Press Responses: May 23, 2007

Canada's Mining Companies: It's the Government's Turn

Embassy Magazine Editorial -

An investment newsletter offers the advice that there are still vast profits to be made from extraction investment in the Toronto Stock Exchange "because more and more mining companies are heading to Canada."

Five Roman Catholic bishops from dioceses in the Philippines have also noticed that mining has become the doyen of Canada's international businesses. But the bishops are not as interested in an investor's ability to turn a quick profit on the TSX. They are more concerned with the lives of the people who live in their dioceses.

In virtually every instance, the people who live close to mining operations are poor. And the social argument for the industry is that the trickle-down rewards from the mine's profits will bring some economic relief to the people who live nearby. No one doubts this can be true. The trouble is there are still too many cases where local people suffer the effects of environmental degradation and strong-armed mining operation security, accompanied only by the rapid exodus of profits out of the country. In short, the poor of a mining region can often end up still poor but living in a destroyed environment.

In this case, the Philippine bishops are hoping to find support in Canada because a large-scale mining operation in Mindanao, Philippines, involving a Canadian company, the Calgary-based Toronto Ventures Inc., hasn't convinced them that it will bring their parishioners anything but trouble. The mine in question is a gold mine.

The bishops say the company's operations "are wrecking havoc upon our land and people." They do not believe the company's promises of local economic development and they ask that Canadians reconsider investing in Canadian mining companies operating in their country.

Typically, the response to the bishops and other like clerics who have sounded the alarm over Canadian mining activities has been that these church people are for the most part "luddites." That word, by the way, is a direct quote this newspaper was once told by a former ranking Canadian diplomat posted to a country where a large Canadian-owned gold mine was attracting a lot of criticism.

But more recently there has been an attempt by the Canadian extraction industry and NGOs to reach guidelines that create a framework for corporate responsibility in their activities outside of Canada. We've been told that several federal departments-and the government itself-were actually surprised that a consensus could be reached on this contentious issue. But it should come as no surprise that the remote foreign operations of major corporations no longer take place in obscurity. Global scrutiny has grown up beside globalism like a conscience whose voice, while growing louder, is also making some very practical appeals. And national  governments, when they are inclined to some kind of progress, are also making a difference.

This is the case of Norway's admirable investment fund: companies that contribute to social evils (say, by producing nuclear weapons and cluster bombs or marketing goods created by child labour) will lose investment money, while those that are willing to place the common good beside the bottom line will prosper. In the case of Norway, this means that companies like General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Wal-Mart saw their shares dumped by the country's $309-billion investment fund.

Canada's mining industry is increasingly becoming one of the world's big extraction players. But to the credit of both the industry and its increasingly sophisticated watchdogs, it has reached a consensus on good mining practices.

Now is the time for Canada's government to step up to the table by formalizing the kind of mining guidelines that could make Canada's mining industry true world leaders. And, to answer the bishops' plea, to place those guidelines alongside the Canadian gold mine in Mindanao.