Press Responses: October 16, 2006

Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment
Fisherville, Ontario, Canada
Tel. 416 410-0432, Fax: 416 362-5231
Vol. 11, No. 12, October 16, 2006


For many years, social and environmental activists, and some others not so activist, have been pressing for a mechanism whereby Canadian mining companies operating overseas would be held to a standard of conduct somewhat similar to that required of operations in Canada. The arguments are impeccable: loss of life and social devastation from broken dams, poisonings, mine collapses, and slave-like working conditions associated with Canadian mining operations overseas cause reputational and economic harm not just to the company involved or even to all of Canada's mining companies but to literally all of Canada. The risk is especially great given that the Toronto Stock Exchange has the largest mining companies list of any exchange anywhere.

Last year the issue took a big step forward with the release of a report from the House of Commons Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The Committee's unanimous report argued that more should be done in order to ensure that Canadian mining companies operating in developing countries 'conduct their activities in a socially and environmentally responsible manner and in conformity with international human rights standards.' It called on the Government to 'Establish clear legal norms in Canada to ensure that Canadian companies and residents are held accountable when there is evidence of environmental and/or human rights violations associated with the activities of Canadian mining companies [overseas].'

The government of the day, Liberal, declined to follow the recommendation but instead promised 'over the course of the next year and in collaboration with stakeholders, the government will organize a series of five roundtables across Canada to examine the issues raised in this report.'

It is inconceivable that the Harper government has any interest at all in extraterritorial application of Canadian environmental or human rights laws. Yet the round tables to examine these issues that were promised by the Liberal government are continuing. Groups like Mining Watch Canada and the Halifax Initiative, as well as industry folks, are preparing serious briefs for discussion at these round tables. Things have become so heated that one guy from the diamond industry went so far as to appear on CBC radio recently claiming that all environmentalists wanted to do was to shut down the entire mining industry.

More rational observers believe that one outcome from these round tables could be a Code of Conduct for Canadian mining companies operating overseas, with members of the Mining Association of Canada and the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada allowing membership only to companies whose CEOs had signed on to the code. Associations might even expel bad actors from their ranks or they might operate some kind of qualification system that highlights those companies that have pledged to abide by the Code.

Neither the majority of environmental groups nor the Harper government are particularly keen on voluntary initiatives so it seems unlikely that such a Code will receive much endorsement from organizations outside of the industry, which may make what could have been a good idea somewhat less effective.

We wondered whether the government might have some other objectives for these mining round tables but as far as we can tell they don't. Not only do they not have any objectives but they don't seem to know that the round tables are going on. The bureaucracy is just continuing with something that the Liberals told them to do and no one from the Harper government has [yet] told them to stop.

GL believes that the government's Corporate Social Responsibility in the mining industry roundtables will likely be another thing that will blow up in the government's face. If they shut them down now there can only be a lot of yelling and screaming about how they don't care. If they wait for an outcome and then decline to adopt it, there will be yelling and screaming about how they don't care. If they try to rig the process, which is now nearing completion (only one round table meeting remaining to be held), they will likely be called for interfering.

Though it is partially happenstance and may not be as effective as it could have been, we see the round tables as a situation in which ngos, industry, and members of the House of Commons have successfully manoeuvred on to the public policy agenda an issue that the government would almost certainly not have wanted there. Now we hope the moderates on both sides can come up with something that will work reasonably well, that can be implemented now without government support, and that will show that Canadians can make progress on important issues such as this even when the government of the day has no interest at all.

Colin Isaacs

National Roundtables on Corporate Social Responsibility and the Canadian Extractive Sector in Developing Countries

The Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade Fourteenth Report

The Halifax Initiative: Extractive Industries and Corporate Social Responsibility

National Roundtables on Corporate Social Responsibility

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