Canada: Mining conduct abroad deserves another look

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 12:00 AM

The Liberals have been busy in their first six months in office mending Canada’s bruised image abroad.

The prime minister’s many trips to the United Nations in New York, Washington, and other world capitals have earned him a lot of global goodwill. And besides the selfies, the world is noticing that Canada is now taking seriously climate change and the too-high number of murdered and missing indigenous women here.

But one area the Liberals haven’t touched, where Canada’s international reputation remains blackened, is Canadian mining companies’actions abroad. With Canada home to many of the world’s top mining firms, some have been alleged to have harmed the environment or violated the human rights of people in communities hosting their operations in recent years. That’s not to say every Canadian mining company is bad—they’re not—but we hear a lot about a few cases of alleged wrongdoing committed either directly by a company or its subsidiaries or security forces on its behalf.

That latest was a New York Times cover piece on Mayan village women in Guatemala who allege they were gang-raped by men who had come to evict them from land they said belonged to a Canadian firm. One of the women is suing Hudbay Mineral Inc. The company, which was not the mine’s owner at the time of the evictions, denies any wrongdoing.

While the allegations are unproven in court, the case is seen as a test for how far Canadian courts are willing to go to hold companies accountable for their actions abroad.

Last week we reported that the Liberal government so far appears mostly uninterested in changing the way mining firms are held accountable for alleged abuses in poor countries. Several ministers with related files dodged our questions about change to mining-sector accountability, or declined to say whether change was needed. The Liberals have endorsed a controversial office of an extractive- sector corporate social responsibility counsellor and an extractives institute brought in under the former Conservative government.

But the Liberal government shouldn’t be satisfied sticking with the status quo, or just waiting to see what the courts decide. It should actively examine whether the current account- ability system works effectively. A lot of voluntary measures were put in place for corporations by the past Conservative government that human rights advocates deemed lukewarm and without teeth. There have been campaigns for an inde- pendent ombudsperson, and for human rights to be sewed into trade deals in a more meaningful way.These options deserve careful study. The government must also look at how to better prevent abuses from happening in the first place, not just ensure accountability after they’ve taken place. Ultimately this will benefit rather than burden Canadian mining operations. In an increasingly globalized world a well-earned good reputation is always a worthwhile investment.

The Liberals love consultations. They’ve turned to them on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and defence and foreign-aid policy reviews. The government should show it’s serious about “continually assess[ing] its CSR policies,” in the words of a foreign ministry spokesperson, and consult Canadians with a view to improving the current flawed system. Ultimately this will also benefit rather than burden Canadian mining operations. In an increasingly globalized world, a well-earned good reputation is not just a worthwhile investment. It’s a necessary one.


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