Press Responses: April 2, 2008

Government’s Response to Mining Report Still Underground

By Michelle Collins, Embassy Newspaper

It has been just over a year since a highly anticipated report recommending significant steps to ensure Canadian mining companies operating abroad adhere to socially responsible standards was submitted to the government.

Yet despite indications from Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the G8 leaders’ summit last June that Canada—which has the world’s largest number of extractive companies—was poised to take the lead, nothing more has emerged, and observers and critics say they have no idea what to expect, or when.

March 29 marked the one-year anniversary of the release of the extensive Final Report of the National Roundtables on Corporate Social Responsibility and theCanadian Extractive Industry in Developing Countries.

The national roundtable process was recommended in a 2005 foreign affairs committee report on corporate social responsibility. It was driven largely by the frequency with which the committee was hearing complaints about environmental and labour standard violations in developing countries by Canadian companies, as well as damage being caused to indigenous communities. The document was produced after a yearlong process of roundtable discussions led by a 17-member advisory group made up of industry, academia and civil society actors. Despite the group’s apparently divergent interests, members agreed by consensus on 27 recommendations for the government to implement in order to better monitor and respond to human rights and environmental concerns of Canadian companies’ operations abroad.

Included in the recommendations in the national roundtables report is that the government implement a framework for filing and investigating complaints. This would include the establishment of an independent ombudsman office to investigate and report complaints, and mechanisms for the government to recommend withholding financial and political support from companies that fail to adhere to local and international standards.

Directly citing the nation-wide consultation process in his final press release at the G8 summit last June, Mr. Harper said the recommendations will “place Canada among the most active G8 countries in advancing international guidelines and principles on corporate social responsibility in this sector.” But since then, the government response has been what NDP International Co-operation critic Alexa McDonough called a “deadly silence.”

On the one-year anniversary of the report’s release, the government remained silent and has yet to provide any public follow-up to the prime minister’s statements at the G8.

In an email to Embassy last week, International Trade Minister David Emerson made no reference to the report and its recommendations, but said the government is taking a principled approach to business and trade with partners around the world. "Our government is strongly committed to corporate social responsibility,” the message reads. “This is evident with our recent free trade agreement with Peru. The agreement includes provisions on the environment, biodiversity and corporate social responsibility.”

But failing to act on the report is hurting Canada’s reputation abroad, said Liberal Trade critic Navdeep Bains, and he sees no reasons why the government hasn’t brought in the recommendations.

“They did make a commitment last year because of the national roundtable report, and they haven’t acted, so again they’ve misled Canadians and they are now trying to delay the implementation,” Mr. Bains said.

After the report’s release in March 2007, Ms. McDonough introduced a motion at the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development seeking to have government ministers and officials appear before the committee to outline what they were going to do with the report.

Ms. McDonough said her motion was all but dismissed by Conservative members, who told her it would be superfluous as the government had every intention of acting on the recommendations. Nonetheless, Ms. McDonough’s motion went to vote and passed, but government officials have yet to appear at the committee.

“A rare consensus was achieved after a lot of careful work done by industry, civil society, NGOs, and experts, and absolutely nothing has happened since, except, as we are able to determine, the ear of Harper has been seized by the worst of the development and mining corporations who have been able to grind this to a halt,” Ms. McDonough said. “It’s pretty clear there was an attempt to stonewall our initiatives and to broaden the inter-departmental perspective on this.” This past fall, Ms. McDonough travelled to Honduras to meet with community and government officials there and witness the operations of a Canadian mining company. She said she was encouraged by the efforts of officials in Honduras, but insisted they have little capacity to enforce such standards without Canada doing the same.

Bloc Québécois Foreign Affairs critic Vivian Barbot also tried to call on the government for a response to the report in the House foreign affairs committee on Feb. 7, but Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister, said the government is still working on a response to the report. “The government is committed to giving a response [and] has no problem responding to the issue,” Mr. Obhrai said. “When you have such an extensive study, and with all these things on the round table conference, it covers a lot of areas of law as well as other things, as you know, being in the government. It does take time to make a response. This will have a major impact down the road.”

In an interview on Monday, Ms. Barbot said tougher regulations need to get through government quickly, because Canada’s reputation is suffering in the meantime.

“We have still have many people coming to tell us how badly they are being treated, and people being killed, it’s really hard stuff and Canada is being complacent,” Ms. Barbot said. “But there is no political will.”

Among those following the report’s progress— or lack thereof—through government over the last year, there is a general consensus that some mining companies and industry officials oppose the implementation of a complaints framework and ombudsman, and that this opposition has steered the government away from its original commitment.

A few weeks after Mr. Harper’s statement at the G8 summit last year, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce expressed its disapproval and called the prime minister’s commitment “premature.”

At the time, the chamber’s international policy analyst, Brian Zeiler-Kligman, told Embassy the industry association had been told there would be no announcements at the G8. “The Canadian chamber had been indicating to various bureaucrats and politicians, as had other stakeholders, that there was quite a bit that Canada could discuss in the context of CSR that didn’t have anything to do with this report, and still make ourselves look extremely virtuous in comparison with other countries,” Mr. Zeiler- Kligman said in July 2007.

When reached last week, Mr. Zeiler- Kligman refused to comment, saying only that the chamber was looking forward to a government announcement, when it comes, on corporate social responsiblity.

Another industry group that has called for further consultation before implementing some of the recommendations is the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada. The group’s executive director, Tony Andrews, was a member of the roundtable advisory group, however, as with all members, he was there in an individual capacity and not as a representative of his organization.

In a letter to Minister Emerson dated July 2007, PDAC president Patricia Dillon recommended “general support” for the report, but made suggestions of her own. In the letter, Ms. Dillon suggested that legal standards be used only in prosecuting where the intent to break the law is clear, and emphasized that voluntary initiatives would be “the most effective mechanisms for advancing CSR objectives.”

Ms. Dillon also expressed concern over the authority that would be given to an ombudsman, and said PDAC supported such an appointment only “in principle.”

Down But Not Out
Remaining optimistic the government will follow through on its commitments, Ms. Coumans, research co-ordinator at Mining Watch Canada and a member of the national roundtables’ advisory group, said she’s heard that behind the scenes, the report has caused fervent debate.

Over the past year, she said, there has been a “raging debate” taking place between government departments, centered largely on how far the government can and should go in implementing industry standards. “I have been told by bureaucrats that behind the scenes, it’s taking a huge amount of time, lots of meetings,” Ms. Coumans said. “If it means more people actually start to grapple with these issues, and it starts to come alive and looked at more broadly, then that’s very valuable.”

Nonetheless, Ms. Coumans said the lack of action a year later has been very disappointing and that at the beginning, participants were consistently told there would be a quick response.

Pierre Gratton, vice-president of sustainable development and public affairs at the Mining Association of Canada, said he has noticed an ongoing debate taking place at Canadian high commissions and embassies abroad, including in Peru and Ecuador. “There’s been quite a bit of activity in that regard, I’ve certainly noticed that a lot of the embassies that we would have contact with seem to be talking a lot more about it now, there’s positive developments, much more awareness now,” Mr. Gratton said.

In early March, an editorial that ran in a Guyana newspaper promoted the forum held at the Canadian high commission there on March 5 as an example of the growing global discourse about corporate social responsibility over the last few years.

“One hopes, of course, that the initiative by the Canadian high commission serves as a precursor to the creation of a strong and enforceable policy framework for CSR in Guyana given the importance of socially responsible corporate behaviour to the country’s social and economic advancement,” wrote the Stabroek News.

Despite these developments, Mr. Gratton said he’s surprised the government has done little to act on the recommendations and sign, at the very least, the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights—of which participants include the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

As the government remains silent, many say Canadian public interest in corporate social responsibility continues to grow. Mary Durran, research program officer at the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, said her group has collected more than 170,000 signed postcards from Canadians that call on the government to adopt the report’s recommendations. Also, in early March, Ms. Durran and a representative from a civil society group in Honduras, Pedro Landa, met with civil servants at the Department of Foreign Affairs to discuss Canada’s commitment to CSR. Ms. Durran said Mr. Landa travelled to speak with Canadians about this because he is eager to see an ombudsman brought in to monitor the mining companies operating in his country. Although they were told that department officials are working overtime to bring about a government response, Ms. Durran said she remains discouraged by how long it’s taken, and by the little information she received about when, and what, that response might be.