Editorial (The Ottawa Citizen): April 2, 2007

Mining Responsibility

Canadians like to think that our international image is of a flag on a backpack or a blue beret. The real image we've created in some parts of the world is of toxic waste and thugs with guns.

The behaviour of some of our mining companies abroad has been to Canada's shame. It has made this country a party to environmental destruction, corruption, displacement of poor people, child labour, oppression and war. At last, the industry has smartened up and is working with its critics to create rules for social responsibility.

Canadians know how to put natural resources to use. We've been doing it here for centuries, so it's no surprise that Canada is good at global resource exploration and production. Canada-based companies conduct 40 per cent of the world's mineral exploration. That's a good thing in many ways: it creates wealth here and abroad.

Some of those companies, though, have been accused of immoral practices in the poor countries in which they operate. Pollution is often a danger, even in peaceful and well-governed countries. In conflict zones, some companies seek protection from soldiers, paramilitaries or security forces -- sometimes the same people harassing, raping, assaulting and killing local civilians.

In 2005, Parliament's standing committee on foreign affairs and international trade called for greater social responsibility in the mining sector. So the government began a process of roundtables to get companies and their critics talking.

The pressure from investors and insurers has been even more important than the government pressure. Corporations in general are embracing social responsibility. No one wants to be perceived to be making dirty money.

The result of all the roundtables is an advisory group and a remarkable set of recommendations, which reflect a consensus between the companies and the groups advocating for respect of human rights and the environment.

They call for a set of Canadian standards for social responsibility, based on existing international standards. Mining companies that fail to comply could have government support withdrawn. That would mean no money from Export Development Canada, no trade missions, no tax breaks. An ombudsman would review complaints and advise companies.

This is all to the good. It's bad enough when Canadian companies behave badly abroad; supporting such companies with public money is insulting to citizens. The federal government should implement these recommendations and help keep the dialogue going between companies and civil society.

Putting social responsibility into practice isn't going to be easy. The industry has no plans to establish formal no-go zones, but companies may find that as more investors become concerned about social responsibility, certain countries might become de facto no-go zones. It might be impossible to do ethical business with the world's worst regimes. There might be no way to operate in certain conflict zones without taking sides. Social responsibility sometimes means making sacrifices.

The most important achievement of this roundtable process is the consensus that openness and accountability are good for business. Nobody wins if companies retreat into their shells every time an activist group gets wind of wrongdoing.