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Labour, human rights groups want Trudeau to respect promise of a mining ombudsperson

Image: PMO/Adam ScottiImage: PMO/Adam Scotti

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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There have been reports for many years about violence and human rights abuses associated with Canadian mining activities in the developing world.

Canada is a big player in the extractive sector -- home to more than half of the world's mining companies.

Those companies are active throughout the world, notably in the Pacific, Africa and Latin America, and they insist they are committed to human rights.

But their spokespersons often complain that since Canadian companies work in "jurisdictions in which levels of violence are higher, and respect for the rule of law lower, than that experienced in Canada" it is a "challenge" to live up to that commitment.

That is, at least, what one industry spokesperson, Pierre Gratton of the Mining Association of Canada, told the Toronto Star's Marina Jimenez in October.

Gratton was responding to a study by a group at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, which documented a series of violent events and human rights violations linked to 28 Canadian mining projects in 13 countries, from 2000 to 2015. The Osgoode Hall team's report is entitled: "The Canada Brand: Violence and Canadian Mining Companies in Latin America."

The study's authors describe 44 deaths, 30 of which were classified as targeted, 403 injuries, 363 of which occurred during protests and confrontations and 709 cases of "criminalization," including legal complaints, arrests and detentions.

Further, the report notes that, in general, neither the Canadian government nor the industry monitor or report on these incidents.

Seek help from a powerless CSR Counsellor or go to court

As it stands now, victims of Canadian mining activity in the developing world have two avenues of recourse. 

They can seek mediation via the federal government's Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Counsellor or they can take the mining companies to court in Canada.

Neither is an adequate or fair option.

It is extremely costly and difficult for people from often remote and poor regions of distant countries to mount an effective legal case in Canada.

In the rare cases where communities who believe they have suffered harm as a result of the actions or inactions of Canadian companies have tried going to court in Canada, the companies have fought them tooth and nail, every step of the way.

As for the CSR Counsellor -- it is a poorly resourced office in the Global Affairs Department, whose mandate is extremely limited.

Here's how the government characterizes the CSR Counsellor's Office on the Global Affairs website:

"It is a resource that people can draw on to reduce and to constructively resolve conflict between project-affected communities and Canadian oil, gas and mining companies outside of Canada. The CSR Counsellor's Office has two roles -- advisory and early dialogue facilitation."

Note well: two roles, neither of which is to investigate, establish responsibility or provide some measure of justice to those project-affected communities.

In fact, the CSR Counsellor's Office's mandate is so weak that it cannot even compel companies to participate in efforts to "constructively resolve conflict."

If companies refuse to play ball, which they almost always do, nothing can happen.

Three years ago the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, a coalition of human rights, development and labour groups, recommended that the government replace this weak and ineffectual Harper government creation with a more serious entity: a human rights ombudsperson for the extractive sector. 

Back in 2013, that idea went nowhere. The Conservative government of the time was, in fact, busy doing the opposite.

Harper made an effort to put the full resources of government at the service of the extractive industries. His government even invited extractive industry executives to advise on the merger of what was then called Foreign Affairs and the Canadian Agency for International Development (CIDA).

In opposition, the Liberals supported the ombudsperson proposal; but in government they have not yet got around to it.

One suspects that the Trudeau government might be conflicted.

It wants to re-brand Canada, to re-establish Canada's role as an honest broker in international affairs and an active promoter of human rights.

But it also wants to aggressively pursue trade and foreign investment in Canada. Witness the two big political events of the past week: the signing of the economic deal with the European Union and the Fall Economic Statement, which includes a number of major initiatives designed to attract foreign capital to Canada.

Ombudsperson could investigate, impose sanctions, and name and shame

It is easy to see how creation of an ombudsperson, who could impose some form of sanctions on multinational companies, and who would certainly have the power to shame powerful corporations that misbehave, might not be the highest item on the government's list of priorities.

But the groups that make up the Corporate Accountability Network are not giving up.

They have put flesh on the bones of their ombudsperson idea and they are pressing Trudeau and his ministers to respect this particular promise.

The office of the proposed extractive industry ombudsperson would be different from the federal government's CSR Counsellor's Office in a number of crucial ways.

It would have investigative powers, which the Counsellor's Office does not.

It could make findings, which it could make public -- powers the CSR Counsellor does not have.

The ombudsperson would not be part of a government department, but, rather an independent office of Parliament.

And the ombudsperson's office could impose penalties on companies it finds at fault, although those penalties would be fairly mild.

Penalties could include withdrawal of support from Canadian Trade Commissioners abroad for offending companies and, potentially, even withdrawal of financial support from Export Development Canada.

The bottom line, though, as Emily Dwyer of the Corporate Accountability Network admits, is that the sanctions would not be particularly onerous for a significant number of Canadian-based mining companies. Many large multinational corporations might consider them to be nothing more than a small cost of doing business. 

However, as Shakespeare's Iago put it: "He who steals my purse steals trash ... But he that filches from me my good name ... makes me poor indeed."  

Few for-profit corporations are likely to say, with Othello's antagonist, that it matters not a whit to them if they lose their purses. Money, indeed, is what they are all about.

But corporations are also quite jealous of their good names.

The ombudsperson's chief weapon, then, would be public naming and shaming. The groups in the Corporate Accountability Network think such shaming would be a sufficiently powerful weapon to encourage companies to take human rights more seriously than many now do.

Does that seem like a too-radical idea for a government that, now that it is in power, is anxious to cultivate good relations with the corporate sector?

The member groups of the Corporate Accountability Network hope not.

We'll all find out in due course. 

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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Image: PMO/Adam Scotti

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