McGill Research Group Investigating
Canadian Mining in Latin America

“We are moving…”

Posted on by MICLA Editor

A few years ago now, one of the former members of MICLA compared the task of bringing a robust form of accountability to the overseas mining industry to the myth of Sisyphus. Would that we should be so lucky! At least our poor Greek hero got the satisfaction of pushing his boulder to the top of the hill. But in recent times, the boulder has begun to to move. 

In 2009 the government had frozen all policy discussion on the Canadian state’s responsibility over the international operations of the companies it supported on home ground. The file was consigned to some dark oblivion. The boulder wasn’t even moving.

Much has happened over the last five years. Throughout however, the government has remained steadfast in its inaction. In the fall of 2010 lobbyists for Barrick Gold, Vale Canada, IAMGold and the Prospectors and Developpers Association of Canada registered hundreds of visits to make sure that the government (and key members of the opposition, including then leader of the Liberal Party Michael Ignatieff) held the line and denied passage of John McKay’s private member’s Bill C-300 .

McKay’s Bill was an act of modest ambitions. It simply made the argument that if the Government of Canada – and by extension the citizens of the country – supported overseas mining through consular support, EDC funding, and pension investments, then it could also chose to withhold that support from corporations engaged in verifiable cases of rights violations.

Since the defeat of C-300 the government of Canada has given us everything except for accountability. A national corporate social responsibility strategy was announced. It was given a brand: “The Canadian Advantage”. It linked the government to the mining sector in the co-production of that other CSR: corporate self-regulation. CIDA funding was apportioned to partnerships between mining companies and NGOs. A centre of CSR excellence was announced. An Institute on Extractives was launched. And a CSR counselor’s office was created to mediate between mining corporations and aggrieved parties overseas. Funded to the tune of $650 000 per year it was headed by Marketa Evans. As the Economist recently noted, “few countries have aligned their interests so closely to those of their country’s energy and mining firms.”

Among her other qualifications (she was Director of Barrick Gold’s academic playpen at the University of Toronto, the Munk Centre), Marketa Evans was also intellectual architect of the Devonshire Initiative. Convened in 2007 this is a closed-door group of industry representatives and cooperative NGOs. Together they hammered out the vision of “governance” that appears to have provided the blueprint for government policy. Extractive corporations would voluntarily work to reduce negative environmental and social impacts and improve their contribution to development. Government and civil society would fall in behind this effort. It was the vision still defended by international trade minister Ed Fast last February: “more flexible, expeditious and less costly…than regulatory or legislative regimes.”

So when the same minister recently announced that the government would withdraw its support for those mining and energy companies that did not participate in its CSR policy, those close to the issue felt that something important had shifted. “We are moving slowly of course, but we are moving,” noted Ryan Worms of Development and Peace. Suddenly the Canadian state’s support was no longer unconditional.

One senses here something like the reaction of a spurned lover. And indeed the happy union of state, industry and civil society has never been consummated. The centre of CSR excellence remains a dream; even its planning funding has been cut. The Institute on Extractives does have a website now but it ends there. And as for the CSR counselor? Every one of the six cases brought to her attention has been suspended. Having been stood up three times running by the very corporations the office was meant to serve, Evans herself suddenly resigned. She has still not been replaced and the remaining three cases are no longer being attended to. Now the government will withhold its favours from those who refuse to dance.

On this point even members of industry agree that it was perhaps a bit naive to believe in the voluntary participation of corporations embroiled in a conflict. Gordon Peeling, former president of the Mining Association of Canada acknowledged“It should not be a voluntary [process]…You don’t want a process where you can walk away just because you don’t like it.” But then again Peeling knows his flock, no doubt better than its supporters in Ottawa.

Is the boulder moving? It has budged and that is something. But in addition to all the basic and necessary procedural questions about how the government will assess non-compliance, and with what consequences, we must ask the question of where the boulder is heading. So far the message is a firming of the tone to force corporations to engage in the co-production of mining CSR. But CSR remains a form of governance at a great remove from genuine political and legal accountability.

There is still a long ways to go to get this boulder up that slope.


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