“A Friendly Neighbour to the North”: Canadian Mining and Human Rights Abuses

matt.hintsa via Flickr
matt.hintsa via Flickr

Canadians, for the most part, have a global reputation as a peace-loving and human-rights-respecting people; there is a reason so many Americans continue to wear the Canadian flag when travelling. Throughout the world though, Canadian mining companies are consistently involved in often-violent disputes with devastating consequences for local residents. Canada’s image has deteriorated, with Evidence of alleged human rights and environmental abuses by Canadian based corporations leaving us with the image of a “bad neighbour”.

Canadian mining companies account for almost 75% of all mining companies in the world; sixty percent of these companies are listed primarily on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX). Since Canadian mining firms are so visible, and stockholders have invested heavily in these companies, the Canadian government and mining industry have adopted a program of “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR). In broad terms, CSR policies are “…voluntary actions by mining companies to either improve living conditions of local communities or to reduce negative impacts of mining projects.” These CSR programs usually invest in things such as infrastructure, as well as providing reinvestment into improvements to healthcare, education and social capital.

It is often challenging to define a definite set of principles for CSR; thus the Canadian government has adoptd certain guidelines for Canadian companies which includes three sets of guidelines among which is the “Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights”. This document provides guidelines for projects involving public or private security, as well as where a company should conduct business through “risk assessment”. Within the guidelines of “risk assessment”, a company should not venture into a region they know has a previous history of violence or instability. The Canadian government agency that deals with foreign development, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has also teamed with many other mining companies on CSR initiatives such as Barrick Gold’s pledge to invest one million dollars to help small businesses in Peru. In this respect, CSR allows companies to compensate for the social and environmental damages caused by mining operations, as well as to improve relations with local people.

Still, while CSR initiatives have helped some communities to a certain extent, the costs associated with human rights abuses and environmental devastation caused by Canadian mining corporations and junior mining or exploration companies, which find economically viable mining sites to begin mining, have severely outweighed the benefits. As the “Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights” asserts, effective risk assessments should consider the factor of potential violence and conflict analysis; mining companies have failed across the board in this regard.

Barrick Gold, a Toronto-based company and the largest gold mining company in the world has been involved in many CSR campaigns. As earlier noted, the company allied with CIDA, donating $500,000 to help promote small business in Peru. However Barrick Gold has been involved in many incidents that question their record of ethical investment. In Papa New Guinea’s Progera gold mine, 95% owned by Barrick Gold, private security hired by the company to oversee the mine were alleged to have participated in six separate instances of gang rape. The women who were raped were discouraged from telling the police with threats of retaliation. After Barrick launched an investigation, the men responsible were arrested. Still, Papa New Guinea’s police and private security forces had previously been reported to be violent and involved in other incidents of rape. Yet, Barrick chose, and continues to choose, to operate there. Barrick Gold security forces have also been accused of murdering anti-mining protestors in Africa.

Other examples abound. Goldcorp, a Vancouver-based firm, depleted local water supplies in Guatemala, refusing to compensate local. Hudbay Minerals in the remote region of Junin, Peru was involved in the hiring of armed paramilitaries to intimidate and repress local resistance to mining operations, documented in Malcom Rogge’s film “Under Rich Earth”. Other instances of violence, such as the assassination of grassroots anti-mining activists have also occurred. Communities affected by mining do not want the Band-Aid of CSR; rather they wish to have better and more responsive governance, and protection from violence and intimidation by multinational corporations seeking to exploit their territory.

The current Canadian government is also to blame for this severe misconduct. They have resisted several international efforts banning mining, including support for the 2009 military coup in Honduras which overthrew the democratically elected president Manuel Zeyala. CIDA, as mentioned before, has also teamed with several other mining companies in CSR initiatives, promoting profits for Canadian firms over their chartered goal of international development.

The Harper government attempted to solve this problem in 2009 with the CSR Counselor, a complaints office of mining abuses. However the only way complaints were to be addressed were if the mining companies themselves raised an issue and cooperated with local communities. In 2010, opposition MPs attempted to aid the problem further with Bill C-300, which would provide oversight for Canadian companies overseas, threatening sanctions and a withdrawal of public investment if abuses were uncovered. Unfortunately, the Conservatives narrowly defeated the bill. Peter Kent, former minister of state for North American affairs once said, “democratic governance is a central pillar of Canada’s enhanced engagement in the Americas.” Perhaps the Conservative position has changed in that regard.

-Sam Hersh