Critics question mining magnate’s $5 million gift to Mt. A. Fine Arts

Joan Kuyek, veteran activist, community organizer and mining critic, says she’s not surprised that Canadian gold billionaire Pierre Lassonde would want his name on Mount Allison University’s School of Fine Arts.

“The mining industry has had a long history now of using philanthropy to try and blunt opposition to what they want to do,” Kuyek said in a telephone interview.

She was referring to the announcement on February 25th that the Toronto businessman’s family foundation is giving $5 million to Mt. A. for the Pierre Lassonde School of Fine Arts.

“For the people who have that wealth in the mining industry, they get quite enormous benefits, not just tax write-offs, but recognition and reputational advantage and so on,” Kuyek added.

“I think what’s required is an understanding of where the money came from and how it’s created,” she said.

“It’s really about extracting wealth, not just minerals,” she adds. “It’s about the system that enables that and then glorifies the people who’ve profited from it.”

Mining and colonialism

In her 2019 book, Unearthing Justice: How To Protect Your Community from the Mining Industry, Kuyek writes: “Mining is the ultimate expression of the violence of colonialism.”

“The nature of mining, which is a continuous assault on the Earth with long-term effects,” she explains, “expropriates the minerals that are in the land and destroys an awful lot of other things and takes the benefits of that…into the hands of the ruling people, the settlers in Canada’s case.”

She adds that Canada’s laws have always favoured resource extraction, most often at the expense of Indigenous peoples who live with its social and environmental consequences.

She says gold mining can be especially devastating because the metal is so valuable that it’s profitable to mine low-grade deposits.

“So that means that for a gram of gold you might have five tonnes of ore smashed up and turned into toxic tailings and another three tonnes of rock that have to be removed to get at the ore body,” she adds.

“What you end up with is a huge, long-lasting environmental mess that has to be contained, it can’t be totally remediated, it has to be contained forever and often it’s in rock that will leach toxins into the water and the aquifers and downstream from it for generations.”

Mt. A. book launch

Mount Allison professor David Thomas

When Kuyek visited the Mount Allison campus in the fall of 2019 to promote her book, two plainclothes RCMP officers showed up. Their visit concerned David Thomas, a professor of politics and international relations who organized the book launch.

He says the RCMP presence fits in with continuing police surveillance of activists opposed to resource extraction.

Thomas has written a book himself on Bombardier Inc.’s exploitative business practices in poorer countries and he questions at least some aspects of Pierre Lassonde’s $5 million gift to the university.

He points out that in the last 20-30 years universities have increasingly turned to wealthy donors to make up for cuts in government financial support and that this increasing dependence on private wealth raises questions about academic independence.

“I don’t think we’ve really had a good discussion or debate on campus about this issue and about whether there are limits, reasonable limits, around when we should say yes or no to money coming in from the private sector,” he said in a telephone interview.

“There are individuals like me and some students and others who occasionally raise concerns, but they’ve never really been taken up in any serious way by [the university’s] leadership.”

Thomas also wonders whether the university scrutinized Lassonde’s gift carefully enough.

He says Canadian mining companies have been implicated in violating human rights while poisoning land and water all over the world.

“So I think, especially in a case where we’re accepting money from someone who’s made their fortune in the mining industry, this is especially an instance where I think some scrutiny in required,” Thomas says.

Philanthropy as public relations

According to a 2010 study by Stuart Tannock of the University of Cardiff in Wales, Pierre Lassonde’s $5 million gift to Mount Allison is part of a mining industry pattern that began in the 1990s.

“[M]ining executives around the world had grown concerned over the course of the 1990s that their industry faced a global crisis of legitimacy caused by a series of major ecological disasters involving open pit mines, tailings ponds and mine waste dumping, the growing political influence of the environmental movement, and the organized resistance of Indigenous communities whose lands are home to many of the world’s active and prospective mining areas,” Tannock writes.

Pierre Lassonde. Photo: University of Toronto

He adds that in 1996, Lassonde gave $5 million to the University of Toronto to create the Lassonde Mineral Engineering Program and the Lassonde Institute of Engineering Geoscience and raised an additional $20 million from mining companies to fund faculty chairs, research labs and student fellowships.

Tannock writes that the Lassonde Mineral Engineering Program offers a four-year undergraduate degree that trains students for careers in the mining industry.

“Thanks in part to its well-endowed fellowships, and in part to a Toronto-based youth marketing company that the program hired early on to help market itself to high school students, enrolment in the Lassonde Program rose quickly over the first decade of its existence,” Tannock adds.

He points out that Lassonde made his fortune with Franco-Nevada, a gold royalty company and that he later became president of Newmont Mining, then the world’s largest gold company.

“Lassonde, through his executive positions and financial investments, has both profited from and promoted some of the most contested and controversial mining sites on the planet including the Minahasa Raya mine in Indonesia, the Yanacocha mine in Peru, the proposed Rosia Montana mine in Romania, and the Cerro San Pedro mine in Mexico,” Tannock writes.

To read his full study, click here.

Lassonde responds to critics

For his part, Lassonde has argued that environmentalists and other critics have vastly overstated the harms from mining while minimizing its benefits.

“This is all part of the myth-making of the mining critic’s movement – myths that are propagated by some members of the press in search of flashy news and readership; politicians in search of cause and votes; and the special interest groups’ movement in search of campaign money,” he told the Mining Club in Melbourne, Australia in 2003.

“Life is not fair, but you’d better get used to it! Unfortunately, most special interest groups cannot offer jobs, training, medicine, roads, power and water, like mining companies can,” Lassonde added.

He urged mining executives to seek community approval or social license for new projects.

“Sit down with the local communities and understand their needs, wants and customs,” he said. “Tell them what you will do and live up to your promises.”

To read his speech, click here.

Mt. A. gift policies

Gloria Jollymore, Mount Allison, VP for Advancement. Mt. A. photo

Gloria Jollymore, the university vice president in charge of soliciting donations, says Mt. A. follows a clearly defined set of policies before it names its programs or buildings.

During a telephone interview, she said that the university looks for what she called “alignment” between the donor and program.

“Pierre Lassonde and members of his family have a very well established record of activity and participation and contribution in the fine arts,” she added. “So, for us, he’s really somebody who cares about the fine arts.”

The university’s announcement of the $5 million gift mentions that Lassonde is a “noted collector of contemporary Canadian art,” that he is a former Chair of the Board of the Musée National des Beaux-arts du Québec as well as a past Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Jollymore says that before the university accepts a gift such as Lassonde’s, an internal committee made up of professors, students and staff decide whether to recommend approval to the advancement committee of the Board of Regents. She adds that the university’s Senate is always informed before the full Board makes the final decision.

She says the Lassonde gift will support student scholarships as well as paid internships in places like art galleries or museums.

“One of the things that’s really important to us is that any internships that we have are paid internships and sometimes, particularly in the arts, the organization just doesn’t have the wherewithal to pay their interns, but the interns get fantastic experience, so we pay them and we pay them through philanthropy.”

Jollymore says the gift will also support an artist-in-residence program allowing students to benefit from the work and ideas of someone from outside the university.

When asked about Professor Thomas’s concern over the lack of dialogue on campus about the growing acceptance of private gifts, she replied:

“We talk about a culture of philanthropy and when we use that phrase, we really mean a community-wide engagement in the process of philanthropy.

“So I think that’s a terrific idea. I’ll note it and I’ll follow up.”

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5 Responses to Critics question mining magnate’s $5 million gift to Mt. A. Fine Arts

  1. Gordon Heffler says:

    Thank Goodness for people like Gloria Jollymore who see all of the good that comes from a gift that is here proposed…think about it folks…we want to offer good learning for students and that costs money! Part of that learning is an appreciation of arts and culture which is far removed from learning to play the ukulele !!! When money is made available for such endeavors of higher esteem in our society what are we to do….I get the feeling from this article that we should trace each dollar all the way back to the Canadian mint to see if we can find some soil on it from some “bad person”! Wake up folks..universities are our society’s path to the future of the entire planet and keeping them funded by gifts is part of that process. We surely do not want to end up just seeing them wither because our order in society will be going too! Do you ask the girl at Tim Hortons who serves your coffee…where she got the change that she gives you and if it has ever been in the possession of someone who you consider not of your opinion on anything! I don’t think so….bottom line is “the gifted money is going to a most worthy university endeavor” so stop trying to examine every dollar that the university might be gifted by to try and find some dirty soil on it from somewhere…that will result in your higher institution of learning start to wither! Thank you Gloria for seeing the trees while looking at the forest!

  2. O'Donnell Susan says:

    Thank you Bruce Wark for writing this important story. We need to continue to advocate for fair taxation and public funding of education. In Canada the wealth gap continues to widen after decades of tax policies that favour the wealthiest individuals and corporations in our society. We have a major revenue problem in New Brunswick and Canada as a whole, with billions of dollars annually that should be tax revenue, instead making the most wealthy among us even wealthier. Recent analysis by Canadians for Tax Fairness found that billionaire wealth grew significantly during the pandemic while people in lower income levels remained steady or dropped significantly. Some billionaires then make donations to universities and have buildings named after themselves. Corporate donations to universities should always be questioned and examined carefully to consider what influence they may have on the research conducted and course content students are exposed to. Canadian mining companies in particular have a horrific track record in many countries. I have no idea about this particular billionaire or his largesse; my point is to question the situation that made this “gift” possible and to highlight that public funding is always preferable to corporate donations to universities.

  3. Kata List Productions says:

    I hate to do this but Gloria was the one who turned down a tonne of money offered by Joan Carlisle-Irving to refurbish the War Memorial Library so that it would not be destroyed in favour of a new arts building… she really insisted they not make any donation to preserve a historic building on the campus. . . and this was before Bruce Wark’s time but it’s a matter of record around here… Gloria… how about some dollars from the university towards a great youth skatepark… I know you have already forgotten about our little chat on this topic. That’s OK.

  4. Thank you for publishing this. The other aspect that I think is noteworthy is that such “gifts” are deemed charitable and therefore bring significant tax deductions. In other words, a large part of the donation is actually paid by taxpayers (exactly how much depends on the donor’s tax returns, obviously). Yet the “philanthropists” get their names on buildings, while both the government and the university Board of Regents totally ignore the fact that this is largely public funding, just through another, non-democratic, avenue. I have a better idea: make the billionaires pay their taxes, and at a much more realistic rate (80-90%, like in the postwar USA), and then give universities full public funding. And as a side benefit, the potential for teaching and research to be influenced would disappear.

  5. Luis says:

    Joan Kuyek’s book is a valuable resource for communities resisting abusive mining companies. Unearthing Justice Spanish translation has been released by Abya Yala in Ecuador and a Portuguese translation is forthcoming by iGuana Expressão Popular in Brazil.

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