Canada needs effective mining oversight


By Catherine Coumans, Ottawa Citizen –

Date of publication: 
31 October 2013

The Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor (CSR Counsellor) was announced with much government fanfare in October 2009 as a central “pillar” in the government’s “CSR strategy” for Canada’s extractive sector. The CSR Counsellor was to provide remedy for people who had been harmed by the overseas operations of Canadian extractive companies by mediating disputes.

On Oct. 18, CSR Counsellor Marketa Evans quietly resigned. No news release, no information about her departure on the official website of the office. In four years, she did not mediate any of the six cases brought before her, and none of the complainants received remedy.

For those who anticipated the failure of this office, Evans’ departure is a welcome chance to shed light on the flaws of this mechanism and to create a more effective ombudsman’s office.

MiningWatch Canada and others have been critical of the weak mandate of the Office of the CSR Counsellor and detailed its shortcomings. The CSR Counsellor is not mandated to investigate complaints or to report on whether or not a company has breached the standards set by the Government of Canada.

The one service Evans could offer those who had been harmed by the actions of a Canadian mining company, dispute mediation, was contingent on voluntary participation of the company in question. As predicted, companies made use of the voluntary nature of the office to walk away from offers of mediation with no consequences.

Of six complaints filed, three ended before they began when mining companies Excellon Resources, McEwen Mining and Silver Standard Resources turned their backs and walked out. Silver Standard’s recent snub seems to have been the final straw for Evans.

One case remains open, another was recently closed as Evans claimed inability to establish communications with the indigenous Argentinian complainants.

These cases highlight the problem. Corporations hold all the power in this process. The mechanism puts complainants in the untenable position of having to rely on the very company that stands accused of having harmed them to decide if it is inclined to participate in mediation, to decide if it is interested in providing any form of remedy and, if so, the nature and size of the remedy it may choose to provide.

Moreover, fruitless participation in the CSR Counsellor’s process further harms the weakest parties, the overseas workers and indigenous and community representatives who put themselves in the hands of this mechanism to seek redress. These people have, at best, wasted their time and limited resources. At worst they have exposed themselves to further harm at home for sticking their necks out.

A case in point is that of Mr. Lemine from Mauritania who brought forward community complaints about human rights and environmental abuses related to the operations of First Quantum Minerals. Having been convinced by the company that it had created a local grievance mechanism to which Mr. Lemine could turn, Evans sent him back home to the company’s mechanism to try his luck there first. MiningWatch has followed up on this case and found that no effective local-level mechanism existed and Mr. Lemine is still seeking redress for the community for ongoing harm from the company’s operations.

The Mining Association of Canada has appealed to the government to give the failed Office “more time” and “more money.”

In an interesting twist of logic, Pierre Gratton, MAC’s president and CEO, places blame for the Office’s lack of effectiveness on “constant criticism” of its fundamental shortcomings. He downplays the most obvious factor in the Office’s downfall, the failure of mining companies, including a MAC member, to participate: Excellon Resources was the first company to walk out on the CSR Counsellor’s process. The company then joined MAC, but never took up the standing offer of the CSR Counsellor to come back to the table.

Just days after Evans’ side-door departure, 23 member organizations of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability launched the network’s “Open for Justice” campaign. The campaign calls for the establishment of an extractive-sector Ombudsman that is empowered to undertake independent investigations to determine if a company has breached guidelines and caused harm, and, if so, to make recommendations to the company and to the Canadian government in order to remedy the harm. The Ombudsman will make its findings public and could recommend the suspension of political, financial, and diplomatic support to a company by the Government of Canada.

An Ombudsman’s office was first recommended by a joint industry-civil society report to the Government of Canada in 2007. Its key features were later incorporated in John McKay’s narrowly defeated private member’s bill C-300. It is high time for the Government of Canada to create a truly effective, independent, and mandatory extractive-sector Ombudsman.

Catherine Coumans is research co-ordinator and Asia Pacific program co-ordinator for Mining Watch Canada.