Critical Minerals and Settler Colonialism: Who Will Pay for the “Green” Transition?

Critical minerals are propagated as “essential” for a “green” transition. China’s pivotal role on this market is countered in the West with “onshoring” initiatives. As the case of Canada shows, this means prolonging and expanding a form of domestic warfare known as settler colonialism, Shiri Pasternak and Jessica Dempsey argue in their contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”


Leading edge technologies in “green” energy, science, and manufacturing cast a futuristic sheen on the just transition that belies its reliance on the old fashioned mining industry. The transformation of industries like automotive manufacturing with the rise of electric vehicles, the energy sector with solar and wind infrastructure, and medical innovations in cancer treatment all rely on extracting “critical minerals” in mostly traditional ways.

But what is left intact and what has changed about the old extractivism? Production of critical minerals are currently concentrated in China or produced in mines owned by China. But as global demand grows, the settler colony of Canada is positioning to assert itself more aggressively into these industrial supply chains.

This article asks: How does this new extraction hang with the old practices of colonization? While in Canada, the issue of critical mineral resources is framed as one of global strategic importance and national security – a stabilizing element in critical supply chains – it is also promoted as a climate strategy and a form of “economic reconciliation” with Indigenous peoples.

Beyond this promise, however, new alliances between countries like Canada, the U.S., Japan, the European Union, Australia, and Korea appear to be primarily focused on securing industrial supply chains for transnational capital. China – a “threat to private capital” especially in the West – is framed instead as a grave danger to “our” national security, justifying massive state investment in private industry.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

Just as the old fashioned mining industry is rebranding as a ostensibly “sustainable” business model of “green” growth, new strategic alliances being formed to protect these mineral supply chains are reconfiguring imperial blocks and relaunching domestic colonization in the same old global scramble for resources.

Expanding capitalism in the name of “critical minerals”

What is a critical mineral resource? According to a special Canadian Parliamentary committee report, “critical minerals” is a broad term of reference that includes both non-metallic and metallic minerals (metals). What makes a mineral “critical” varies across jurisdictions, but they are largely designated as such by their role in the modern economy, the status of their supply, and their importance to energy and national security.

Canada lists 31 minerals as “critical” and is currently pursuing a strategy to focus on six: lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt, copper, and rare-earth elements. Canada also intends to continue its focus on mining over 60 other minerals and metals it produces each year, including those for which Canada is already a global exporter, like nickel, potash, aluminum, and uranium.

Canada’s competitive advantage, according to a strategy paper on critical minerals put out by the Department of Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN), are its depositories, long-standing expertise in mining, clean energy resources, and strong environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials. Canada is counting on projections for a massive growth market for critical minerals that will fuel the “alternative” energy economy, predicted to increase nearly sevenfold between 2020 and 2030. At the Parliamentary hearing on critical minerals, Jeff Labonté, Assistant Deputy Minister of the Lands and Minerals Sector at NRCAN, stated that Canada is “the only nation in the western hemisphere with all the minerals and metals needed to produce advanced batteries for electric vehicles.”

Evidence provided by the U.S. Geological Survey points to the contrary, however: besides potash (a mineral used in agriculture), Canada has extremely minor reserves of critical minerals compared to other countries. However, CBC reports that Canada maintains that its competitive advantage is still unknown and untapped, due to challenges of mineral accessibility.

To facilitate this private capital accumulation will mean major federal investment – subsidies – and regulatory streamlining. Canada’s budget commitments from 2021 and 2022 provide money for a critical minerals office and research on processing and refining, as well as millions more in tax credits, northern regulatory processes, geoscience research, and technological development, and $1.5 billion CAD over six years for a “Strategic Innovation Fund” to support critical minerals across the industry, with prioritization given to manufacturing, processing, and recycling applications. In total, Canada has committed around $2 billion CAD to the critical mineral industry.

But for social license to physically extract these minerals, how will Canada negotiate with the title and rights holders of these lands? Both at home and abroad, Canada has developed a deserving reputation for serious human rights violations against Indigenous peoples for extraction and mining.

Curbing economic nationalism, geopolitical tension, and dispossession

Canada is positioning its role in the world as a “safe” trade alternative to China – a claim that seems mostly to do with a “secure” path to accumulation for private capital. As Pierre Gratton, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Mining Association of Canada, stated: “[China is] not a market-based economy. They’re state-run enterprises and they invest for strategic reasons… I’ve heard many stories from many of our members of just how tricky that is, because in other parts of the world it’s a government-to-government relationship that they engage in, whereas we’re the private sector trying to compete using private sector rules.”

The private sector is very actively involved in shaping Canada’s critical mineral sector, and as Gratton’s quote suggests, clearly sees itself as competing against China for resources. In the wake of this perceived threat by China, Canada has developed strategic alliances to secure access for transnational capital to critical minerals. Canada has signed the Canada-U.S. Joint Action Plan on Critical Minerals, the Canada-EU Strategic Partnership on Raw Materials, the Canada-Japan Sectoral Working Group on Critical Minerals, and a number of other multilateral partnerships, to pursue “collective action” to “support the global transition to green energy and more resilient supply chains.” These multilateral polities include the G7/G20, the World Bank, and the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF), and the Energy Resource and Governance Initiative (ERGI).

The goal of this collective action is to leverage “our international partnerships to align policies and regulatory approaches, improve global ESG standards, address technical challenges through joint R&D, and encourage new investment opportunities in Canada.” But as Thea Riofrancos writes, the goal of critical mineral “onshoring,” referring to increasing domestic supply, is not straightforwardly “better” than mining elsewhere. She outlines how new Western and Eastern alliances are ratcheting up geopolitical tension with China at a time when international cooperation is needed.

She also points out how, “economic nationalism savvily appeals to working class grievances while papering over class conflict, presuming there is a supposed national interest above the opposing interests of bosses and workers.” As the Canada’s critical mineral strategy shows, the result is subsidization of and handouts to energy and mining multinationals. Riofrancos also points out that benefits from critical mining development in the EU, U.S. (and Canada, we may add) are not evenly distributed across populations. Indigenous opposition to the mining of critical minerals, for example, has brought to the fore the uneven development and environmental racism of mining impacts.

The violence of “insignificant” impacts

The hubris of liberalism lies with its claims to universal benefit. Like erroneous claims to “ethical oil,” Canada’s claims about its leadership on environmental and Indigenous rights must be questioned under the rationale of “safe,” “green,” “onshore” supplies of transition minerals.

In Canada, mines are regulated through environmental impact assessment processes, meant to systematically evaluate potential environmental, social, and cumulative impacts of development projects to inform decision making on these projects. On the ecological side, these forecasts most commonly include predictions about how various mitigation measures will render mines’ impacts “insignificant.” Yet there is little to no evidence to support the effectiveness of mitigation measures, and ongoing wildlife declines are experiential evidence that they are not effective. The recent Blueberry River court case found that cumulative effects of extraction and development contravene Indigenous treaty rights all the way down.

On the economic side, these forecasts commonly include predictions about the tax revenue, jobs, and economic activity the mines will generate. Yet here again research shows that these projections are overstated or else obscured. And it is well known that the benefits and burdens of mines are not shared evenly. In terms of benefits, jobs are considered one of the most important perks of mining. But the sector is highly gendered in direct employment; in Canada, men make up over 80% of the mining labor force, with virtually no change since 2002. Women working in the sector point to sexism and racism.

There are negative social impacts too, often on gendered lines: housing shortages in boom towns, burdened health care and social services, along with increases in substance abuse, family conflicts, domestic abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases. Research shows that non‐resident, transient workforces (known as man camps) increase crime and gender violence with the most significant impacts on Indigenous women and girls.

Refusing trade-offs and sacrifice zones

The response from liberals will be that trade-offs are needed for the “green” economy. But to us, “after extractivism” means refusing trade-offs and sacrifice zones. Because these are not fair trades. In northern Ontario in central Canada, the Ring of Fire development is promising high yields of critical minerals, including valuable chromite. But these minerals lie beneath the surface of a region governed by Anishinaabe and Anishini communities who have cared for the wetlands for thousands of years.

As Dayna Scott writes: “What is a ‘just transition’ in this context? What does it look like in particular places and for particular peoples? Breaking out of our well-entrenched patterns of colonial and capitalist exploitation must be part of the answer.”

Transitional justice could look like a red new deal. Because though it is true that we all benefit from reduced emissions, others are trading away water quality and community health for this greater good. We don’t accept that we need critical minerals at all costs. Onshoring critical minerals engages in a longer form of domestic warfare: settler colonialism.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here:

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