Barrick Gold: Neoconning the Public
Nigel Wright has been much in the news for the $90,172 cheque he signed over to Mike Duffy. Much less attention has been devoted to the scandalous implications of the $9 million payment from former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to Peter Munk’s School at the University of Toronto. The anatomy of both deals sheds light on the abundant conflicts of interest linking the Barrick Gold Company with Conservative Party governments led by Brian Mulroney and now Stephen Harper.
The origins of Barrick Gold
After terminating his tenure as the most undiplomatic Minister of Foreign Affairs in Canada’s history, John Baird has been extended a place on Barrick Gold Corporation’s International Advisory Board. Its founding Chair was former US President George H.W. Bush. The international panel’s current Chair is former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
A close student of the relationship between Bush Sr. and Mulroney, in 1997 Anton Chaitkin came up with the phrase “Barrick’s Barracudas.” Baird is a recent recruit among this school of fishy predators inhabiting those murky zones of lucrative interaction between business and politics. This pattern goes back at least to 1984 when Adnan Khashoggi visited Ontario’s capital to establish a Toronto headquarters for the Barrick complex of companies.
In the period when he was laying out the political, legal and economic groundwork for what would become Barrick Gold, the flamboyant playboy Khashoggi was reputed to be one of the world’s richest men. This CIA asset and arms merchant also served as a front man for a group of Saudi Arabian investors that included Kamal Adham, the oil-rich country’s head of intelligence operations. This strategic link to Saudi wealth was crucial in the financial life of western capitals during an era when much depended on Saudi Arabia’s backing for the shift of the US dollar from a gold-backed to an oil-based currency.
Barrick Gold’s connection through Peter Munk to Canada’s Bronfman family dynasty formed a vital dimension of the Israeli-Saudi axis, an important factor in maintaining the Anglo-American empire. Edgar Bronfman’s activities, as the influential head of the World Jewish Congress between 1979 and 2007, provide us with a glimpse into the politico-economic juggernaut that included the Barrick complex of companies.
Khashoggi met with Ontario Premier Bill Davis in 1984 during a heavily hyped media event meant to promote the listing of what was then known as American Barrick or Barrick Resources in the Toronto Stock Exchange. Flash forward to 2015 when Newt Gingrich became John Baird’s co-appointee on Barrick’s international advisory panel.
In 2008, Gingrich became a candidate for the US Republican Party’s nomination in the presidential election. Multi-billionaire gambling czar Sheldon Adelson famously funded Gingrich’s neoconservative candidacy. Adelson’s political priorities include putting in place a US president that will agree to nuke Iran, the number one national nemesis of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Munk School’s role in promoting the hawkish policies of the Harper Government towards Iran
Several weeks before joining Barrick’s well-rewarded international advisory panel, Foreign Affairs Minister Baird conducted a press conference in Toronto along with Professor Janice Stein, then Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs. The Munk School originated in its present form in 2011. It began with a large donation to the University of Toronto from Peter Munk.
Munk became the most public face of Barrick Gold Corporation after Adnan Khashoggi was exposed in the Iran-Contra scandal in the late 1980s. Khashoggi and some of his fellow Saudi investors in Barrick businesses were exposed as key operatives in a complex web of illegal financial transactions on behalf of the National Security apparatus of the Reagan-Bush White House.
During and after his term as US President from 1989 to 1993, Bush Sr. took firm charge of Barrick’s most rapid phase of international expansion. To help him with this enterprise he recruited his peer, Brian Mulroney, with whom Bush had worked particularly closely in putting together the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. NAFTA was instituted in 1992 shortly before both men left elected public office under clouds of infamy.
On January 6 of this year, Stein and Baird announced that the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper was directing a grant of $9 million to the Digital Public Square Project. In this scheme of internet manipulation, the U of T’s Munk School was enlisted in a federal operation reminiscent of old Cold War initiatives to encourage dissidents within communist countries to join forces and rise up in order to topple their Soviet-backed oppressors.
This Harper U of T initiative is being pressed forward in a context defined by Ottawa’s severance in 2012 of diplomatic ties with Tehran. The federal government’s unilateral decision to terminate formal relations was introduced with Baird’s inflammatory allegation that “Canada views the Government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.”
Baird added to this saga of vituperation in 2013 by asserting, “The [Iranian] regime is hollow. It does not have the depth, the intellect, the humanity or the humility to bring about a better future for its people.” This most undiplomatic of characterizations was delivered notwithstanding the diplomatic transformations brought by the election in 2013 of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
The Digital Public Square initiative is a thinly disguised instigation of hostile regime change directed at Iran and also several other countries on the Harper government’s Enemies List. Professor Stein attempted to soft-peddle U of T’s role in this scheme. “It’s about making space for different narratives. It’s about making space for different voices,” she declared.
I was struck with a sense of irony when I first saw these words attributed to Professor Stein, who apparently coached John Baird regularly in how he should articulate Canada’s international positions. When it comes to issues like Canada’s relationships with the Islamic Republic of Iran, or, for that matter, the Jewish state of Israel, I do not hear a multiplicity voices in Parliament or in mainstream media coming from a wide variety of perspectives. What I have heard instead – especially on the airwaves of Canada’s public broadcaster – is a very narrow spectrum of blinkered, one-sided international commentary.
Indeed, I can report from my experience as a delegate in October 2014 at an international conference in Tehran that I participated in a much more free-ranging and broad discussion of global affairs than would be possible these days in the heavily censored CBC. The same comparison might be applied to the gate-kept academic environment at the U of T and certainly to the cloistered confines of its Munk School.
In 2013, the Munk School Director, Janice Stein, and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird were accused of stifling such free-ranging academic debate by a coalition of Canadian-Iranian community groups. They accused the organizers of an allegedly closed and secretive academic gathering at the U of T of making “a calculated attempt to sideline critics and censor opponents of the Conservative government’s policy on Iran.” Those invited to make presentations were said to display uniformly “hawkish views” unreflective of “the Iranian diaspora’s outlook.”
Barrick Gold, the neocon agenda and constraints on academic freedom
Peter Munk’s donation to the University of Toronto was negotiated in secret with the U of T’s former President, David Naylor. Dr. Naylor was recently appointed to Barrick’s Board. The Naylor-Munk deal of 2011 breaks new ground in terms of tying strings to the future flow of funding to an important academic unit at a Canadian university.
The Munk School Director must satisfy Peter Munk – and, after his death, the trustees of Munk’s estate – that he or she is meeting predetermined academic and “branding” guidelines. The U of T’s adoption of these conditions sets very unfortunate precedents for the corporate sponsoring of other academic institutions.
This constraint on academic freedom only begins the litany of negative implications permeating the Munk School’s positioning in the academy. As emphasized on the website of a campus-wide coalition entitled Peter Munk Out of U of T, “students have cause for concern that their school is so closely associated with this company… that is accused of human rights violations, labour violations, environmental devastation and/or corruption where they operate.”
This corruption begins in Canada and extends to many countries where Barrick operates including Peru, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea and Australia. Barrick’s horrendous record has been highlighted by many organizations and NGOs including Mining Watch and Protest Barrick as well as by many authors including Alan Denault, Sakura Saunders, Greg Palast, Alex Constantine and E. P. Heidner.
Especially serious from the perspective of the growing neocon assaults on academic freedom at the University of Toronto and other centres of higher learning is Barrick Gold’s history of trying to intimidate, shut up and destroy altogether its critics through a variety of coercive techniques. These include financially debilitating SLAPP suits, strategic lawsuits against public participation.
Barrick’s precedent-setting litigious assault in Ontario on the Internet postings of Chilean-Canadian miner, Jorge Lopehandia, became especially aggressive in the early 2000s. With his Vancouver-based associates Lopehandia has achieved considerable traction with the Chilean judiciary in demonstrating that he, not Barrick Gold, is the primary holder of title to the massive deposits of gold, silver and copper at the Pascau Lama Mine.
Barrick Gold’s main man on the ground in Latin America is heir to the financial empire of Andronico Luksic Sr.. Luksic Sr. was one of the primary beneficiaries of the radical privatization of public property imposed on Chile after the US-backed coup in 1973. Banker Andronico Luksic Jr. has taken over his father’s hostility to Lopehandia’s unrelenting assertion of title to one of the world’s richest mineral deposits. Through the public exposure attending his politically-motivated efforts to extend improper loans to the family of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, Luksic has botched his overzealous power play. His attempt to cozy up to Chile’s first family is generating much negative domestic publicity in ways that are engulfing Barrick’s Chilean outpost in the hot glare of scandal.
Lopehandia’s tenacious defense of his rights and interests is part of a tsunami of problems overwhelming Barrick in what was once advertised as its prime Latin American bastion. In 2013 in Canada’s Financial Post, Peter Koven accused Barrick of “screwing up the Pascua Lama project about as badly as any mining company has ever screwed up a major project.”
Mining the public interest for corporate and private gain
As Canada’s recent Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird has played a key role in Barrick Gold’s litigious interactions with, for instance, Jorge Lopehandia. Lopehandia has had much company in bringing forward serious indigenous grievances in those many countries where Barrick’s Barracudas are active.
Barrick has emerged as a core polity in a structure of international affairs wherein fully 75 percent of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada. It seems that very lax oversight of the Toronto and Vancouver stock exchanges, as well as the lack of any serious regulation by the our federal government, has made Canada a laissez-faire magnet for extractive enterprises of many sorts.
There is an unmistakable stench of conflict of interest surrounding John Baird in his work inside and now outside Stephen Harper’s cabinet. The most obvious indicator of this malfeasance began the moment he handed over a federal cheque for $9 million dollars to the Munk School of Global Affairs. The purpose of the grant was to advance the U of T’s transformation into a partisan partner in the Canadian government’s decidedly “hawkish” interactions with Iran.
Only weeks after this delivery of public funds to the Munk School, the Barrick Gold Corporation reciprocated. In his very first days as a private citizen, Baird joined the International Advisory Board of Peter Munk’s main medium of golden endowment to the University of Toronto.
John Baird thus followed a path laid out by former US President George H.W. Bush and by Brian Mulroney. Mulroney joined Barrick’s Barracudas after receiving cash from Karlheinz Schreiber for services rendered when he was the Canadian Prime Minister that cleared the way for neocon Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
As Foreign Affairs Minister, Baird had intervened in 2012 to fend off allegations that Harper’s former Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright, was guilty of conflict of interest in advancing Barrick Gold’s interests with his boss. Wright was then being investigated by Mary Dawson, Parliament’s Ethics Watchdog, on the suspicion that he had played a role on three separate occasions as an advocate of Barrick’s preferred positioning of Canada vis-à-vis mining in Latin America.
The National Post paraphrased the former Minister’s characterizations of Wright’s interactions with the Gold Company as follows, “Wright did nothing wrong; he merely listened to Barrick’s concerns, said nothing, passed the matter over to others responsible for the file and was not involved in any decision relating to the company.”
What credibility do these words now possess given Baird’s own subsequent induction along with David Naylor into Barrick Gold’s inner sanctum through the medium of the company’s deep infiltration of the U of T’s academic life? Here is yet another indication that the Harper government’s ethics initiative is a scam as epitomized by Baird’s bringing his very recent access to state secrets to the service of Barrick Gold.
With an accompanying email assurance as Stephen Harper’s Chief of Staff that the deal was “good to go,” Nigel Wright delivered the now-notorious $90,172 cheque to suspended Senator Mike Duffy. This payment is seen by many as a smoking gun in the high-profile criminal trial now underway in Ottawa.
Wright’s close friend is Anthony Munk, his former colleague in the giant private equity firm, Onex Corporation. Wright’s intimacy with the Munk family is marked in his role as godfather to the grandson of Peter Munk. “I have complete trust” in Nigel Wright, declared Munk Sr. in 2011. Munk’s trust in his grandson’s godfather was reflected in Wright’s appointment along with Andrew Coyne and Ken Whyte to the Board of the Aurea Foundation.
With its annual debates at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the Aurea Foundation constitutes another example of how neoconservatives operate to engineer the boundaries of acceptable discourse in the mainstream media and in the academy. This discourse most valorizes the deregulation of business and maximum latitude for the expansionary policies of Likudnik Israel, both political priorities for the newest of Barrick’s Barracudas, John Baird and Newt Gingrich.
An academic alternative to the Munk School of Global Affairs?
After two decades of intense engagement in the courts of both Chile and Canada with representatives of our country’s chief mining leviathan, Jorge Lopehandia’s survival speaks volumes. Not only has he retained his legal ground, but he is gaining strategic turf. From this adversarial experience, Lopehandia has developed his own personal perspective on what he sees as Barrick Gold’s ruthless and unethical way of conducting business.
Lopehandia is especially critical of the effects of Barrick’s accounting machinations on the declining value of the many pension funds invested heavily in what was once widely viewed as a blue chip company. The revolt of pensioners is being felt once again in 2015 as many managers of retirement funds repeat the main themes of their protest in 2013.
A common thread of grievance in their votes of non-confidence is Barrick’s very high rate of executive compensation. This penchant for huge payoffs to those at the top goes back to the days when George H. W. Bush was handsomely rewarded for engineering the transactions that catapulted Barrick Gold from obscurity to the world’s number one marketer of gold and gold derivatives.
As Lopehandia sees it, the high rates of reward to executives and their political advisors reflect the reality that Barrick’s most important asset is privileged access to the inner citadels of political, juridical and media influence. A common theme running throughout this process of infiltration involves the corruption of the state in order to harness its coercive force for the displacement of indigenous peoples from valuable natural resources.
The consistency of this expansionary pattern in the growth of Barrick Gold Corporation flows naturally from the history of the heavy trade in mining shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Toronto’s rise to commercial prominence has depended on dispossessing and displacing First Nations in the development of one mining frontier after the next in northern Ontario.
This same general trajectory of expansion through Aboriginal dispossession is continuing through venues such as Barrick Gold into the wider international realm. It is a process that is making Canada synonymous with the most dirty and exploitative networks of extractive industry.
A father of college-aged young men, Lopenhandia speaks eloquently of the tragic subordination of one of Canada’s oldest and most prestigious universities to the imperatives of corporatist subversion. He asks rhetorically, “Why pay homage to those who have benefited most from the kind of outrageous incursions that are giving the Canadian mining industry a bad name among many decent folks throughout Latin America and Africa? What messages are we sending to our young people by treating the likes of Peter Munk, Brian Mulroney, John Baird and Newt Gingrich as role models for the country’s future leaders?”
As Lopenhandia sees it, some of the funds poured into the Munk School of Global Affairs are in fact stolen from him and individuals like him in Barrick Gold’s global rush for spoils. He speaks eloquently of the kind of alternative to the Munk School that he would like to endow if he succeeds in his quest to put in place a more just model for mining sustainably the riches of the vast Pascua-Lama repository of precious metals.
Lopehandia underlines that any alternative to the Munk School in which he might become involved would have to promote rather than constrain academic freedom. The kind of institute Lopehandia has in mind would be an arena of academic meritocracy affording respect, recognition and security especially to those voices of dissent emanating from outside the charmed inner circle of privilege and power.
Such a centre of excellence would eschew rather than cultivate conditions of exclusion such as those that provoked the Iranian Canadian community groups in 2013 to accuse the Munk School of organizing a closed event to promote the hawkish policies of the ruling party. Rather than responding appropriately to this significant criticism, the anti-Iranian partnership of the University of Toronto and the Harper government was solidified in 2015 with John Baird’s and professor Stein’s announcement of substantial federal largesse for the Munk School.
A Lopehandia School of Globalization Studies would embrace, rather than spurn, those academics willing to speak truth to power, even when that power takes the form of a corporate leviathan like Barrick Gold with its still largely hidden history of serial dealings with the most dubious variety of former public official.
Anthony Hall is professor of Globalization Studies at the University of Lethbridge. He has written for the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Canadian Dimension and many other periodicals. His most recent books are Earth into Property: Colonization, Decolonization and Capitalism and The American Empire and the Fourth World. Both volumes are published by McGill-University Press.