Quebec music festival cancelled after band makes censorship accusation

MONTREAL — A music festival in northwestern Quebec has been cancelled after a local band accused organizers of rescinding an invitation to perform because of its criticism of an arsenic-emitting copper smelter in the region.

The 2023 album for metal band Guhn Twei is called “Glencorruption” and is replete with lyrics that denounce the Horne Smelter and its owner, Switzerland-based Glencore. Lyrics to the title track refer to the company as “thieves in ties,” “capitalist parasites” and “rapists of the planet.”

Lead singer Simon Turcotte said the band was set to appear at the third edition of Alienfest in La Sarre, Que., later this spring. But last week he received a message from an organizer saying the band would not feature in the 2024 festival lineup, he said.

The organizer, an employee of festival sponsor and La Sarre-based steel equipment producer Métal Marquis, cited a “conflict of interest,” according to screenshots of the message shared with The Canadian Press.

Métal Marquis is asupplier of the Horne Smelter in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., located about 60 kilometres south of La Sarre, which in recent years has come under intense media and political scrutiny for arsenic emissions that Quebec had allowed to be 33 times the provincewide standard. In 2022 the province said it would permit the smelter to emit arsenic levels five times the norm. 

Studies by Quebec’s public health institute have shown that residents of Rouyn-Noranda have higher lung cancer rates than people in the rest of the province.

Thirty-five-year-old Turcotte said he was diagnosed with cancer in 2016 and that the disease led to the amputation of his right leg. He said he was an active participant in the public outcry that followed reports about the smelter’s emissions.

“To censor a local artist whose cancer has cost him a leg, and who denounces the poisoning of his fellow citizens in his songs so as not to displease an ecocidal multinational is the complete antithesis of the punk movement,” Turcotte wrote in a Facebook post on March 28.

The following Monday, Alienfest organizers cancelled the festival scheduled for early June. “Conflicts of interest between our sponsors and participants force us to make this decision,” the festival stated in a news release first obtained by Radio-Canada.

Organizers did not respond to requests for comment from The Canadian Press, but on Thursday issued a second news release confirming there would be no future editions of the festival, a possibility they said was already under consideration before they cancelled the 2024 event.

The organizers said they made the decision to end the festival without interference from sponsors. “It was rather the imposing load on the shoulders of the three volunteer (staff) that prevented the staging of this family-friendly alternative music event,” the release reads.

In a statement released Wednesday, Métal Marquis said it had no control over the festival program and that it took no part in the decision to cancel the event. It also said that neither the Horne Smelter nor Glencore exerted pressure on the company or the festival. A spokesperson for Métal Marquis said its employee was acting independently when he told Guhn Twei he would not include the band in the festival lineup.

“As a sponsor, our role is not to define or limit the artistic scope of the festivals we support,” Métal Marquis president Patrick Perreault said in the statement.

Horne Smelter spokesperson Cindy Caouette said Thursday the company had no involvement in the festival and was not familiar with Guhn Twei’s criticism of the event.

Turcotte said the cancellation of the festival has nevertheless left him concerned about the company’s influence in Quebec’s northwestern Abitibi-Témiscamingue region.

“We’re a bit stunned by everything that’s going on,” he said. We’re very worried about what this means for culture here.”

“It’s the festival itself that’s being criticized, though it’s really the climate of fear that everyone seems to have in our cultural milieu in Abitibi in the face of the smelter.”

On Thursday, Alienfest organizers rejected the suggestion that the cancellation of the festival was an affront to freedom of artistic expression.

“In the end, the Alienfest organizing committee deeply regrets the tensions caused,” they wrote in the news release. “The intention was never to bully local artists, but to try to organize a festival for local families.”

Glencore has been the subject of bribery investigations in multiple countries. In 2022, it agreed to pay up to US$1.5 billion in penalties to resolve corruption allegations in Brazil, the U.K. and the U.S.

Quebec Premier François Legault has defended the Horne Smelter’s role as a major employer in Rouyn-Noranda. He said in 2022 that the plant provided 650 jobs in the city, which counted just over 42,300 residents as of the 2021 census.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2024.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Thomas MacDonald, The Canadian Press