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November 24, 2010

The defeat of Bill C300 - another shame for Harper

Scott Stockdale

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The defeat of Bill C300 in parliament last month leaves nothing to show for a four-year effort in Ottawa to address allegations of Canadian mining company abuse overseas.

In response to human rights and environmental allegations against these companies, a series of roundtables, involving mining company and NGO representatives, was held across the country in 2006.

In 2007, both parties agreed upon a number of recommendations to improve corporate social responsibility (CSR) for Canadian extractive companies operating in developing countries. 

The creation of an independent CSR ombudsman, who would be able to investigate complaints and mediate disputes, and the withholding of federal financial support from Canadian firms that fail to meet corporate social responsibility standards, were key recommendations that came out of the roundtable discussions.

Two years later, in defiance of the recommendations from the above-mentioned consultative process, the Harper government announced voluntary guidelines  for corporate behaviour in the mining industry, along with  the appointment of Marketa Evans, as a federal counsellor, who can investigate a complaint, only if the accused company agrees to cooperate. 

Canadian Trade officials said the counsellor would not formally mediate disputes between Canadian companies and third parties, and would not have any decision-making powers. The counsellor, who would be administratively accountable to the Deputy Minister of International Trade, will report on an annual basis to both the Minister of International Trade and the Minister of Natural Resources. At the time, mining industry critics said this counsellor would be a toothless figure who would accomplish nothing.

Moreover, opposition to Ms. Marketa's appointment as CSR counsellor centred around her role as the founding director of the University of Toronto's Munk Centre on International Studies, and as founder of the Devonshire Initiative.

The Munk Centre is named after Peter Munk - chairman and founder of the world's largest gold-mining company, Barrick Gold - who contributed $6.4 million to its construction.

Meanwhile, The Devonshire Initiative was established in March 2007 as a forum to bring mining companies and NGOs - most of whom weren't part of the roundtable process—together to discuss development issues and social responsibility. Roundtable participants saw it as an attempt to undermine their recommendations.

As an example of corporate interference in the CSR issue, Catherine Coumans, research co-ordinator at MiningWatch Canada, cited the case of a post-doctoral fellow who was stopped from organizing a panel on mining issues at the Munk Centre that would include discussions of Barrick Gold's operations.

Meanwhile, the Harper government relied on the advice of corporate representatives like Craig Ford, vice-president of people and environment for mining company Inmet, in making its decision to appoint Ms. Evans as CSR counsellor.

Mr. Ford said he was one of Ms. Evans's references and he couldn't think of anyone better suited to the job. Inmet is a member of the Devonshire Initiative – which Mr. Ford called a “very honest effort” by mining companies to work with development NGOs.

Honest or not, after a four-year effort, records filed with Canada's lobbying watchdog show nine of the 24 MPs who skipped the vote on Bill C 300 last month were lobbied by the mining industry.

The private member's bill would have forced Canadian mining companies to toughen their environmental and human-rights standards when working abroad. The bill lost by just six votes, 140 to 134

Nine  of the MPs who were absent for the vote were lobbied by the mining industry:  Liberals Scott Andrews, Scott Brison, Martha Hall Findlay, Keith Martin, John McCallum, Geoff Regan and Anthony Rota, as well as New Democrats Charlie Angus and Bruce Hyer.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Don Boudria was one of the busiest lobbyists. He is now a Hill and Knowlton lobbyist who was working on behalf of Barrick Gold.

The lobbyist registry shows Mr. Boudria, a Grit veteran, had 22 “communications” with Liberal MPs, Senator Dennis Dawson and two aides in Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's office between Oct. 12-26.

After the vote, Mr. Ignatieff, who had expressed “reservations” about the bill for months, issued a statement saying he remains committed to enhancing corporate responsibility by adopting the voluntary reforms – agreed to in 2007 – that the Conservative government have failed  to implement.

Alan Bailey, of CSR Toronto said many of these mining companies incorporate in Canada because then they can't be held liable for environmental and human rights abuses in foreign countries, as they would be if they incorporated in the US or Europe.

“Take New Gold for example. It's headquartered in Colorado. They fly in (to Toronto) once a year for the AGM (annual general meeting).”

Amnesty international said the defeat of Bill C300 will further undermine Canada's image as a defender of human rights globally.

It's similar to Ottawa's rejection of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Harper government's decision not to intervene in all cases to help Canadians facing the death penalty abroad and the handling of Canadians such as Maher Arar, who have been mistreated in foreign jails, Amnesty said.

The Harper government's vehement opposition to Bill C300 is also part of its “principled” foreign policy, although Prime Minister Harper doesn't have the “bruises” to show for it.

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