What It Means to Be Civilized in Quebec

– Richard Desjardins, Action Boréale –

The following remarks were delivered by Richard Desjardins at the mass mobilization on the occasion of the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice in Rouyn-Noranda, September 23, 2022. Title added by TML.

When I was a kid, a few blocks from here from my little room, I could see the chimneys. I thought they made the clouds.

We used to also float rafts on the slag from the mine in the ponds of purple and turquoise water. Psychedelic, wonderful. The word environment did not even exist.

The mine's smog choked us from time to time, but that was the price to be paid, we were told. Even the children paid. And still do, by the way.

The 1960s. René Lévesque, then Minister of Natural Resources, came to Rouyn-Noranda and said, pointing to Noranda and its Copper Kings, "Those guys, we're going to civilize them." It hasn't happened yet.

In the 1970s. I was there in Chile. A leftist had just been elected president of the country, Salvador Allende. He nationalized the country's copper, whose mines were owned by Noranda. In '73, a coup d'état. General Augusto Pinochet seized power with the help of the American Air Force which bombed La Moneda, the presidential headquarters in Santiago. Worldwide astonishment.

The result of Augusto Pinochet's subsequent repression of leftists: 3,000 killed, 40,000 tortured, hundreds of thousands exiled. The first western company to contact the dictator after his coup: Noranda Mines.


The 1980s. The Ministry of the Environment had just been created. It published an ecological study on the Rouyn-Noranda region -- the state of the territory. The problems we face today are described in this report, which seems to have been forgotten for 43 years. Arsenic was not invented yesterday. It has always been part of the copper ore. When it is heated, it volatilizes, even in our lungs.

With the directors Daniel Corvec and Robert Monderie from Rouyn, I worked at that time on the documentary Noranda. I was doing research. I got the idea of going to the Noranda mine's head office in Toronto to see what they thought of us. I was greeted by someone from Public Relations. We were talking about the importance of the company throughout Canada and the world -- 70,000 employees. At one point I brought up the Horne foundry and its problems. I was told: "Yes, it's an old factory but it's versatile. You couldn't imagine it in the suburbs of Toronto, too populated, whereas there we're talking about 30,000 people."


The film revolves around an investigation by researchers from an American industrial medical school, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who came here to examine the 500 workers at the foundry, who were on strike at the time. Almost all of them participated. The CSN had organized this impressive clinic when it was also involved in the company.

At first sight, when the director of the medical team saw that the city was practically in the yard of the foundry, he exclaimed: Oh my God! It should have been 15-20 kilometres away.

Five hundred different tests were done on each of the workers. Doctors were coming here to analyze, for the first time, the combined health effects of heavy metals. They couldn't do that in the United States because there the contaminants are everywhere -- a chemical soup -- it's hard to determine where they come from.

But here, the contaminants can only come from one source -- the smelter. The researchers were able to establish that the simultaneous presence of sulphur dioxide -- the smog -- and arsenic could cause lung cancer. They found five on site. The company doctor could have easily detected them.

By cross-checking different studies, the film also showed that the presence of heavy metals (arsenic, lead, cadmium) in the human body increased from Évain [a neighbourhood in Rouyn-Noranda] to the smelter barrier and from the barrier to the reactor. It always increased.

The film also reminded us, by the way, that the government had passed a law in 1926 -- when the smelter first started. Promulgated for the benefit of Noranda, the law said this: "No owner, tenant or occupant of land in the Township of Rouyn can claim damages caused by the noxious gases and fumes produced during the operations of a smelter."

It looks like we're still living under that same law.

The film, once completed, was proposed to the Abitibi International Film Festival, which did not want to include it in its official program because that year, for the first time, it had received a grant from Noranda -- $3,000. Yes, there can be mining interference in festivals.

We rented the Théâtre du Cuivre to show the film. At the doors, security guards from the mine handed out leaflets against the film. Like good anarchists. Just before the screening, the city police arrived in the lobby. They were coming to get one of the film's directors for a parking ticket he had not yet paid.

We asked the police:

- Why now, why here?

- We received a phone call at the station.

- Ah! From whom?

- From the mine.

- Ah.

Still so civilized?

1989. To recover the sulphur from the mud, the company decided to build a sulphuric acid plant on condition that our governments would lend them two-thirds of the cost -- $80 million. We lent it to them. The loan was never repaid.


The 1990s. The wildlife department began warning us every fall not to eat the livers of moose killed within 40 kilometres of the plant because of the cadmium spread on the territory. "And the rest of us, our liver?" we said to ourselves, "What? It's a good thing we're not cannibals. There wouldn't be many people left in town."

Do you know Marc Rich? The man with five different passports, who was convicted of the biggest tax fraud in American history and was facing 325 years in prison? The FBI was on his tail and tried to kidnap him four times. He fled to Switzerland. He's the one who founded Glencore. Died there in 2013.

Do you know Gary Nagle? He was trained by Marc Rich. He is the current boss of Glencore which, by the way, is not a mining company but a brokerage firm in natural resources, wheat, oil, etc. It buys and sells, buys again and sells again.

In recent years the firm has been prosecuted in at least ten countries for fraud and corruption, and regularly pleads guilty. Bandits, and that's not just a figure of speech.


In its budget for this year, Glencore has set aside $1.5 billion for legal fees for its ongoing corruption trials.

All this to say:

Action Boréale is calling for the immediate suspension of operations at the Horne smelter until this killer plant proves that it will operate within the Quebec standard of 3 nanograms of arsenic per cubic metre of air, a standard that is already compromised because arsenic, like lead, does not have an acceptable threshold. Also, during the suspension of operations, Glencore will continue to pay salaries to smelter employees as usual. This shouldn't be too much of a problem for them; the company is worth $101 billion.

Now, do you know the Legault-Fitzgibbon duo, who said they were willing to fund Glencore with public money? Not one cent for them, not one.

Personal opinion: Don't vote for the CAQ, not in Rouyn, not in Val-d'Or, not anywhere. We're going to have problems with this party if it is re-elected.

We will have baskets full
Of black roses to kill the hatred
Territories flowing through our veins
And loves worth having
We'll have everything we lack
Money fires at the bank doors
Slaughterhouses for millionaires
Reservoirs of light years
And if there's no moon
We'll make one

Thank you.

This article was published in
Volume 52 Number 23 - October 2, 2022

Article Link:


Website:  www.cpcml.ca   Email:  editor@cpcml.ca