No digging up dirt at mine conference
Closed-Door sessions are norm; Industry's behaviour in 3rd World discussed
A government-sponsored roundtable concerning corporate responsibility of Canadian mining companies operating in developing countries was subject to media restrictions yesterday, even as industry and watchdog groups urged "transparency and truth."
Reporters could enter sessions open to the public during which seven-minute presentations were made by interested parties, but were "not welcome to report what is seen or heard," a Foreign Affairs spokesperson said yesterday as the Montreal roundtable opened.
"Obviously, this is ironic and troubling," said Catherine Coumans, research co-coordinator of Mining Watch Canada and a member of the advisory panel hearing the presentations.
"If even the Canadian media doesn't have access to hear experiences Canadians have had with mining operations abroad, you wonder about the transparency" of international operations and the ability of local media to probe them, Coumans said.
The restriction was not lifted for a UN representative's talk last night.
John Ruggie, the United Nations special representative on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations, made an hour-long presentation.
The roundtables, which have been held in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary, also include closed-door sessions in which the panel interacts with invited experts from industry and civil societies.
They spring from a 2005 landmark report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade which identified the need for binding legislation that holds "extractive sector" companies accountable for their actions overseas.
About 60 per cent of the world's exploration and mining companies are based in Canada. And, according to the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, mining firms "have been implicated in well-documented cases of human rights violations and environmental disasters abroad," including toxic dumping and forcible displacement of indigenous peoples.
About 63 parties had registered to participate in yesterday's public forums held simultaneously in two rooms of a downtown hotel, an organizer said.
During the sessions attended by The Gazette, participants included a mining executive, independent researchers, church ministers and a young woman with family ties to Romania where a controversial mining project is underway.
"Transparency is the key for all of us. We must get to the truth," Joe Ringwald, vice-president of Tournigan Gold Corp., told the panel in response to a question.
Earlier, Ringwald chastised activists and non-governmental organizations for many campaigns "driven by an anti-corporate anti-globalization agenda." NGOs, including Greenpeace, have to be held accountable for their operations and claims, said Ringwald, who, like other participants approached by The Gazette, was pleased with the attention.
"For too long, activists have enjoyed a no-holds-barred approach to activism in which allegations need not be based on science, and no apology or accountability is required when such allegations are proven false," Ringwald told the panel.
An Amnesty International Canada representative reported that a recent poll of Canadians shows that 79 per cent believe that "the Canadian government should pass laws to require that Canadian companies respect human rights all the time, including when they do business oversees. The poll, released yesterday, involved 1,112 respondents.
"Mandatory, not voluntary rules are required," said Andrea Botto of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability.
Eight federal departments or agencies, including the Privy Council Office, are involved in the roundtable process led by Foreign Affairs and International Trade. A report to Parliament is expected to be tabled before year's end.
There was no notice about media restrictions posted outside yesterday's two session rooms. Reporters were told that they could interview people in the hallway.
Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Ambra Dickie said the Chatham House Rule - "a fairly normal journalistic term" - had been applied.
"We are closing (the sessions) to the media because we are trying to encourage open and honest discussion," she said, adding that reporters can attend as 'members of the public."
A press conference, which includes industry and civil society representatives, is to be held tomorrow.
Pierre Gratton, spokesperson for the Mining Association of Canada, said a subcommittee of panel members considered media restrictions.
"What we got from government was that 'public' - in their minds - did not include media," he said.
There were also concerns about privacy and "potential safety concerns of southern participants making presentations" and then returning to Third World countries where they might be subject to reprisals.
"There was also a concern that if this looked like a media event that industry wouldn't come forward ... so they were trying to balance the desire to make sure industry voices were there with the idea of not wanting a process that was not ... transparent," he said.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2006