Press Responses: March 29, 2007

As it Happens, CBC, March 29th, 2007

Mining Ethics- Part I
Introduction: Over the years the ethics of Canada’s mining industry has been challenged repeatedly, particularly on human rights and environmental issues. Now the industry is suggesting a solution from within. A group of employees in the industry have put their heads together with human rights and environmental advocates and they have come up with a set of guidelines to keep their companies ethical. The report released today is called the National Roundtables on Corporate Social Responsibility and the Canadian Extractive Industry in developing countries…a heavy title! Well Mining Watch Canada was one of the NGOs participating in the creation of this document. Their research coordinator is Catherine Coumans.

Reporter: Ms. Coumans how significant is this ethic rule book for mining companies in Canada?

CC: That is an interesting title you have given it, I have not heard that before…’s very important. Since we started at MiningWatch Canada in 1999, we were almost immediately within two months of having founded ourselves and having started an office, we were overwhelmed, we were swamped with requests  for help from communities all over the world that are affected by Canadian mining companies large and small. We spent a lot of time working at the level, working with communities trying to bring their issues of concern to both the Canadian government and the companies and trying to work  through issues that way. We have also done a lot of policy work, trying to pressure the government to take these issues seriously and we are very cognizant of the fact that there is only so much you can do in helping communities fight these battles. At some point things have to change at a higher level. There needs to be a policy change.

Reporter: And will this come about through this accord?

CC: This report, these recommendations that we are putting forward jointly with the industry are a major step forward for us.

Reporter: So what will exactly change for people perhaps not in this country but in countries where mining is going on?

CC: Well there are a number of things. First of all, if the government of Canada accepts the recommendations that are in this report, one of the things that will change is that there will be a set of standards that Canadian mining companies operating overseas, large and small, will all be expected to adhere to. So there will be at least a baseline of standards that companies operating overseas in developing countries will be expected to live up to and that is not the case right now.

Reporter: That’s labor, environment……?

CC: It's labor, it's environment, it's human rights. It's very project specific sorts of things ….how companies deal with communities etc. It’s quite broad-ranging. The standard package that we ended up with as a first cut….is that we agree to adopt the International Finance Corporation’s performance standards. This is a suite of standards that the international corporations as part of the World Bank expects companies to live up to that receive World Bank funding for projects. So they are project specific and there are very detailed at the project level.

Reporter: A number of transnational corporations will insist that they have only to adhere to or observe the laws of the country there are in, even if those laws are not protective of people or environment. Will this go beyond and above the laws of the countries that there are operating?

CC: Yes, it certainly will. In a lot of the countries in which companies are operating, the standards that are set out in the performance standards of the International Finance Corporation will take them beyond the laws of the land in many cases. It is also different because rather than expecting a developing country government, which may be a very weak government or a government that is beleaguered by conflict etc, to make sure that they are in compliance with their own regulations -  whatever they may be - [they will have to be in compliance with these standards]. These standards are going to be the standards that the Government of Canada is going to expect its corporations to live up to.

Reporter: Are you saying that the Government would expect these companies to uphold these ethics on a voluntary basis. Who is going to ensure that they do it? Are you saying that they are expected to or they will require them to by law?

CC: From a civil society perspective, we would have preferred this to have been a regulatory or legal imperative. The language we got is so very important. It says that the Government of Canada expects and requires all Canadian resource extraction companies, large and small, to adhere to these standards. Then the way in which that will be policed - if you want to use that word - is through a reporting requirement - Companies will be required to report out against those standards, so that is an important piece - and through a compliance component. In that compliance component there will be an ombudsman office created. There will be two main functions that office will do: one is advisory, one is fact finding. If there is a compliant brought against a Canadian company by a community, or an NGO says that the company is not living up to those standards, the ombudsman will verify the facts of the compliant and determine if the company is living up to the standards.

Reporter: What if the ombudsman office discovers it hasn’t?

CC: If the ombudsman office determines that there is a valid compliant, then the ombudsman - whoever that is going be - will pass that compliant onto a compliance review committee. The compliance review committee can come up with certain recommendations, and ultimately it can request that the Government of Canada consider withdrawing support from that company.

Reporter: A lot of "cans" and "considers" and "expects"…..and...

CC: Absolutely. This is a consensus report. This is a report that came up with recommendations that both industry and civil society could agree on. It is not everything that civil society would have ideally liked to have seen and it is probably not everything that industry would have ideally liked to have seen……but it is what we could agree on.

Reporter: There have been cases where Canadian companies have been found to have committed human rights and environmental crimes by Canadian standards, but nothing was done because they did not break international laws… when the word "law" does not exist in that accord…I am just wondering what kind of teeth does it really have.

CC: That is certainly an issue for civil society as well. We would certainly likedto see at some point down the road that this becomes legally mandatory. At the moment, the language is quite strong in the report that there is an expectation that all companies, all resource extraction companies, will comply with the standards, will report and will submit themselves to the compliance review committee if a complaint is launched. In discussions with industry, it is pretty clear that they say once that is in place, if the Government does adopt this, it is going to be very awkward for a company to simply say we don’t care or we are not going to do these things. None of this is going to be perfect, none of this is going to change what is happening on the ground over night, but it certainly gives us more to work with than we had so far.

Reporter: Ms. Coumans, I want to thank you very much for speaking with us.

CC: You are welcome.

Reporter: Catherine Coumans is director of research for Mining Watch Canada and she is in Ottawa as is Pierre Gratton who works with the Mining Association of Canada.

Mining Ethics – Part II
Reporter: Mr. Gratton, we just heard from Catherine Coumans at Mining Watch Canada. She was listing a whole bunch of unethical activities of mining companies that they have investigated over the years. I am wondering if this accord that you have all crafted will make any difference for those communities.

PG: This accord, this report that we have just released today is without precedent. I don’t think there is anything like it that has been developed. Certainly not here in Canada and certainly not anywhere else in the world and I think it provides a number of proposals to try to make sure Canada becomes a world leader in Corporate Social Responsibility. So yes I think it should make a difference on the ground.

Reporter: Give me some examples of what would change.

PG: Well what we are really dealing with is a situation where after the liberalization of mining laws in different parts of the world like Africa, Latin America, and Asia and so on, there has been an increased investment around the world, a lot of it by Canadian companies. In certain circumstances we have had very challenging situations, we have had conflicts and we have been operating with out a common set of rules. What we have done today is released a report that starts to lay out what those rules should be.

Reporter: Multinational corporations that are working in other countries generally say that there are abiding by the laws of the countries they are in, they are upholding those laws, even if those laws, as quite often  they are not, do not protect the environment or the people in those countries. Do you see these standards as being higher than the laws in the counties they are operating in?

PG: I think one of the issues that we certainly wrestled with over the past number of months is the fact that we are dealing with, in some cases, countries with very weak governance. It is not necessarily a case of not being laws but they do not have the capacity to effectively administer and enforce the laws. And in countries of weak governance, when you cannot enforce the rule of law, it is not just….it has to do with also with citizens and with communities and conflicts that could be dealt with say effectively here in Canada cannot be or not effectively dealt with there so a good emphasis on our report is how can Canada help contribute to better governance in those countries. And in the other part of the report, another important part is how can companies operating in those situations improve the way they operate. Sometime in situations of weak governance even the best companies can get into trouble.

Reporter: But if these Canadian mining companies cared about the environment and the people that are in these countries, why do they need to have this accord, why not they are upholding these standards anyways?

PG: I would say that the vast majority of companies are but you have got situations where some companies may not be or you also have situations where companies get caught, frankly, flatfooted intending to operate responsibly but finding themselves in very difficult situations without the tools, without an understanding of how they should be operating in the local circumstance where there can be, for example, very deep historically rooted divisions within a community and how do you navigate that, how do you go about your business in a way that does not jeopardize or exacerbate those conflicts. And again, this report talks about…….

Reporter: But if this is the case that just a handful of companies that deliberately sort of flout the ethics and some that just get caught flatfooted, why not enshrine it in law, why leave it up to a set of guidelines that you could and should honor that may or may not lead to anything punitive for the mining company? Why resist having this actually enshrined in criminal law? 

PG: Well actually, this report speaks to a number of different recommendations that taken together….I would say have a high degree of rigor. I mean we certainly considered legal options. We agreed that legal remedies should be further explored but taken together, the other aspects of the report, the ombudsman’s function, the standards that are being set, the compliance mechanisms that we talked about….all these things taken together, frankly are much more than a voluntary system.

Reporter: You are saying that there are compliance mechanisms involved but there is nothing punitive in this. What exactly happens to a company that breaches the ethics and this voluntary protocol?

PG: The system as we have proposed it, is for example…..we proposed the creation of an ombudsman function so if a community in another part of the world has a complaint or an issue with the activities of a particular company, they bring that to this office, the office will have a fact finding and investigative role, make recommendations…..any company in the first instance that is brought before the ombudsman is already going to have pressures….is already going to feel some degree of pressure. We are proposing a multipartite compliance review committee to assess company compliance and then make recommendations on appropriate responses including the withdrawal of support from government for that company. So there are consequences. One would hope that, frankly a smart company would not want to get to that point and they would try to resolve any issues that might be brought before the ombudsman. There is certainly the view that there are remedies within existing federal law to take companies to court if that is the avenue that you want to see it. I think there have been questions raised about the fact that civil suites in Canada have not been particularly successful and one of the things that have recommended is it being looked at as to why that is. There is further work that is need there.

Reporter: Mr. Gratton, thank you very much for speaking with us. In Ottawa that is Pierre Gratton. He works for the Mining Association of Canada.