The threat of legal action from mining giant Barrick Gold has forced Vancouver-based Talonbooks to postpone publication of a book about the Canadian mining industry.
Publisher Karl Siegler calls it a clear case of "libel chill" by one of Canada's largest mining companies.
The book, Imperial Canada Inc.: Legal Haven of Choice for the World's Mining Industries, was to be published in spring 2010, but in February, the publisher and everyone else involved with the book got a threatening letter from Barrick lawyers.
Siegler described Imperial Canada as an examination of the political, legal and banking environment that has led 70 per cent of the world's mining companies to register in Canada.
Defamation suit launched in Quebec
The letter gave Talonbooks seven days to hand over the manuscript of the book, which was in the process of being translated from French to English.
"We ignored it initially," Siegler said in an interview Wednesday with CBC Radio's Q cultural affairs show.
"As far as we were concerned, they had no right to demand or see copies of manuscripts that were in development prior to their public release. Anyone working on a book has a right to privacy and should not be subject to this kind of supervision."
But after receiving a legal letter, the translators immediately stopped work on the book. Siegler consulted a lawyer, who told him if he proceeded with the book, he could face years in court fighting an opponent with very deep pockets.
"Everyone involved stood to lose millions of dollars," Siegler said. "In the publisher's case, we stood to lose not just the company but all of the titles we have in print, roughly 500 titles dating back to the 1960s, many of which are Canadian classics."
Imperial Canada Inc. was inspired by a French-language book published in Quebec called Noir Canada: Pillage, corruption et criminalité en Afrique by the same lead author Alain Deneault .
Barrick Gold and another mining company, Banro, sued the authors and publishers of Noir Canada for $11 million claiming defamation for the book's description of Canadian mining practices in Africa. That case is still before the courts and Canada Noir remains available in print in French only.
Siegler said he considered publishing a straight-up translation of Canada Noir but decided he wanted to examine a wider issue — the infrastructure that supports Canada's mining industry.
"I'm not interested in the sensationalist aspects [of] what Canadian companies do around world. I'm interested the subtext," he said.
He approached Degneault to write the book, suggesting he recruit a team of collaborators.
Libel accusation 'appalling': publisher
John Dixon, a spokesman for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the case underscores the need for a change in Canadian libel laws, so that corporations cannot use the laws to protect themselves from public scrutiny.
"If we step back and consider whether or not it is really important for Canadians to understand the mining industry and the consequences of the conduct of those industries around the world, we can't give corporations the same kind of protection [as we do private citizens]," Dixon said.
"We can't let them have the uninhibited ability to sue if we're going to get to the bottom of stuff like that. "
But Vince Borg, vice-president of corporate communications at Barrick Gold, said the company is just defending its reputation.
"Discourse is a very good thing in democracy, but it has to be based on the facts," Borg told Q.
"If I was about to publish a book about your criminal misdeeds, and you saw it on my website, would you not take action to protect your reputation?"
Siegler called this defence "appalling."
"Here's a man telling you that he's seen on a website a book that he presumes is about to accuse him and the corporation he works for of criminal acts," Siegler said. "There's nothing on our website to indicate that anybody is going to accuse anyone of criminal acts."
Talonbooks is still considering publishing Imperial Canada, possibly among its fall releases, but it first has to convince the translators and everyone else involved with the book to continue working on it, Siegler said.