Barrick Gold’s CEO appeared visibly irritated and responded to questions in an increasingly condescending tone as he heard accusations of serious human rights abuses against the Canadian multinational mining company at its recent annual general meeting in Toronto.
Two activists were removed from the meeting room — one was Lateef Johar, a human rights defender from the Balochistan province of Pakistan.
They were among many activists, from Alaska to Papua New Guinea to Pakistan, who traveled to Canada to bring heartbreaking stories of abuses, water pollution, and violations of Indigenous rights across the company’s operations outside Canada.
“Thousands of local people have been abducted, disappeared, tortured and extrajudicially killed by the Pakistan government to counter social and political movements for Balochistan’s rights,” said Johar. “Their lives were taken because of peaceful resistance against the [Pakistani] government and foreign investors’ exploitation of Balochistan. Despite all this, Barrick Gold signed an agreement with the government to extract Baloschistan’s gold and copper without any social license or consent of the local people.”
Several of the activists present said they felt insulted by Bristow’s responses to them during the AGM. One response from the South African CEO that particularly stood out was his response to Johar’s question about Barrick Gold’s Reko Diq copper and gold mining project in his home country of Pakistan.
Johar, who attended the May 2 AGM as a proxy voter, invited by Mining Injustice Solidarity Network (MISN), told Bristow that Balochistan is a region of Pakistan that has been struggling for self-governance from the central Pakistani government. And that Barrick’s Reko Diq project is proceeding without the consent of the Baloch people.
Johar told Bristow that he’s lost family and friends at the hands of the Pakistani government’s security forces.
In response, Bristow justified Barrick Gold’s activities as “mutually beneficial” for the corporation and the region, referring to it as a “proper, just engagement on behalf of the people of the developing world.” Bristow also questioned Johar’s expertise on the issue, pointing out Johar’s status in Canada, saying “it has been a long time since [Johar] has been in Pakistan,” dismissively implying that Johar doesn’t have up-to-date information.
The exchange escalated into an argument between the two. Johar was then escorted out by security. As he was removed, Bristow told him, “You should go back to Balochistan.”
1/n #Balochs are not second-class citizens, and @BarrickGold CEO Mark Bristow should keep that in mind while he conducts his illegal business on our land. @BNMovement_ @LateefJohar @Earthworks@MiningWatch pic.twitter.com/CGUMNzki50— Zainab Bakhtar (@ZainabBakhtar) May 7, 2023
Lacey Kolmoos, a campaign manager with the environmental watchdog Eko, said she couldn’t believe her ears.
“I was honestly in complete shock,” she said. “Usually, these AGMs are pretty sterile cut and paste. The CEOs have been briefed on the types of questions to expect and how to respond to them without giving anything away.
“So immediately, I was horrified by how he was treating the question-askers, especially with Lateef, I could not believe [Bristow] would make those comments. They were not only insulting, but they were racist,” Kolmoos said, who was attending the AGM via Zoom.
Bristow took over as CEO after the death of the company’s outspoken and controversial founder, Peter Munk, in 2018.
Rachel Small, an organizer with the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network was one of the activists physically present at the meeting to ask questions.
Using the one share MISN owns of Barrick Gold stock, Small entered the meeting as a stakeholder. “It felt incredible that for once Barrick’s shareholder meeting was filled with the stories of the people impacted by their mines, instead of what they wanted it to be full of — which was their profit margins and future plans,” said Small.
Another MISN member, Samantha Ponting also attended the meeting and is one of the activists who was physically removed by security because she was recording the meeting, which according to security was not permitted, despite the press being allowed to enter.
The activists were all members of a coalition of organizations focussing on human rights advocacy and environmental justice. The coalition follows the actions of Canadian mining corporations internationally. Mining Injustice Solidarity Network and MiningWatch Canada were among those that organized the action.
Activists also gathered outside the AGM, which took place at the Canadian Hockey Hall of Fame, holding signs that included statements like “Barrick destroys! Barrick lies!” Their chants could be heard from inside the venue.
Parked outside the AGM was also a mobile billboard, a digital screen on the side of a truck playing an almost three-minute-long video of individuals from the areas where Barrick Gold currently has mining operations internationally. The video included clips from individuals from Alaska, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Argentina, Nevada, and the Dominican Republic, all of whom are asking Barrick Gold to cease their operations on their land.
“What I was most concerned with is making sure that I would be able to bring forward the message and the concern and the question that we've been hearing from communities around the world in the past month or two,” said Small. She says that the demonstration accomplished this.
Canada is home to 75 per cent of the world’s mining industry. For years, Canadian companies like Barrick Gold have faced criticism regarding serious human rights and labour abuses, accusations of sexual violence and accusations of complicity, and failing to investigate, or prevent the alleged abuses.
Last year, a group of Tanzanians filed in Canadian court for grave human rights violations at the company’s North Mara gold mine in Tanzania. The group allege torture and abuse, and the killing of five men, by Tanzanian police guarding the Barrick Gold mine, per the filing.
It’s the first case filed against Barrick Gold in a Canadian court for alleged violations abroad, and “an attempt to hold Canadian mining companies responsible for their overseas human right abuses,” reports Aljazeera. It comes after the country’s top court in 2019 ruled that the Canadian company Nevsun Resources Ltd could be sued in Canada for alleged forced labour and other abuses at a mine in Eritrea.
“Barrick is synonymous with destruction and violence and death. And that is the legacy that Canadian mining as a whole is doing around the world, and Barrick is one of the worst,” said Small.