Despite some shortcomings in Paula Butler’s use of historical evidence, Colonial Extractions: Race and Canadian Mining in Contemporary Africa makes a timely critique of the Canadian mining industry. Canada as a progressive, post-racial, peacekeeping state rings hollow in a context of regular Canadian mining scandals in the Global South and persisting race-based violence both within and without our borders. From the discipline of Canadian studies, Butler’s use of the past will (rightly) rub historians the wrong way, but an attentive reader may still come away with new tools for thinking about race, discourse, and international relations.
Butler argues that “there is a culturally logical connection between past and present, domestic and international resource appropriation” (6). In other words, Canadian actions in Africa are a continuation of historic colonial encounters between Canadian mining and First Nations people. This argument is poorly defended. To be fair, the failure here is not entirely a product of inadequate research. Butler needed a sweeping narrative of Canadian mining history, but a coast-to-coast account of mining does not yet exist. Instead, Butler attempted to draw together the disparate literatures from nineteenth-century British Columbia, Ontario, and the Yukon (74–9). Most of her sources are highly localized, inconsistently interested in issues of colonialism, and not obviously linked to modern African mining.
More troublingly, Butler has excluded histories of twentieth-century mining even though this research is chronologically closer to her study and inclines toward issues she claims to address, namely Indigenous people and Canadian colonialism. The technological and corporate-industrial scale of twentieth-century Canadian soil extraction has much more in common with modern African mining than the comparatively small-scale nineteenth-century mineral rushes. Modern mining companies certainly prefer to draw links between their work and a romantic gold rush past, but Butler could have turned a more critical eye on the industry’s more recent lineage.
Why, given its substantial weaknesses, should Canadian historians still read this book? Because the rest of Colonial Extractions is much more convincing. Contemporary mining in Africa is embedded in a dominant national myth endorsed by the government and the mining sector, which sees “Canada as a humane, rights-respecting, globally responsible state” in order to “collectively enable a colonial form of [End Page 174] resource theft–with its attendant structural violence” (18–19). Butler’s defence of this idea (in Chapters 4–8) draws on more established work in Canadian history and identity, including Ian McKay and Jamie Smith’s Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in the Age of Anxiety. From here, Butler launches into a punchy, biting analysis of jaw-dropping quotes from Canadian diplomatic documents and personal interviews with industry professionals.
Butler writes about Canada as if Canadian actions on African soil mattered as much to our national story as our actions at home. The racial undertones of Canadian nationhood become startlingly clear when situated so globally. Some of Butler’s evidence is deeply uncomfortable. For example, Butler quotes Julie Cruikshank’s comparison between First Nations oral accounts of Keish (the Tagish discoverer of gold) versus white written histories of “Skookum Jim” (the Indian helper to white discoverers and a man who aspires toward white values). Butler then reveals that the Toronto-based Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (pdac) still hands out an annual “Skookum Jim Award” for an Aboriginal person who has contributed to mining (74–5). Placing a Tagish oral narrative next to the “Skookum Jim Award” throws a harsh light on sub-textual racism within pdac and the society that allows such a blatant colonial symbol to continue.
Butler’s source analysis contains further useful lessons. Canadian colonial discourse uses coded words like “efficient,” “stable,” “successful,” “transparent,” and “freedom” to characterize foreign investment-friendly mining policy, rendering them discursively benign. The stock market and the neo-liberal “rule of law” claim to be moral, civilized, and objective social mechanisms (124, 127). Meanwhile, Canadian mining organizations, in conjunction with the state, actively work to hamstring protective, self-determined national resource policy...