Exploring contradictions deep down

A symbol of conflict or a model of cooperation? Karine Vanthuyne compares the relationship that Indigenous peoples in Canada and Guatemala have with mining. 

Karine Vanthuyne

“My theory is that Indigenous peoples’ relationships with mining are closely linked to their ability to exercise their right to self-determination.”

– Karine Vanthuyne

In San Miguel Ixtahuacán, Guatemala, the Marlin gold and silver mine is a constant source of conflict. A large segment of the mostly Indigenous (Maya-Mam) local population has remained staunchly opposed to the project since its launch in 2005, crying foul over its social and environmental impacts.

Thousands of kilometres to the north, on the eastern shore of James Bay in Quebec, the Eléonore mine opened to great pomp and circumstance in July 2015, with the almost-unanimous support of the Wemindji Cree Nation.

Of these two mining enterprises, both operated by Canada’s Goldcorp, one became the symbol of Indigenous peoples’ battles against the industry, whereas the other is showcased as a model of consensus and cooperation with First Nations.

Why the stark contrast? And which factors determine how extensively Indigenous peoples are involved in mining projects on their land? These are the questions that University of Ottawa professor of anthropology Karine Vanthuyne is trying to answer on the strength of her many visits to Guatemala and northern Quebec over the years. Vanthuyne, whose mother is French, father is Belgian and who holds a Canadian passport, pays little attention to borders, venturing out to establish links between her field experiences.

“I’ve come across interesting parallels. At the request of the chief of the Wemindji community in 2011, I organized a series of exchanges between the Cree and the leaders of the San Miguel anti-mining movement. In the end, a Guatemalan delegation visited Wemindji last October,” explains Vanthuyne.

She now plans to travel even more between the two communities to compare their experiences. “Guatemala has a long history of structural and symbolic violence toward its colonized population. I want to understand what exactly happened in this particular community and how that weighs in the reaction to the mine,” adds Vanthuyne, who has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for her comparative study. “My theory is that Indigenous peoples’ relationships with mining are closely linked to their ability to exercise their right to self-determination.”

Self-determination, decolonization, Indigenous identity: these themes punctuate Vanthuyne’s research journey, which initially focused on post-conflict reconciliation in Guatemala, a country ravaged by years of domestic warfare. After suffering persecution and expropriation (later qualified as genocide), Guatemala’s Indigenous people, many of whom had fled in exile to Mexico, began to re-enter their homeland in 1996, under the watch of human-rights observers. 

“When I started university, I sensed that I needed to do field work. So I went to Guatemala as an international observer during the mass repatriation of Mayan refugees,” recounts Vanthuyne.  The experience confirmed that her love of anthropology was well founded. “I was moved and mesmerized by the people I met. I admired not only their commitment, courage and willingness to stand tall, but also their sense of humour through it all,” she recalls. 

Since then, she has harboured a keen interest in the policies of reparation and reconciliation, which led her, in 2009, to study the case of Canada’s Indigenous people, just as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work. “I conducted a research project on how the Cree of Wemindji remembered residential schools. It was tough. We were touching a raw nerve, so people didn’t say much. The mining issue surfaced while I was interviewing the chief at the time, who knew about my work in Guatemala.” Driven by a commitment to focus on the true concerns of her subjects in the field, Vanthuyne launched into her new project.

“I learned a lot during my research on residential schools, especially on the colonization of the Cree. Now I’m interested in how their relationship with mining meshes with their recollection of colonization, and what self-determination means to them,” adds the anthropologist.  

As for her approach, Vanthuyne relies on collaborative ethnographic research where Indigenous communities play a full and direct role. “From the get-go, it’s important to involve the concerned stakeholders if you want them to take stock of and understand the data,” she insists. “I want to set up discussion groups with the communities, with Goldcorp representatives if they accept and with policy-makers in Canada and Guatemala to make sure I don’t stray from their reality.”

Ever faithful to her role as an observer, Vanthuyne isn’t setting out to ease relations between Indigenous peoples and mining companies. Still, in time, her research will help strengthen Indigenous peoples’ capacity for self-determination in the face of mining interests.


by Marine Corniou

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