Creative Counter-Pedagogies in Canada’s Mining Capital

By Zannah Matson and Camille-Mary Sharp

As premier of Ontario Doug Ford was controversially reverting the provincial protections of the Greenbelt last summer, he visited the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and met with its curator of mineralogy. In the resulting video that Doug Ford shared on social media for #museummonth, he is seen touring the museum’s Teck-sponsored gallery of rocks and minerals, promoting Ontario’s “vast mineral resources” to be extracted and refined to meet the global demand for electric vehicles.

To those of us studying the relation between culture and extractivism (defined as the economic and ideological infrastructure that underpins the intensive extraction of Earth’s resources for profit), this entanglement of mining interests in Canada’s largest museum, against the backdrop of the Greenbelt’s closely averted ecological catastrophe, comes as no surprise. The fact is that resource extraction has shaped museums in Canada since the settler-colony’s very foundation, through the collecting work of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), which was tasked with mapping exploitable resources across British North America and whose members “collected” numerous specimens and artifacts ranging from rocks to Indigenous material culture. Seen in Figure 1 are the staff of the GSC in 1888 in a composite image, posing in front of their collected minerals. The original collections of earth sciences displayed in these wooden cabinets actually formed the basis for Canada’s very first museum, which has since developed into the Canadian Museum of History.

Figure 1. William Notman, large composite of the staff of the Geological Survey of Canada, 1888. Canadian Museum of History (online collection), fond 2008-H0015.

The embeddedness of resource extraction in Canadian cultural institutions – or what Camille-Mary has previously theorized as the extractive politics of cultural production – remains prevalent today through the corporate financing of Canadian art and culture by oil and mining companies. Such financing is visualized in Figure 2 in an excerpt from artist Maggie Flynn’sTrickle Down project, featured in C Magazine last year to represent the extent of relationships between extractive industries and Canada’s cultural sector. Scholarship on how these relations materially manifest in Canada’s museums and educational institutions keeps growing. In 2010, sociologist Stuart Tannock described the mining industry’s systematic effort to intervene in public education across Canada, from elementary to postsecondary levels, to promote sector-based interests (82). One of the key industry interventions highlighted by Tannock is Mining Matters – the educational arm of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC), Canada’s mining lobby. 

Figure 2. Maggie Flynn, Trickle Down, 2022, C Magazine. Design by Krishna Balakrishnan. Image courtesy of Maggie Flynn.

Self-described as the leading voice of the mineral exploration and development industry, PDAC represents hundreds of companies and invites them to convene for the world’s largest mining conference each spring in Toronto. As the global capital of mining, Toronto is the perfect setting for PDAC’s annual gathering: nearly 60% of global mining companies are listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and many company headquarters and financial institutions backing extractive industry fill the buildings that line Bay Street. Per scholar Alain Deneault, Canada is the ideal place to create a mining company due to the government’s loose regulations of the sector, tax incentives, diplomatic assistance, and structural biases in the courts. 

For the last couple of decades, activists from Canada and the Global South have developed a tradition of protesting the PDAC convention (Figure 3). The Mining Injustice Solidarity Network (MISN), for example, facilitates direct actions that include everything from holding vigils for activists killed opposing Canadian mining projects, to banner drops and demonstrations outside of PDAC’s convention centre. Informed by this tradition, Beyond Extraction (of which both of us are members) emerged in 2020 as a collective of scholar-activists committed to countering PDAC and critically researching the inner workings of extractive industry and its global networks. In 2020, we organized a counter-conference bringing together activists, scholars, and members of the public in Toronto during the convention to explore the questions: what exactly is PDAC, and how can we counter it?

Figure 3. Demonstration against the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC), Toronto, March 2021. Photo by Camille-Mary Sharp.

To begin answering these questions, Beyond Extraction sought to identify PDAC’s various members, as well as their roles, reach, and the forms of governance they are accountable to. For four days, we acted as a venue for scholarly activities and direct action organizing. We coordinated a series of workshops to map the influence of industry actors, and prepared a series of posters for the “People Before Profit” rally that confronted some of PDACs biggest investors (Figure 4). 

Figure 4. Beyond Extraction, Warning Signs for People Before Profit Rally, 2020.

Through this work of mapping the reach of industry actors within PDAC, the educational and cultural influence that the extractive sector has within Canada became acutely visible. We have further begun to ask how we might resist the elaborate, sophisticated system of educational and cultural production seen both in the curricula interventions of Mining Matters and in the extractive partnerships of Canadian museums. One answer from Beyond Extraction has been the concept of activist pedagogy, or “counter-pedagogy.” 

We conceptualize the approaches taken in our recent projects as counter-pedagogies, a form of critical pedagogy that seeks to foster social consciousness and is inspired by educational practitioners who have taken up Paulo Freire’s work to build counter-hegemonic teaching tools and practices. To resist extractive narratives, this has meant identifying and responding to the sustained pedagogical interventions of Canada’s mining sector to shape knowledge and public opinion on the role of mining in society, all the while maintaining a creative and sometimes playful approach to critical knowledge dissemination.  

One of these projects, launched last March 2022, is a counter-tour of the ROM’s mineral collection, titled “Mining at the Museum”. Developed during the pandemic, this guided tour of the exhibition known as the Teck Suite of Galleries: Earth’s Treasures at the ROM is an open-access, web-based and audio-visual tour of the exhibition, which offers critical re-interpretations of the rocks and minerals on display. Online resources developed by Beyond Extraction include a 30-minute audio recording and an exhibition map, which facilitate a visit of the exhibition for anyone to listen to, whether they’re walking through the exhibition in person or listening to the tour remotely as a podcast-like resource with visual aids. Designing the tour as a virtual resource was shaped by the constraints of the pandemic; luckily, by the time we launched the project during PDAC’s 2022 convention, museum restrictions had lifted and we were able to organize an in-person launch of the tour in the gallery (Figure 5).

Figure 5. In-person launch of Mining at the Museum. Photo by Zannah Matson.

The idea for this counter-tour emerged from multiple directions. Camille-Mary had joined the Beyond Extraction collective as a PhD student doing research on Canadian museums and their financial relationships with the oil industry. Given the collective’s focus on mining and PDAC, we all began to think beyond oil to investigate the connection between the mining sector and museums; in particular, the ROM. As we embarked on this work, we realized that the ROM partners with PDAC every year, giving private tours of their mineral gallery and their behind-the-scenes vault of gems to convention attendees (and seemingly, to Doug Ford). In addition, the ROM actively receives significant funding and sponsorship from various mining companies, including Teck (which lends the overall exhibition its name), Barrick Gold, and Vale (Figure 6). As one might imagine, the mineralogical displays of the ROM thus form an uncritical celebration of resource extraction and of the mining industry, making very minimal mention of environmental concerns, Indigenous sovereignty, or labour.

Figure 6. Photo of the Teck Suite of Galleries: Earth’s Treasures contributors panel. Photo by Beyond Extraction.

The concept of the counter-tour – which we define as an unsanctioned guided tour of an institution’s existing exhibition or displays – was also inspired by institutional critique, the artist-activist tradition of “speaking the museum’s language” to critique museums in various ways. This tradition traces back to the work of the Studio Museum in Harlem in the 1960s, when artists organized their own exhibition to counter a white-washed exhibition of American art at the Whitney Museum. After that emerged many more examples of critical institutional practice, notably Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society, which inspired our project’s title. More recently, we’ve seen a proliferation of unsanctioned museum activism by artists like Michelle Hartney, who intervenes in exhibitions by creating her own labels critical of patriarchal art interpretation and sticking them throughout the galleries at the Met. More closely related to our project is the tradition of activist performances by artist-led environmental groups like BP or Not BP and Liberate Tate in museums in the UK. Our “Mining at the Museum” counter-tour was also inspired by the “Stolen Goods” tour hosted by activists in 2018 to highlight looted objects in the British Museum’s collection and to call for their repatriation. 

To develop the tour, we selected six artifacts from the ROM’s gallery (including a million-dollar coin, a piece of copper, and a chunk of tar sands) to critically research and write about within a framework primarily informed by critical geography, green extractivism studies, and decolonial pedagogy. We recorded these “critical object biographies” along with physical descriptions of each specimen (to facilitate accessibility for all our users) and directions for navigating the gallery space. Our approach to developing critical object biographies was informed by the work of Samuel Alberti, specifically his essay “Objects and the Museum,” in which he develops the idea of biographies for museum artifacts to facilitate a more engaging and profound interpretation of collections that highlights their social lives. As Alberti reminds us, in 1986 anthropologist Igor Ignatyoff suggested that we should ask about objects the same questions we might ask about people when writing their biographies, namely thinking about how changing social and political climates shape their trajectory. Museologist Susan Pearce would take up this argument a few years later, arguing that natural history specimens are just as much social constructions as material culture, and just as subject to social analysis. For more information about this project and to tune into the multimedia tour online, please visit beyondextraction.ca/mining-at-the-museum.

Looking ahead, Beyond Extraction seeks to continue critiquing PDAC and, in particular, the educational initiatives of Mining Matters. Formed in the 1990s, Mining Matters emerged as an idea by mining executives looking for ways to develop their credibility in the face of what they perceived to be savvy media campaigning by environmentalists. The organization therefore receives funding from large and deep-pocketed members of PDAC to produce educational materials that are created in lockstep with provincial curricula. In some cases, as documented by Tannock, Mining Matters has even played a role in shaping provincially mandated school curricula. 

Mining Matters describes its work as “building mineral literacy through STEM education”. Focusing on the supposed neutrality of “mineral literacy,” which has allowed content to be folded into public education without raising concerns about corporate classroom interventions, we ask: what might “critical mineral literacy” look like instead, and how can the mineral collections of museums be mobilized to engage visitors with this critical knowledge?

One of the resources produced by Mining Matters are colouring and activity books aimed at young children up to the age of 13. Both teach children about the mining industry and encourage participation in it. One book (created with funding by Barrick Gold) tells kids that they “can have an exciting career in the mining industry,” while the activity book (funded by Kinross Gold, with translations into Inuktitut, Inu-inn-aq-tun, and Spanish) encourages children to complete the vignette of a day in the life of a young prospector. Inspired by critical colouring book precedents such as the one produced by the Maintainers Network, Beyond Extraction’s latest project has been to develop our own colouring book to counter the extractive logic of Mining Matters and its educational materials. 

Figure 9 features excerpts from the colouring book’s spreads on themes of resistance and pollution. Titled What It Takes, the book launches on March 3rd, just in time for the opening day of the 2024 PDAC convention. Teachers, parents, and students alike are encouraged to print their own copies and colour along to support comprehensive learning about resource extraction in Canada and to counter the influence of Mining Matters in education. 

Despite recent advances in both global and local struggles to divest from fossil fuels, extractivism continues to shape many of our societies – whether that be through the continued extraction of data, labour, or minerals deemed essential to the “green energy transition”. While cultural and educational institutions are increasingly recognized for their responsibility to engage the public on the topic of climate justice, their ongoing obligations to extractive interests, like corporate sponsors or corrupt politicians, complicates any potential for progress. Even worse, as demonstrated by the ROM’s Teck Suite and the activity booklets of Mining Matters, extractive industries have leaned into culture and education as tools for promoting positive depictions of their activities to young audiences. With comparatively few financial and institutional resources to counter such efforts, activist collectives like Beyond Extraction have learned to use the language of institutions and companies against them. Inspired by decades of resistance in the form of counter-exhibitions or grassroots pedagogy, we hope that interventions like “Mining at the Museum” and What It Takes contribute to a growing tradition of bottom-up challenges to the insidious propaganda of the extractive industrial complex.

Acknowledgements: This article is adapted from a recent presentation by Zannah and Camille-Mary at the Universities of Art Association of Canada (UAAC) conference in October 2023. The projects presented here are the result of collaborative work by Beyond Extraction and its many members. The “Mining at the Museum” counter-tour was made possible specifically through the contributions of (in alphabetical order): Chris Alton, Zannah Matson, Emma McKay, and Camille-Mary Sharp. Special thanks to Jacob Moginot, Ezra Teboul, and Hilary Wilson. The in-progress illustrations were drawn by Émélie Desrochers-Turgeon.

Biographies: Camille-Mary Sharp (Ph.D.) currently works as a Faculty Fellow in the Program in Museum Studies at New York University (Lenapehoking/New York City).  Zannah Matson is an Assistant Professor in the Program for Environmental Design at University of Colorado Boulder located on Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Ute land.