Press Responses: October 12, 2006

Canadian mineral industry abroad lawless

Human rights activists want regulations to replace voluntary standards

by Amy Steel for FastForward

When Canadian oil and gas and mining companies operate overseas they are often subject to much weaker local environmental, human rights and labour regulations than they would be if they operated at home.

In some cases that can mean that the rights of local people are trampled upon and the environment is damaged because local governments don’t require Canadian companies to meet higher standards.

The federal government has convened a series of round table forums with industry, activists and members of the general public to discuss what kind of standards should be in place for Canadian companies operating overseas. One of the forums was held in Calgary this week.

The forum is particularly relevant in Calgary, the head office of major oil and gas companies – some of which have been strongly criticized by activists for their activities overseas. Talisman Energy received international condemnation from activists for operating out of Sudan in the middle of its civil war. Activists charged that the Sudanese government was using oil profits to finance its war against the people of southern Sudan. Activists have also attacked EnCana for its former oil projects in Ecuador that they claim have damaged fragile rainforest areas. Activists also claim that the Ecuador military threatened and harassed locals who were opposed to EnCana oil projects on behalf of the company. A Calgary-based mining company, TVI Pacific Inc., has also been mired in controversy over its gold mine on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines.

Clint Mooney, a member of the ecumenical social justice organization KAIROS, was one of the presenters at the forum. He says the government seems to be emphasizing new voluntary social responsibility standards in round tables that companies would only be encouraged but not legally bound to follow.

"We’ve had lots of times for companies to raise their standards voluntarily. We would like to see mandatory regulation of companies," he says.

Mooney says he’s hopeful that Canada will become an international leader in creating ethical regulations "that have some guts."

"It really is good for Canada that Canadian companies act in such a way that Canada is not brought into disrepute but, in fact, is regarded very positively by people around the world," says Mooney.

Ian Thomson, the program co-ordinator for corporate social responsibility with Kairos, says as resources such as oil and gas become scarcer there will be more pressure for companies to move into environmentally sensitive areas and conflict zones, further increasing the need to have strong regulations for Canadian companies to follow.

He says he would like to see Canadian companies held legally accountable for not meeting the new regulations, that would enable people from other countries to bring their cases against companies to the Canadian legal system.

"We know there are some bad actors. There are some problems in countries with weak government capacity where companies are getting away with human rights abuses and environmental degradation because national governments aren’t holding them accountable," he says.

Thomson says it’s impossible for companies to go into conflict areas and not end up being drawn into the conflict.

"Often we see resource companies exacerbate conflict," he says.

Fast Forward was unable to reach anyone from Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada for comment on what will result from the round tables.