Canadian owned corporations held over $263B of mining assets abroad. An astonishing figure for a country containing under 0.5% of the global population, holding over a quarter trillion dollars of mining capital across the world.

The profile of Canadian mining in Africa

To no small degree, the stability and prosperity of Canada is built on the colonial exploitation of both labour and natural wealth across the world. Mining companies, with the overt support from the state, leverage Canada’s position as a junior but active partner in an imperialist world system to maximize the transfer of wealth to the imperialist core. There are few more clear exemplars of Canada’s role in the global capitalist division of labour than the activities of Canadian mining corporations in Africa.

Detailed data on the activities on Canadian mining corporations, whether domestically or abroad, is difficult to locate without painstakingly combing corporate filings or paid subscription services. However, StatCan does publishes limited summary level data on the activities of Canadian owned multinational corporations by region and industry. Analysis of this data displays the economic relationship between Canada and Africa with crystal clarity.

Line chart showing mining and oil companies as a percent of Canadian companies in Africa, where from 2010 to 2018, mining and oil accounted for an average of 98% of sales, 99% of total assets, and 98% of sales of goods

Canadian corporations go to Africa, for the most part, for one purpose only: resource extraction. It is truly striking how one dimensional Canadian investment in Africa is. Among Canadian owned multinational companies operating in Africa, from 2010 to 2018, mining and oil accounted for an average of 99% of assets, 98% of sales, and 95% of exploited workers on the continent. Though the mining and oil/gas extraction industries are grouped together in the StatCan data by a shared industrial category, the latter represents a much smaller investment. Canadian energy assets account for only $3.3B of investment in Africa, just 8.6% of the value of mining assets.

Natural Resources Canada publishes semi-annual country level data on Canadian owned mining assets across the world. In 2019, Canadian companies held about $38B in mining assets in Africa. The national economies of several of Africa’s poorest and most colonially exploited nations are dominated by Canadian mining corporations. In the four most heavily invested in countries, where 30 to 40 million people are likely living on under $5.50 a day, Canadian mining assets were worth a quarter to nearly half (45%) of the entire economy.

Donut charts showing the value of Canadian owned mining assets as a percent of GDP for Mali (45%), Zambia (43%), Mauritania (35%), Burkina Faso (25%), DRC (12%), and Namibia (8%)

Canadian companies owned $6.1B of mining assets in the Democratic Republic of Congo, making Canada a top investor in the second poorest country in the world, where over a century of imperialist pillaging of mineral wealth has wrought a legacy of intense violence and suffering.

The eight most lucrative African countries for Canadian multinationals are mapped out below, showing the most recent poverty estimates (under $5.50/day) alongside the total operating revenues of Canadian firms from 2010 to 2018. StatCan does not disaggregate the sales data by industry at the country level; however, it is safe to assume that mining accounts for the vast majority of the total revenue. This is because mining and oil company sales never dips below 96% of goods sold by Canadian companies in Africa and NRC reports only a minimal presence of Canadian energy assets in those countries.

Two maps (West and South Africa) showing the top 8 countries by the sales value of Canadian companies from 2010 to 2018, which ranged from \$3 billion in Mali to \$24B in Zambia. The countries are filled by the most recent poverty estimate at under $5.50 a day, ranging from 55% in Ghana to 95% in Mali.

Tall unit chart floating to the right of text, showing the sales total for Canadian mining and oil corporations in Africa from 2010 to 2018, which totals $87 billion US dollars.

While the IMF recently declared 2010-2020 a lost decade in economic terms for Africa, billions of dollars in sales from the proceeds of African mining was flowing through Canadian companies back to the imperial core. Clearly, it was not a lost decade for the Canadian extractive corporations with revenues of over $87B USD from selling off the resource wealth of Africa.

Canadian mining corporations were involved in serious human rights violations in 7 out of 8 countries on the map above. In Burkina Faso 16,000 were displaced by one company. A single mine in Ghana displaced over 30,000 and caused the country’s worst environmental disaster. Massacres and torture in Tanzania, mass displacement and illegal land grabs in Zambia and collaboration with a corrupt coup government in Mali. The list goes on and on.

Moving on from mining

As egregiously exploitative as Canadian mining in Africa is, it accounted for only 13% of mining/oil revenue and 14% of mining assets abroad in 2018. Operating revenue from Canadian mining and energy companies abroad was $122B in 2018, accounting for 35% of all sales of goods by Canadian multinational enterprises.

This pattern of imperialist resource exploitation grows from Canadian capitalism’s internal dependency on natural wealth extraction, which always necessitated an agenda of genocidal dispossession of the First Nations to inhabit this land.

Drastic transition away from a mode of production so utterly dependent on the mass extraction of natural wealth from stolen lands for maximum short term profit is absolutely necessity for Canada in the 21st century. This is especially true since an 85% reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions of global mining is required in any plan to limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2050.

In a socialist economy characterized by rational and democratic planning for use rather than profit, mining activities and resource use in general can be decoupled from the ever-intensifying demands on the profit motive. By planning to produce only as much metal as needed (rather than how much is profitable) and intensely emphasizing reuse of materials (to a level that would destroy profitability under capitalism), mining can be reduced to the minimum needed by society, in accord with ecological limits to production.

Breaking with the extractivist and colonialist logic of capitalism is a necessary step in a process of decolonization of Canada. Any and all mining that occurs must only proceed by respecting the sovereign rights (including the right of refusal) of Indigenous Nations to their lands, including lands covered by broken treaties and the stolen so-called “Crown Lands” where the vast majority of mining and resource extraction projects are found. This applies, of course, not just under a planned socialist economy in the context of decolonization, but also right here, right now under current international law, however unlikely it seems that the Canadian settler-capitalist state will commit in good faith to following it.

Data sources

  • Maps from: South, A. 2017. “rnaturalearthdata.” R package, version 1.0
  • NRC. 2021. “Canadian Mining Assets.” Information Bulletin, National Resources Canada.
  • NRC. 2018. “Canadian Energy Assets.” Information Bulletin, National Resources Canada.
  • StatCan. Table 36-10-0470-01, “Activities of Canadian multinational enterprises abroad, by country.” Accessed May 2020.
  • StatCan. Table 36-10-0440-01, “Activities of Canadian multinational enterprises abroad, by industry.” Accessed May 2021
  • World Bank. 2021. “Adjusted savings: mineral depletion (% of GNI); GDP (Current US$); Poverty headcount at $5.50 a day (2011 PPP).” World Development Indicators. World Bank, Global Poverty Working Group.

Start a discussion

Ryan Romard
Ryan Romard
Sociologist | Research Analyst

Sociology, data science, and data visualization.