Canada's Long Road to Mining Reform

Date of publication: 
21 January 2010

Rape. Murder. Corruption. Environmental contamination. Impunity. These are just some of the charges and incidents that have plagued Canadian mining operations abroad for years. Now one Canadian lawmaker has taken on the Herculean challenge of legislating mining reform in a country that has traditionally acted like a parent in denial.

“The mining industry in Canada is too powerful a lobby,” said Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) John McKay.

Sixty percent of the world’s mining corporations come from Canada. According to a report by InfoMine, Canadian mining corporations listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange had 1,010 projects in South America, 578 in Mexico, 703 in Africa, 376 in Asia and 345 in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea in 2009. Canada also accounts for 19 percent of global mining exploration spending, which totaled at $13.2 billion. Gold, silver, copper and nickel are among the minerals the industry scours the globe for. In Canada the industry employs 193 registered lobbyists.

McKay’s bill, C-300, would empower the Canadian federal government to investigate complaints of human rights and environmental abuses leveled against mining companies. If the Ministers investigating a company find it guilty of violating social and environmental standards laid out in the bill, the company, if receiving support from the Canada Pension Plan or Export Development Canada could lose funding from the respective organizations.

“It’s limited, but a positive step forward overall,” said Sakura Saunders, editor of, a website that provides research and organizing information around mining issues, with a focus on Canadian Mining giant Barrick Gold. “But this bill is simply putting ethical guidelines on the investment and promotion of mining, oil and gas projects in developing countries. It treats the Canadian government as an investor rather than a government.”

Dirty Business

Sarah Knuckey, a lawyer at the center for human rights at New York University School of Law, testified at a parliamentary hearing in Ottawa in November that security guards working at a mine in Papua New Guinea, owned by Barrick Gold, are guilty of gang raping local women.

“The guards, usually in a group of five or more, find a woman while they are patrolling on or near mine property. They take turns threatening, beating and raping her,” said Knuckley. “In a number of cases, women reported to me being forced to chew and swallow condoms used by guards during the rape.”

Amnesty International issued a public statement on December 9, 2009 revealing that local police at the same mine in Papua New Guinea violently evicted local families and burned down and destroyed at least 130 buildings and houses. Barrick initially denied the allegations, but after the conclusions of Amnesty’s local investigation were released the company was forced to accept the findings.

Barrick was also recently accused of failing to comply with environmental standards in Chile and of anti-union discrimination in Argentina.

On November 27, 2009 another Canadian company made headlines when a Chiapan anti-mining organizer, Mariano Abarca Roblero, was assassinated. One employee and two former employees of Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration Ltd. were arrested for the murder. Other local anti-mining activists have also reported receiving death threats. Documents were later released revealing that the company was bribing the local mayor.

“We have obtained documents – which Blackfire admits are genuine – that clearly show payments of US$1,000 a month going directly into the Mayor of Chicomuselo’s bank account on the understanding that municipal authorities would keep community members opposed to the mine under control,” explained Rick Arnold, coordinator for Common Frontiers-Canada.

Less than a month later, two anti-mining activists were killed in El Salvador within a week of each other, where Canada’s Pacific Rim Mining Co. has been facing resistance to a proposed gold and silver mine in the area. The company is currently using a US-based subsidiary and provisions in the Central American Free Trade Agreement to sue El Salvador’s government for refusing to grant the company permission to commercialize the potentially destructive El Dorado mine.

“The company’s presence continues to create violence and conflict by their continued insistence on opening the mine despite widespread community opposition,” said Alexis Stoumbelis, Executive Director of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). “At this point, the only ethical thing for Pacific Rim to do is to leave El Salvador and to withdraw their lawsuits against the Salvadoran government.”

Pacific Rim refuses to acknowledge that the violence is related to their widely unpopular project.

“The violence in Mexico and El Salvador are the logical and tragic outcome of a system that delivers millions of dollars to unethical people running unethical and even criminal companies with no oversight whatsoever,” said Carlos Zorrilla, director of Defensa y Conservacion Ecologica de Intag (DECOIN).

Zorrilla is no stranger to anti-mining violence. He had to go into hiding because of his organizing against Copper Mesa Mining Corp. (formerly Ascendant Copper). The United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights investigated his case. The company was also accused of using paramilitaries to intimidate local anti-mining community members. Copper Mesa, along with the Toronto Stock Exchange, are now being sued by three local Ecuadorians.

Finally, the Honduran government is investigating claims that Canada’s Goldcorp Inc. contaminated the Siria Valley with toxic heavy metals from its San Martin mine, which local villagers and NGO’s claim has caused health problems with the local population and killed livestock. The Guardian reports that two studies from scientists at Newcastle University supports the complaints against the mining company. What is uncertain, yet probably unlikely, is whether the new right-wing, and to many around the globe illegitimate administration, will continue with the investigation. It should be noted that Goldcorp supported the coup that removed President Manuel Zelaya by busing workers to pro-coup marches.

And these are just a few recent incidents, with more operations across the globe, from Burma (Myanmar) to Guatemala, drawing the ire of human rights and environmental activists, as well as the effected communities.

A Long Shot That Still Comes Up Short

In light of this bloody history, one of the C-300 bill’s shortcomings is that it would not stop mining companies found guilty of abuses from continuing their operations. It would just take away one slice of their funding.

“We need legal reform in Canada and the scope of this bill is quite limited,” said Karyn Keenan, a Program Officer with Halifax Initiative Coalition. “[But] Law reform in Canada happens in an incremental way…and that’s just the reality.”

CISPES’s Stoumbelis has a harsher assessment of the bill. She points out that it does nothing to address the unjust global political and economic system which allows countries like Canada to exploit other nations, their people, and its resources with impunity.

“The idea of corporate social responsibility is a weak framework, in my opinion, because it doesn’t fundamentally change the balance of power. Under the current neoliberal model, the right of a corporation to make a profit is upheld over the rights of an individual or a community to have safe water and land on which to farm,” said CISPES’s Stoumbelis. “Toughening regulations, while necessary, doesn’t go far enough to challenge these fundamental inequalities. It doesn’t seem possible to have any form of mining that is good for the environment or for developing sustainable industries or economies in Latin America or elsewhere, and with the state of the global climate, it seems like we should be looking more at alternatives than at regulation.”

In 2007 the Canadian government created roundtable sessions with representatives from the mining industry and activists and academics from civil society to address the lack of oversight for an industry with an infamous global reputation of human rights abuses and environmental destruction. Two years later, the result of the roundtable’s recommendations was the creation of an oversight mechanism that allows an “independent” corporate social responsibility (CSR) counselor to investigate allegations against mining companies—but only if the accused company gives consent to be investigated. The appointed “independent” investigator, Marketa Evans, who just happens to be “founding director of the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre —- named for and funded by Peter Munk, founder of Canada’s Barrick Gold,” answered critics of the policy masquerading as reform by telling The Toronto Star that “My hypothesis is that companies will want to participate in a review.”

Whether you believe that, critics accuse the government of watering down and dismissing what at the time was thought to be another “step forward.”

MiningWatch Canada, a Canadian non-profit committed to aiding mining reform efforts, responded by pointing out, “Collectively, the voluntary guidelines proposed by the Government of Canada do not reflect, nor do they ensure respect for, all international human rights norms and practices that may be affected by Canadian mining companies operating abroad.”

Currently, the conservative Harper government believes Bill C-300 is unnecessary, and is looking to maintain the status quo. Trade Minister Stockwell Day said at a press conference on January 13 more voluntary standards coupled with shareholder pressure is all that is needed.

“One of the compelling factors that exists today is the very awareness that can be so easily transmitted if a company seems to be going offside in some area, shareholders demand that,” said Day. “There is very little tolerance among shareholders for wrong practices.”

The Harper government launched a new corporate social responsibility website to help Canadian companies “raise the bar for excellent CSR-related practices in the extractive industry.” But recent testimony and reports suggest that the “bar” is starting on the ground.

Yet Canada’s powerful mining lobby is still fighting back. Canadian law firm McCarthy Tetrault’s answer to Bill C-300 was a veiled threat by suggesting that if Bill C-300 passes it would “encourage mining companies to locate in jurisdictions with less regulation, and no commitment to CSR efforts.”

Vince Borg, a spokesperson for Barrick Gold, also responded to allegations presented before parliament in November.

“The hearings have amply demonstrated how Bill C-300 has become a magnet for false and unsubstantiated allegations from individuals anywhere in the world and do nothing but unduly harm the Canadian mining industry,” said Borg.

Protest Barrick’s Saunders was unsurprised by the company’s statements and campaign to defeat the bill.

“Barrick Gold is the Canadian Company with the most to lose,” said Saunders. “And they apparently don’t get in any trouble for telling blatant lies.”

She pointed out one glaring lie where Barrick claimed that “there is no evidence” that there has been “serious human health impacts or even deaths” associated with a toxic spill that occurred last May in Tanzania. Within three weeks of the spill, major papers in the country reported that at least 20 people and 300 cows had died. Up to this day, villagers still suffer from skin diseases and plant and animal death.

“I think the bill has a very slim chance of passing, but the heightened public awareness of the bad behavior of Canadian mining companies abroad that media coverage of the bill has brought could help,” added Saunders. “But perhaps what’s best about the bill is that the debate around C-300 has exposed the inner workings and relationship of the Canadian government with the mining industry.”

It’s expected that the bill will receive another parliamentary reading in March, when it would have to be voted out of committee. It would then need Senate approval, with uniform opposition expected from the country’s ruling Conservative majority making it highly unlikely.

Karen Spring, an activist with Rights Action, a human rights organization that works with communities effected by mining in Central America, although highly critical of the bill agrees with Saunders that despite the its shortcomings, and even if it doesn’t pass, it has served a purpose.

“The strengths of the bill, in my opinion, is the public campaign on the part of the Canadian public and NGOs that are supporting the bill in drawing a lot of critical attention to the mining companies,” said Spring. “The campaign is educating the Canadian public about the poor practices of Canadian mining companies abroad, and at the same time, giving Canadian citizens a direct way of getting involved with the struggle against the human rights violations these companies are committing abroad.”

But Spring notes that the campaign supporting Bill C-300 has overshadowed a stronger legislation, the International Protection and Promotion of Human Rights Act, or Bill C-354. Proposed by New Democratic Party (NDP) MP Peter Julian, the bill would allow foreigners to sue Canadian companies in Canadian courts for human rights abuses, regardless of where the abuses take place. It replicates the United States’ Alien Tort Claims Act, which survivors of torture in other countries have used to sue their torturers in US courts.

“If the Canadian government is at all interested in putting respect of human rights, and of life itself, above protecting and promoting the rights of their companies to make money overseas, then they will adopt measures such as bill C-300,” said Ecuadorian anti-mining activist Zorrilla. “One is left to wonder how many more deaths it will take to convince the Canadian Parliament- and people- that something needs to be urgently done to reign in their corporations and prevent all these tragedies.”

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at, an online magazine covering politics and activism in Latin America. He also serves on the board of the Canary Institute.

*Photo from Anga Atalu (Porgera Landowners Association (PLOA), PNG), Sergio Campusano (Diaguita Huascoaltinos, Chile), Neville “Chappy” Williams (Wiradjuri, Australia), Mark Ekepa (Chairman, PLOA), and Jethro Tulin (ATA, PNG). Photo taken by Allan Cedillo Lissner