OPINION: The Hidden History of Canada’s Influence and Interference in Guyana

Canadian corporations have played a role in neoliberal economic restructuring in the small South American country

Yves Engler / Canadian Dimension

Reflecting an extreme imbalance in power, people in Guyana are well informed about Canadian activity in their country, but our media seldom mentions the small nation on South America’s North Atlantic coast. 

As such, it was a positive sign to see the CBC and the Calgary Herald report on former Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s recent appointment to lead a review of the oil sector in the former British colony, which sits between Venezuela and Suriname on the northeastern tip of South America.

The industry friendly Redford will head a team of Canadian consultants to review Exxon Mobil’s massive planned project at the proposed Payara oil well that has been criticized for low royalty rates. 

In February, the international NGO Global Witness published an explosive report, alleging that under Exxon’s lucrative oil deal, Guyana will lose out on up to $55 billion — money that “Guyanese people have said could be used to build much-needed roads, hospitals, schools, and sea defenses to protect the 90 percent of the population at risk from rising sea levels.”

REDFORD’S APPOINTMENT AS “CANADIAN QUEEN’S COUNSEL” IS CONTROVERSIAL IN GUYANA. One reason is that it is unclear, reported Stabroek News, “whether this had been as a result of Ottawa’s funding of the process.” 

Just recently, Ottawa joined US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in condemning alleged “electoral fraud” during Guyana’s disputed March 2 regional and general elections, demanding the early release of results. Canadian officials released multiple statements critical of the previous government and the vote counting.

There was also a Canadian angle to the previous government’s fall. An MP from the governing coalition with Canadian citizenship voted in favour of a no-confidence motion tabled by the opposition. The next day he fled to Toronto, claiming to have received death threats for voting against his own government.

UNBEKNOWNST TO MANY, CANADIAN INFLUENCE IN GUYANA IS LONG-STANDING. In the early 1900s, official Canadian policy supported annexing the British Empire’s Caribbean possessions – the various islands as well as British Honduras and British Guiana. Despite failing to take over the country, Canada has had significant influence there. The Royal Bank of Canada and the Bank of Montréal both began operating in the country more than a century ago. At that time, a syndicate led by Canadian railway tycoon William Cornelius Van Horne built Georgetown’s electric lighting and trolley system with $600,000 from the Bank of Montréal. For its part, the Royal Bank helped US-based Alcoa, the world’s eighth largest producer of aluminum, develop its Guyanese bauxite operations in 1909.

BEYOND THE ECONOMIC SPHERE, CANADA HAS LONG TRAINED GUYANA’S MILITARY. From 1942 to 1945, Canada garrisoned a company of soldiers and a naval ship in the country. Pressure from Montréal-based ALCAN, which inherited Alcoa’s operations, played a central role in Ottawa’s decision to send troops to Guyana even though the official request came from London. In January 1942 ALCAN’s Ottawa office director, Fraser Bruce, wrote to Canada’s Department of External Affairs that “responsible company officials at McKenzie will not feel satisfied with respect to the guarding of the works until imperial or Canadian troops are stationed there.” IN A FOLLOW-UP LETTER HE BLUNTLY REFERRED TO “OUR RECENT REQUEST FOR WHITE SOLDIERS.” The official request from London made clear the racial nature of Canada’s mission. “Local coloured guards are already provided on the ships, but United Kingdom authorities recognize that there would be an advantage if these guards could be strengthened by a small number of whites and NCOs [non-commissioned officers].”

ALCAN was closely enmeshed with colonial policy until Britain lost control over Guyana in 1966. The company – notes the book, The Caribbean Basin: An International History – “thought that because of its contribution to the colonial economy, one of its officials ought to have a seat on the legislative council.” In the early 1950s, “ALCAN repeatedly informed Governor [Sir Alfred] Savage of its disappointment that he was not appointing any of its people, and ALCAN officers thought that governor Savage himself was far too leftist, far too sympathetic to unions and socialists, to be kept in his job by a [British] Conservative government.”

On occasion, ALCAN personnel directly enabled Britain’s occupation. When anti-colonial upheaval swept the country in 1953 – Guyana was a pseudo colony at the time – the British governor made prominent foreigners special constables, including Charles K. Ward, then public relations officer for Alcan’s Guyanese subsidiary [DEMBA – Demerara Bauxite] and a former Royal Canadian Navy officer. As one of the few naval officers in the colony, Ward was summoned to serve as liaison with the Royal Navy. “Other Alcan personnel,” writes Duncan C. Campbell in Global Mission: The Story of Alcan, “were required to patrol the dark city streets by night to guard against troubles.”

As Guyana’s leading trade partner for many years, Canada benefited from the unequal international division of labour created by colonialism. Guyana’s bauxite industry provides a stark example of this inequity. In 1970 the price per ton of bauxite ore was G$18, G$160 for alumina and G$1,000 for aluminum ingot. According to former Guyanese politician and judge Mohamed Shahabuddeen, author of The Nationalisation of Guyana’s Bauxite: the Case of Alcan, “[with] the smelting and semi-fabrication stages being in Canada, the result was that Guyana would obtain royalties and taxes on G$72, being the value of four tons of bauxite, while Canada would derive benefit from G$1,000, being the value of the equivalent of one ton of aluminum ingot.”

While Guyana lost the value-added components of the aluminum smelting process to Canada, its workforce fell victim to some of the most negative aspects of aluminum production. The home of Alcan’s mine, MacKenzie, was the worst sort of company town. Well into the 1960s “the workers lived in a depressed slum area to the north called, ‘the village’. Staff members lived in the plush area of Watooka, with exclusive clubs and social amenities such as a golf club.” Those not living in the town needed to present passes to enter MacKenzie. 

Alcan’s operations did not escape the notice of social justice activists. The Student Society of the University of Guyana organized a demonstration in May 1966 in front of Alcan’s office; the Canadian High Commission; as well as a Royal Bank office. The African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA), an Afro-Guyanese grassroots organization and the country’s foremost black nationalist movement, explained: 

They [the workers] have, until recently, been bound to live in the most stratified community in Guyana, with its South African and USA idea of neighbourhood living and of white supremacy. The physical arrangements were such also that the whole imperialist machinery could be clearly seen: The extraction of the ore, the processing and added value, the shipping away of wealth, the importation of raw chemicals, the small group of expatriate decision-makers, the tokenism, the social gaps, the misery of the poorer districts, the hilltop luxury of the white population, the buying out of leaders, the divide and rule tactics, the process of exploitation which they could feel in their skin. 

From the early 1980s, too, Canada pushed for neoliberal economic restructuring in Guyana. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was involved in Guyana’s first structural adjustment loan from the World Bank designed “to turn over significant sectors of the economy to the private sector, both local and foreign.” A 1982 Globe and Mail article added, “the government denies that the program exists but copies of the agreement are widely circulated in Georgetown… They [Canadian officials] are reluctant to discuss the effort to impose conditions, however, since it is apparently CIDA’s first foray into this sensitive area of internal economics.”

After refusing to expand this initial structural adjustment program, Guyana was blacklisted by international financial institutions in the mid-1980s. At the same time, Canadian bilateral assistance declined from $3.15 million in 1983-84 to $700,000 in 1985-86. By the late 1980s pressure from Ottawa and global financial players was mounting on Guyana to adopt a series of more drastic economic reforms. Ottawa chaired the Guyana Support Group and gave $60 million to a highly controversial structural adjustment program led by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The value of the Guyanese dollar subsequently fell from $10 to US$1 in 1988 to $144 to US$1 in 1995.

What’s more, Canadian money was tied to Guyana’s adherence to IMF macroeconomic prescriptions. Frank Jackman, the Canadian High Commissioner to Guyana, said “there is great admiration within the government of Canada for the steps that are being taken here, and for the budgetary moves, albeit unpopular, that have been introduced.” Jackman claimed Guyana was setting a “precedent” for other indebted Third World countries and told the Guyanese to “take heart” since the austerity package would encourage Canadian investments. The people failed to “take heart” and instead demonstrators threw stones at the Canadian High Commission office.

After the structural adjustment programs in the 1980s some Canadian investment did flow into Guyana. Part of this foreign investment led to a terrible tragedy. In August 1995 the tailings dam at Québec-based Cambior’s Omai gold mine in Guyana failed. More than 1.2 billion litres of cyanide-laced sludge spilled into the Essequibo River, the country’s main waterway. Huge numbers of fish were killed and thousands of riverbank inhabitants temporarily lost their livelihood. The area was subsequently declared a disaster zone. To sidestep possible legal claims stemming from the spill the company paid off local fisherman. In November 1998, This Magazine reported:

The fishermen, who were mostly illiterate, were required to sign forms absolving Omai of any future claims in exchange for $1.50 each. About two weeks later, it was reported that [Canadian High Commissioner] Louis Gignac had pressured Guyanese Prime Minister Samuel Hinds to reduce the scope and duration of the government-sponsored commission of inquiry investigating the spill. In a closed-door meeting on September 8 in Georgetown, and later in a follow up letter leaked to the [Montréal] Gazette, he urged the Prime Minister to limit expert testimony and wrap up the inquiry in thirty days. 

Canadians who want their country to be a force for good in the world need to pay more attention to Ottawa’s influence in this small South American nation. We must hold our corporations, politicians and diplomats accountable to the standards we demand inside Canada, AT THE VERY LEAST.  

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  • Clyde Duncan  On 09/30/2020 at 1:44 am

    In defence of Canada, at the time – in the early 1900s – Canada was a British colony; quite like South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – “mother always liked you best”, so say the Smothers Brother.

    Therefore, these colonies had a special status within the British Empire.

    There was a time, when a local could only rise to the rank of Sergeant in the British Guiana [B.G.] Police. Anyone above that rank was a white man.

    Also, the thing about special constables – Booker Brothers McConnell and Co. had the same status with their special constables and constabulary patrolling their property and the vicinity.

    I am just attempting to put certain matters in context.

    In other words, some young ones and those who never been to Guyana may want to impose your own idea of what a neighbourhood must look like, today, to the way it was in the early 1900s.

    Just trying to help!

    • kamtanblog  On 09/30/2020 at 2:15 am

      Exactly !
      Colonisation exists today !
      All be it “wolf in sheep’s clothing” now
      disguised as “corporation”
      LFSB nationalised bauxite in Guyana
      declared guyana a republic but retained
      HRH QE2 as head of state. Later re-wrote
      the constitution and declared Guyana a republic. USA a republic after refusing to
      pay royalty taxes ! Funny how history
      repeats itself.
      Q should LFSB have nationalised bauxite
      or made it a 51% guyana owned shareholding
      company ! Similar to BANKSDIH LTD.?
      Q should exon be nationalised or made into
      a 51% guyana owned shareholding corporation ?
      Guess that makes me a “commie”
      or Russian oligarch !

      Let’s see what happens next with new
      “kids on block” in power !
      Corruption or anti corruption laws introduced.

      Not holding my breadth!

      Will guyana remain a failed state ?

      Anyone’s guess


  • Yvonne-K  On 09/30/2020 at 10:03 am

    The more things change the more they remain the same!!!

    • kamtanblog  On 09/30/2020 at 10:44 am

      Radicals change the world !
      Rebels complicate it !

      Allow donkies the vote they elect jackasses !

      Hee haw !

  • wally n  On 09/30/2020 at 2:20 pm

    Small countries usually nationalisation as a stunt. Most forget they have no control over the buyers, and the country usually pays a price.If the 51% was an option, the government should have taken it. With Demba locals were well equipped to handle the transition, my opinion.
    Accept the reality, small fish big pond, or you can end up like Venezuela.
    There is no easy solution, but Guyana, is in better shape than our “friends” in the West Indies, they will forever have to live off the crumbs of the movers and shakers.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 09/30/2020 at 5:14 pm

    • kamtanblog  On 09/30/2020 at 6:30 pm

      Hope Alexandra Wilson takes it further.
      The four individuals should be questioned
      and if neccessary anti racial laws instituted
      against them.
      There are anti racial laws in UK that carry
      a custodial sentance if proven guilty.
      No one is above the law.
      No ifs or buts !
      Also hope the clip goes “viral” on social
      media. Racial discrimination is unlawful
      and should not be tolerated.
      This one will certainly send the right message
      to those who think “racism” is not
      unlawful in UK.
      Hope she decides to have the individuals
      questioned/charged and if found guilty
      receive a custodial sentance.

      Let’s hope she does take it up with her
      local MP.

      Justice must not only seem to be done…
      it must be done !

  • Clyde Duncan  On 09/30/2020 at 10:00 pm

    “Hope she decides to have the individuals
    questioned/charged and if found guilty
    receive a custodial sentence.”

    kamtanblog: It is NOT that over-simplified in the eyes of the law.

    This woman is a brilliant law student. Therefore, she understands that there is no legal basis to make a case against these workers.

    The public routinely wanders around and into offices in the courts …. these employees are otherwise preoccupied with their jobs and these constant interruptions and distractions are routinely addressed curtly so that they could get back to the task at hand.

    Certainly, we may argue that the workers may have addressed white individuals with some decency and politeness as opposed to how they addressed the lawyer.

    But, split-second judgement and action based on a qualified opinion or stereotype is routinely part of their stock in trade … a survival thing on a busy day?

    In other words, the workers want to get back to the tasks at hand and would submit these reasons for their dismissive conduct. Furthermore, the lawyer never accused any of the workers of being “persistent” …. it may just be a cultural thing!

    If the law society asked me, I would suggest they issue lapel pins to all who are called to the bar, and impress upon their members the need to wear them with their black suits. I don’t get the impression that this lawyer is treated differently when she is wearing a wig and a gown?

    The way I see it.

    • kamtanblog  On 10/01/2020 at 2:26 am

      Identity badges are usually worn in courts
      Q was victim wearing one at the time ?
      Most ID badges have a photograph.
      With iris technology available today
      one can enter UK by “robotic scanning”

      No Wolf in sheep’s clothing scenario !

      Matter should certainly be thoroughly investigated …decision to avoid a repeat of incident introduced.

      In my opinion

  • Clyde Duncan  On 10/01/2020 at 4:27 am

    kamtanblog: You are NOT making any sense ….

    “Identity badges are usually worn in courts
    Q was victim wearing one at the time ?”

    The victim was wearing a black suit – that, supposedly, is the lawyer’s badge!

    • kamtanblog  On 10/01/2020 at 5:22 am

      Ok that’s fine ! She was dressed for occasion !
      That is an issue !
      Should she not also wear an identifying badge ?
      security in public places is paramount and
      wearing a black gown does not exempt her from scrutiny by security.
      Am following your suggestion …
      wearing some form of identification.
      Black gown not exempted !
      No more exchanges of this subject
      please ….won’t be responding.
      Just let’s agree to disagree !

  • Dennis Albert  On 10/01/2020 at 1:37 pm

    The President of Canada is the Queen of England. Just another way to rule a former colony of Britain.

    • kamtanblog  On 10/01/2020 at 1:48 pm

      Trudeau a “drag queen” !


      • Dennis Albert  On 10/01/2020 at 2:00 pm

        Trudeau is the Prime Minister who is currently implicated in million dollar scandals and corruption. Canada is not the democracy that it claims to be when Lily Chaterjee was accusing the coalition government of being a dictatorship. Granger was never corrupt. It was against his principles being a Burnham admirer.

  • kamtanblog  On 10/01/2020 at 2:10 pm

    Granger was an ex military politician !
    Also a very sick man who received treatment
    in Cuba for his illness.
    Unfortunately his party stalwarts swords were
    drawn …et tu brutae !
    It could be “blessing in disguise” that he lost
    the elections. Democracy won !

    Everyone is focused on 3rd nov USA elections
    now….autocracy plutocracy or dictatorship ?

    Not holding my breadth !

    • Dennis Albert  On 10/01/2020 at 4:06 pm

      Granger refused to use the airwaves to promote American propaganda. He is a military man of honour. He wouldn’t invade a country like that.

      • kamtanblog  On 10/04/2020 at 5:57 pm

        Granger was too good to be a politician…
        Indeed a military leader of integrity.
        Politricks is game for criminals !
        Unfortunately some of his ministers
        wanted him removed and may have
        conspired/collaborated with opposition
        to do so ! USA (CIA) instigated/initiated.

        Let’s see what happens after 3rd November…am sure many conspiracy theories will emerge.

      • Dennis Albert  On 10/05/2020 at 12:42 am

        Trump put his secret service workers at risk in that Chevy Suburban jeep. Is he the $7 billion dollar man that Kaieteur News alleges own the Kaieteur and Canje blocks which contain over 10 billion barrel of oil?

      • kamtanblog  On 10/05/2020 at 3:07 am

        Nothing surprises me with “lunatic in chief”
        and his Russian oligarchs !
        Putins puppet !

        He who pays piper scenario !

        Who owns exon ?

        Go google for answers

        Kamtan uk-ex-EU
        Resident planet earth
        Citizen of the world.

  • kamtanblog  On 10/05/2020 at 3:23 am

    Hitler and wife committed suicide in their bunker with all his obedient subordinates present. No one dared stop him.
    Is Potus to follow in his footsteps !
    Hope so as the world 🌍 would surely be a safer place. Have booked my ticket to moon and Mars just in case it’s tommorrow !

    3rd November all will be revealed !

    Not long now

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