Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sudbury According to Tony Clement: the Valley of Death

The Mayor of Greater Sudbury, former NDP MP John Rodriquez, continues to try to invite Tony Clement to come to our fair city for a tour (read: re-education programming). Clement, wisely, has so far resisted any and all invitations, probably knowing that if he ever set foot in these parts he’d be tarred and feathered so quickly it would make your head spin.

Tony Clement, as you may know, is the current Minister of Industry, and in that capacity, he recently shot down a funding request by Montreal’s gay and lesbian arts festival, Divers-Cite, even though his Ministry had given funding to the festival in the past. Clement is also the Minister responsible for the federal Northern Ontario development agency, Fed-NOR, and in this capacity, he’s been involved in a long-running dispute with provincial Liberal MPP Rick Bartolucci (more of an actual shooting war than a "dispute" really...these two guys like to mix it up and shoot from the lip) who has labelled him the Minister responsible for FED-NOT for the funding requests Clement has turned down in this community.

To gall Sudburians further, the Conservative government announced a few months ago that it would be funding a centre of mining excellence in downtown Toronto on the U of T campus, even though Fed-NOR had refused to pony up any funding for the Centre of Mining Excellence here in Sudbury, despite participation by the Ontario provincial government (to the tune of $5 million dollars) and both Sudbury mining giants Vale Inco and Xstrata (formerly Falconbridge), each in for $10 million each.

Clement’s contempt for Sudbury extended to his outright refusal to go to bat for laid-off Xstrata workers this past winter, even though it was quite evident to everybody that swiss-owned Xstrata had violated a commitment they had made to not lay off any workers in Sudbury for a period of three years, which was part of an agreement which allowed the Swiss national firm to take over ownership of Falconbridge. Clement, not one to take criticism lying down (but perhaps ok with lying in general) went completely out on a limb by telling Sudburians to be happy that he’d wrung all sorts of concessions out of Xstrata to keep a particular mine open...even though these plans had been on Xstrata’s books for years and were common public knowledge for even non-mining people like me who just happen to absorb this kind of info by virtue of living in Sudbury.

And this past week, in the midst of what is presumed to be a very lengthy strike by Vale INCO workers, Clement has the nerve to tell Canadians that if it wasn’t for Brazillian mining giant Vale SA (now Vale Inco) coming to INCO’s rescue a few years ago, Sudbury would be a "Valley of Death". These comments have generated a few head-turns locally, and not just from the union. In fact, heads have turned so much that it’s looking like a scene from the movie "The Exorcist" playing itself out again and again here. Everyone is taking this opportunity to wonder if Clement really believes the nonsense that he’s saying and is therefore so out of touch with reality that it does no good to try to bring him back to down to earth, or if this is just the latest attempt to kick Sudbury when its down, because we refuse to elect Conservatives here again and again. The Globe & Mail has a telling article in today’s Investor section:Andy Hoffman and Jacquie McNish, "Clement’s takeover hangover",

The Globe & Mail, July 22 2009

In the article, the Globe quotes former Inco CEO Scott Hand as saying this about Clement: "He’s either sadly misinformed or he’s ignoring the facts because back in 2006 we were a very successful company. There were lots of companies trying to buy us, not just Vale." Hand, of course, was shown the door by the Brazilians shortly after acquisition, as were most of INCO’s senior management here in Sudbury and in Toronto.

Here in Sudbury, the strike is by United Steel Workers Local 6500 is likely going to be a long one. Let me tell you something about USW Local 6500: these people know how to strike, and I mean that with all respect, as I myself have marched on a picket line in the past. Elsewhere in Ontario, strikers are losing the local public relations wars (I’m thinking here of Toronto and Windsor, where public service employees are on admittedly, public service unions usually start in a disadvantaged situation to win any media war). Here in Sudbury, there is so much support for the union, it’s not even funny (although there are notable detractors).

One of the union’s "tactics" (my term, not the unions) appears to be playing up the fact this latest strike is not about Local 6500 vs. Vale’s about a third world mining conglomerate vs. Canadian values. At first, I was rather reluctant to see this as more than just a media play to gain sympathy for the hearts and minds of Sudburians. Big, Bad Brazilians trying to eliminate all of the gains the organized labour movement have made over the decades is certainly the sort of drama which resonates in the media.

Lately, though, I’m beginning to think that maybe the Union isn’t just engaging in media warfare, and there is actual a significant element of concern here, particularly for those who consider themselves small "g" greens (not to mention the big "G" Greens like me).

Clement, with his "Valley of Death" alternate-reality comments, was echoing earlier comments made by Roger Agnelli, CEO of Vale Inco, in a Dow Jones story, where he said of pre-takeover INCO: "If we hadn’t bought INCO, perhaps now it wouldn’t even be alive." (Reported most recently in the Sudbury Star editorial: "Industry minister must explain the inexplicable", July 22 2009:

Vale Inco has continued to suggest that current mining practices in the Sudbury basin are not sustainable, yet they paid over $19 billion dollars in 2006 to acquire the "unsustainable" INCO. Yes, the price of nickel was going through a bubble, and the bubble has now burst, but Vale Inco continues to post profits each quarter. How is making money for its shareholders unsustainable? Maybe it has more to do with not making enough money, which means cutting back on the price of labour in some way.

Mining is a dangerous job, and those who go underground are, in Canada, compensated fairly well for putting their lives at risk doing their jobs every day. Safety improvements have led to a decrease in lives lost in Sudbury, and INCO can proudly claim to run one of the safest mining operations in the world. It’s as a result of the partnerships which formed between employer and labour (not always harmonious by any means) which have led to this outcome. Don’t misunderstand me: there’s still a long way to go to achieve a truly sustainable mining operation in my opinion, but INCO and its unions have been heading in that direction for a long while now. It seems to me as if the Company now wants to take steps backwards, to keep mining in the Sudbury basin more in line with what their other international experiences have been.

And this is of particular concern to me, because the sorts of mining practices which Vale Inco engages in elsewhere are certainly not to be admired by anyone who is concerned about the destruction and devastation which can be caused by hard-rock mining. If we are to move towards more sustainable mining practices, we can’t be taking these steps backward. I believe Canadian-owned INCO understood that, and I point to a number of the partnerships they entered into with the Sudbury community as evidence. While Vale Inco continues to engage the community in these partnerships on the one hand, it’s content to hit us all over the head on the other by audaciously claiming that mining here (in Sudbury of all places!) isn’t sustainable in the long term under current conditions.

Rather than going around making completely false statements to the media during a strike between a Sudbury local and a Brazilian-owned conglomerate, wouldn’t it be more worthwhile for our Federal Minister of Industry to actually do something in an attempt to resolve the situation? Clement is leading the charge against U.S. Steel to honour the agreements it made with the government of Canada when it took over Hamilton-based Stelco, but when it comes to Vale Inco (and Xstrata-Falconbridge before that), Clement is content to posture and carry on in his own little world of spin and denial.

I’m getting tired of the Honourable Tony Clement and his Conservative deniers.

Steve May, CEO Sudbury Federal Green Party Association

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