Recently I attended a Saint Paul University symposium dealing with environmental and human rights abuses committed by Canadian mining companies — with the knowledge and complicity of the federal government. The Ottawa symposium was called the Global Cry of the People: Mining Extraction and Justice, and the presenters included a range of church-based and other civil society advocates from Canada, Latin America and Asia.
Jennifer Henry, the executive director of the Canadian inter-church justice group KAIROS, told the audience that there is a discrepancy between the rhetoric and action of Canadian mining companies. “Our partners and neighbours are pleading with us to respond to this, and they wonder why nothing in changing,” she said. “Surely, we can take concrete steps to change the way in which Canadian mining companies do business.”
Meanwhile, Development and Peace, a Canadian Catholic aid organization, distributed literature about the deleterious effects of mining on various communities. In it were comments from bishops in Latin America, Asia and the Philippines. Said the Philippines’ Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo: “Mining is not helping our people, and it is destroying our environment.”
Canada’s investment and activity in foreign mining has increased exponentially in recent decades — in tandem with mounting abuses. Many groups at the Ottawa symposium belong to a 29-member coalition called the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA). They want the government to take measures compelling the industry to act more responsibly. They have even taken their concerns to the Organization of American States, of which Canada is a member.
In October 2014, the CNCA submitted a brief to the organization’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, D.C. The CNCA says that there are more large mining companies domiciled in Canada than any other country. In fact, 41 per cent of the large companies present in Latin America and the Caribbean are Canadian. As of December 2013, Canada had 1,500 mining projects in the region.
The CNCA says this concentration of mining companies in Canada is partly the result of Canada’s low rate of corporate taxation, a securities industry designed to promote mining, and enthusiastic support from the Canadian government.
Export Development Canada, for example, provided financing and insurance worth $25 billion to the extractive sector in 2013, which represented 29 per cent of the corporation’s exposure.
The CNCA brief also referred to a systematic pattern of indigenous and human rights abuses that have accompanied increased Canadian mining activity. It cited a report presented to the IACHR Commission last year by the Working Group on Mining and Human Rights in Latin America. In 10 of the 22 Canadian mining projects reviewed by the group, 23 violent deaths and 25 cases of injury were found.
So what does the CNCA and others want done? For starters, it wants the government to appoint an independent extractive sector ombudsperson to provide redress whenever Canadian companies are involved in abuses. Secondly, it wants the government to provide access to Canadian courts for people who have been seriously harmed by the international operations of Canadian companies.
The Conservative government has responded with a project for Corporate Social Responsibility, a purely voluntary endeavour in which Canadian extractive companies agree to abide by certain guidelines. But the government has shown no enthusiasm for the proposals by civil society, and any attempts to introduce regulation have been met with opposition by the mining industry lobby.
Still, despite the lack of response from the government or industry, attendees at the November symposium agreed that the campaign must — and will — continue.
This piece appeared in slightly different form recently in a blog for the United Church Observer (www.ucobserver.org). Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer and a former member of Parliament. His blog can be found at http://www.dennisgruending.ca