MiningWatch Canada says the industry is operating on an outdated, weak corporate social responsibility strategy and needs an ombudsman paired with government commitment to enforce sanctions against offending extractive companies.
By DENIS CALNAN
Canada may soon have an extractive resources ombudsman who would ensure that Canada’s mining companies act ethically, according to the Liberal MP who has been championing the cause.
In an interview with The Hill Times, Liberal MP John McKay (Scarborough – Guildwood, Ont.) said he expects to see a clear plan in place by March 2017 for creating an ombudsman for the extractive sector.
“I have every assurance, shall we say, that this is a high priority item for the minister of international trade,” said Mr. McKay, who added that he would “like to see it done earlier rather than later.”
Having an ombudsman for the sector is something that many observers have been demanding for a long time, stating that it would help improve ethical standards for the Canadian mining sector, which some say has a tarnished international reputation for poor human rights and environmental practices.
Mr. McKay said that while he thinks the Canadian mining sector has been making improvements in its modus operandi, an auditor is still very much needed to raise the industry’s ethical bar.
“I don’t know if it’s my imagination or whether we are actually making progress,” he said. “It seemed to me that when we started this, that there wouldn’t be a month go by where some Canadian mining company wasn’t involved in something really awful,” he said.
Mr. McKay said he’s hearing fewer negative reports about Canadian mining companies than he once did. However, he noted that the downturn in claims against Canadian mining companies could be a result of a weaker market, meaning fewer Canadian businesses are engaged in international extractive operations.
MiningWatch Canada is one of the groups that has been lobbying for an ombudsman for many years.
“We’ve lost 10 years,” said Catherine Coumans, the research coordinator, and is responsible for the Asia-Pacific program at the organization, speaking about the lack of progress in the last decade.
In 2007, an advisory group released a report on the national roundtables held on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the Canadian extractive industry in developing countries. The group was made up of Ms. Coumans, academics, a representative from the Mining Association of Canada, and others.
One of the main recommendations was to create “an independent ombudsman office to provide advisory services, fact finding and reporting regarding complaints with respect to the operations in developing countries of Canadian extractive companies.”
A CSR strategy was developed without an ombudsman in 2009, and was readjusted, again without the role, in 2014.
“Back in 2007, we created this report for an ombudsman, but by that time we were into the [Stephen] Harper government and instead we got these very weak CSR strategies,” said Ms. Coumans.
She added that the current strategy is “simply not effective” and notes that although the then-Conservative government created a position, called the ‘extractive sector CSR counsellor,’ it lacked any weight or teeth in enforcing rules on mining companies.
Ms. Coumans said the first counsellor, Marketa Evans, didn’t finish her mandate, and was not able to resolve any of the complaints made when she was there, because the mining companies didn’t take the process seriously. She said the current counsellor, Jeffrey Davidson, has not had an updated mandate, and doesn’t have a transparent position.
When the Liberals were campaigning, she notes, they made a commitment to create an extractive ombudsman’s office.
“But up until now, they have not done that,” said Ms. Coumans. “So what we’re left with is this Harper-era 2014 update of the 2009 CSR strategy, which is still extremely weak.”
Ms. Coumans said she would like to see the Canadian government withhold financial and political support to companies that are found to have caused harm through their operations.
Mr. McKay agreed that creating the ombudsman position, and introducing sanctions on companies that violate laws and human rights are all key to resolving ongoing issues within the sector.