MAC: Mines and Communities

Canadian Advantage – for whom?

Published by MAC on 2009-04-20
Source: The Chronicle Herald

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – Not long ago, a young Nova Scotian woman working in Guatemala told me how she found herself in a bus being blocked by local people protesting the destructive operations of a Canadian mining company in their community. Fellow passengers advised her to pretend she was American; Canadians were not welcome.

Now, thanks to a decision by the Conservative government, Canadians may find fewer and fewer welcome mats abroad. The government squandered two years pondering recommendations that would make Canadian mining and extractives companies working in developing countries accountable for their activities. The recommendations had been put together over 10 months in 2006 by industry, civil society, academia, labour, and the socially responsible investment community. They weren’t onerous – establishing standards, creating an ombudsman office, and withholding government services from non-compliant companies.

But even those were too much for Stephen Harper’s government. It opted instead for business as usual. And business as usual, when it comes to the overseas work of some Canadian extractive companies, can be shameful.

Here in Sierra Leone where I’ve been researching mining issues, people ask me accusingly what is wrong with my country. Don’t Canadian investors care about the environmental devastation, suffering and political instability that come from Wild West mining in a country trying to heal itself after a long civil war fuelled by blood diamonds? Conservationists and local communities are struggling to keep mining companies out of the country’s precious Gola Forest Reserve, a national treasure of biodiversity and endangered species. Two mining companies with leases in the reserve are listed on Toronto stock exchanges. Sierra Leone is the kind of weak state in Africa that attracts a breed of foreign investors who specialize in greasing palms in exchange for licences to do what they want, how they want, where they want.

That is why the Canadian government’s failure to adopt the recommendations is such a travesty of all that Canada once stood for. In a long-winded document full of half-truths and platitudes, Mr. Harper’s government claims that allowing Canadian mining companies to police themselves is "Building the Canadian Advantage." What advantage? For whom? Outraged participants from 35 countries at a conference on extractive industries in the Philippines wrote to Prime Minister Harper, pointing out that the only advantage was the one that had been lost: "Canada’s reputation as a leader on human rights."

Seventy-five per cent of public mining companies in the world are headquartered in Canada. Many are responsible and good corporate citizens. Some are not. The Maple Leaf has become a flag of convenience for many shadowy companies and the jet-setting mining magnates behind them. Even the definition of what makes a corporation Canadian is fluid. Some have no real connection with Canada apart from their TSX listing and, as journalist and author Madelaine Drohan puts it, "a bronze plaque on a door and a contract with a local law firm and accountant," while their real offices and spidery webs of subsidiaries are overseas in tax havens.

The advantages for the companies include tax-free support from the Canadian government and diplomatic services and the dividends of Canada’s reputation as an honest broker, which they are busy tarnishing.

A good number of them target fragile states recovering from conflict. Fragile states like resource-rich and desperately poor Sierra Leone, ranked by the UN as the world’s least developed nation. People here are still struggling to grow enough food to feed themselves, even as major donors push the government to attract more mining investment. So mining investors – some Canadian or Canadian-listed – can take advantage of the weak laws and lack of enforcement to run roughshod over local people, farmland and forests. Their subsidiaries grab huge swaths of land for agrofuels, a new form of extractive industry.

The Harper government’s Canadian Advantage strategy claims that a number of Canadian companies are engaging in voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives in developing countries. That is true and those companies have nothing to fear from more regulation. However, my experiences in several African nations looking at "voluntary" corporate social responsibility activities revealed some to be pathetic bandages over gaping wounds caused by the company’s mining operations, or outright lies on websites.

But there is still hope. The private member’s bill C-300 put forward by Liberal MP John McKay endorses the compliance and complaints mechanisms for Canadian mining companies that the Conservative government refused to make binding. So it’s not too late for Canadians to make their voices heard by asking their MPs to vote "yes" on April 22 to Bill C-300, to salvage Canada’s reputation and uphold the values that have made ours a respected nation – at least till now.

’The Maple Leaf has become a flag of convenience for many shadowy companies and the jet-setting mining magnates behind them’

Joan Baxter is a Nova Scotian journalist and award-winning author who has lived and worked in Africa for 25 years. Her latest book is Dust From Our Eyes – An Unblinkered Look at Africa.

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