Making a killing: a lack of corporate accountability for Canadian mining companies

* Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly.

Last night’s vote on a responsible mining bill had all the elements of a Shakespearean play: two opposing foes; political intrigue; internal dissension; deception and miscommunication.

However Liberal MP John McKay, the driving force behind Bill C-300, instead used a biblical metaphor.

“It was a bit of a David and Goliath story at the most optimistic moments, and David almost took down Goliath, but missed by a hair.”

The Bill was narrowly defeated by 140-134 votes – a result that was closer than expected by supporters and critics.

McKay stated “I think the Parliament failed the people of Canada today, and frankly the people of the world. We had an opportunity to show leadership, and we fell flat on our faces.”

“The Prime Minister showed up himself to vote against the bill. He had two senior cabinet ministers speak against the bill in the final hour of the debate. He had a senior cabinet minister scrum against the bill,” recalled McKay. “On the day of the vote, it’s pretty obvious the mining industry has a lot of influence with the Conservative party, and this government.”

“We have the largest mining industry in the world and we demonstrated we’re uninterested in any legislative response to corporate social responsibility.”

“Our prosperity is apparently more important than other people’s human rights.”

In reference to communities who have been adversely affected by Canadian mining companies abroad, McKay stated “It’s also disappointing that there’s some pretty vulnerable people, some pretty poor people, some pretty impoverished people, who just got the pointy end of the stick.”

This year Canadian-owned Barrick Gold Corporation planned to do work in Argentina that would have allegedly resulted in the melting of a local glacier. This would have left the local community without a water supply.

The Goliath in this story was the mining industry, which have lobbied fiercely against the Bill for the last 18 months. The Bill sanctioned punitive financial measures for any violations of corporate social responsibility by mining companies abroad.

However, the vote was marred by rumours of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff calling upon members of the Liberal party to not vote.

These tactics were contradicted by a press release that Ignatieff distributed after the vote. The statement read, “Despite the defeat of C-300, the Liberal Party remains committed to the important principle of corporate social responsibility for Canadian industries at home and abroad.”

In total 24 MPs did not even show up for the vote: 14 of them Liberals and four NDP.

Catherine Coumans from Mining Watch Canada alleged that the mining industry had approached MPs directly before Wednesday’s vote.

“In the last days before the vote a new strategy was adopted by the mining industry. They went out to the MPs who have mining in their ridings,” stated Coumans. “They pitched the argument to these MPs that this is not just a Bill that is going to affect mining as it happens overseas, but that it would also target the mining operations in their own backyards, and was going to weaken those companies and lead to a loss of jobs.”

Coumans concluded “It’s a pretty weak argument, but it’s part of the fear mongering being put out against the Bill by the mining industry.”

NDP MP Charlie Angus, one of the absent voters, denied that he had been approached by the mining industry. Angus is MP for the mining riding of Timmins-James Bay.

Angus stated “I wasn’t overly thrilled with the Bill, but I certainly wasn’t going to vote against it. In the end it became apparent that morning that the Liberals were going to make sure that they did not have enough people in the house to have that Bill pass.”

“That’s why I didn’t vote in the end,” Angus said. “I didn’t think the Bill was going to have much attention because of the decision by the Liberals to ‘deep six’ it.”

There was also intense lobbying from the Conservative party on the eve of the vote. MP Dean Del Mastro issued a press statement on Monday outlining the potential damage to the mining industry in the Yukon. The press release named Yukon MP Larry Bagnall directly. The release stated “There is still time for Larry to change his mind.”

However in a phone interview, Bagnall stated “I don’t think my constituents are too happy with other MPs trying to convince them how to vote. I’m not going to do what a Conservative MP tells me to do. I just ignored it.”

However, Coumans suggested there was cause for optimism.

She stated that this “provided a huge number of opportunities to get the message out that there are problems with this industry. There are now far more Canadians, media, MPs, civil servants that have gotten this message.”

“We feel the yardstick has been moved tremendously in the course of this process. Back in 1999 we would have been hard-pressed to find any MP who would have admitted there was even a problem.”

Coumans stated though that there will likely now be a pause on the legislative front until after the next federal election.

Until then, any violations of corporate social responsibility will be dealt with by the new Extractive Sector Office, headed by Marketa Evans, which coincidentally became operational this week.

The Office has many dissenters, largely due to the voluntary nature of its mediatory mandate.

McKay stated that Evans’ “mandate is so restricted that the jig is up before she starts – she can’t start anything without the consent of the company involved.”

Coumans confirmed this fear.

“She’s won’t take on really serious cases. She has said that they should go to court, which of course is the problem,” Coumans stressed. “The reason she exists is because there isn’t good access to justice through courts in a lot of the countries where our mining companies are operating. The question back to her is “Where? What court?”

“She’s not going to take first come, first served. A case that is pitched to her that does meet the general guidelines may still not be taken by her, if she doesn’t feel that she can achieve a win in that case.”

“She’s going to be looking for wins, and she’s going to be picking and choosing between the cases that are brought before her to see which ones she thinks she can make a difference in.”

“She has to prove that the position is functioning and that it’s making a difference. The industry desperately wants her to make that case as well. They will be helping her to make it look like her office is addressed the concerns that are out there.”

However Bernarda Elizalde, from the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, stated “I think we have to give the new counsellor the opportunity to demonstrate what she can really do.” Elizalde stressed “she doesn’t even have a case right now. It’s a bit premature to come to any conclusions.”

When asked if Barrick Gold would voluntarily offer to be investigated by the Counsellor in the case of the Argentina mine, Communications Manager Andy Lloyd refused to comment.

Until stricter measures are implemented, Canadian mining companies working abroad can continue to operate with impunity.