By Fred A. Reed
We recently watched a video of the Salzburg production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The visual quality was murky; the sound muffled. But—a very big “but”—Herbert Von Karajan, that master of high drama, was the director.
In the last scene the stone guest, whom the Don has invited to dinner, comes knocking: tock-tock-tock-tock. Four times. Echoes of horror ripple through the music. The audience’s blood runs cold. This cannot turn out well.
I overdramatize, you will say, in comparing what happened to us one night in Outremont, in February 2010, to Don Giovanni’s ultimate comeuppance at the hands of the man he murdered. To these charges I plead guilty. But, as they used to say in traffic court: with explanation.
My aim is to illustrate how unexpected late-night knocking can strike terror into the bravest among us, not to mention the semi-pusillanimous such as the author of these lines.
In order to reach the front door of our condo, a visitor had to call via intercom. We would then buzz the main entrance open. That night, no such call came.
‘Tock-tock-tock-tock” came the insistent knocking as we were finishing our supper. We glanced at one another anxiously: who could it be? How did they reach our door? My wife responded, and quickly returned bearing a thick envelope addressed to me. I opened it, scanned the document inside. “We are the solicitors for Barrick Gold,” it began. That would be Canada’s gold-mining behemoth. The last words were: “Do you govern yourself accordingly.”
The letter enjoined me and my fellow translator, Robin Philpot, author and founder of Montreal-based Baraka Books, to cease work on a new book by Québec intellectual Alain Déneault. It was to be published by Talonbooks, my publisher in Vancouver. Not only were we to cease work; we were to surrender therewith our draft translation to Barrick Gold.
The book was to be entitled “Imperial Canada Inc. Legal Haven of Choice for the World’s Mining Industries,” and eventually came out to yawns in 2012. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We knew that Barrick Gold was no stranger to legal intimidation and censorship. The firm had sued Déneault and his Montréal publisher Écosociété to suppress their earlier book “Noir Canada.” The work described, with impeccably sourced research, the environmental, social and political depredations of the Canadian mining industry in countries like Tanzania and the Republic of Congo.
The multi-million dollar suit—and a companion action by another Canadian gold mining company Banro—threatened to destroy the author and publisher’s livelihoods and cast them into ruin. Not only that, they were required to withdraw their book from circulation and pulp all unsold copies.
This was happening in Canada, that happy land known for its generosity toward the world’s less fortunate. It was a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), a tactic soon to be banned by Québec’s Assemblée nationale.
Such was the public outcry in Québec that the gold miners reached an out-of-court settlement with author and publisher that allowed them to avoid annihilation. Bloody but unbowed, Déneault set out to write a follow-up volume illustrating the power of the gold mining lobby to censor opinion and to determine government policy.
At a meeting during the Montréal Book Fair Déneault met with Karl Siegler, the publisher of Talonbooks. As translators, Mr. Philpot and I were present. Siegler had earlier won my respect when he rebuffed efforts by the Greek government to suppress my book Salonica Terminus, which was perceived as being inimical to Greece’s interests. But that’s another story.
Emboldened, we began work. Several months later came the night-time knock at my door, and at his as well.
Our first reaction was to fight back and go public. We sought legal counsel, checked with specialists. “Stop work,” they advised us. “Give them nothing and say nothing.” Which is what we did. And waited.
Meanwhile, the story attracted media attention. We weren’t the only party to be served by the bailiffs. A public outcry against censorship before the fact began to grow. CBC radio interviewed Siegler, who declared as if surprised: “The translators stopped translating.”
Well, chilled to the bone, we had. Before long, however, Siegler made a damaging admission. The contentious translation would be submitted to Barrick Gold for final approval.
So, yes. The translators had stopped translating. But the publisher had caved in under pressure and given the gold miners exactly what they wanted. Defying the Greek government was one thing. Standing up to the might of the Canadian state was another.
A book that should have revealed the high-level collusion between Canada and the gold mining industry went off like a cap pistol. Former PMs Brian Mulroney, Joe Clark, Steven Harper and Jean Chrétien could breathe easier. Business as usual—Canada’s gold business—would continue unperturbed.
Back in Montréal, my wife and I considered ourselves fortunate. Our after-dark knocker—unlike the stone guest in Don Giovanni—had not come to summon us to hell. But the threat he delivered with his stern knocking would have dragged us down to a place just like it.