(Ottawa, Chiapas) The family of assassinated Mexican environment defender Mariano Abarca is hoping that the Supreme Court of Canada will pave the way for an investigation of the Canadian Embassy in Mexico by the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner. It will be the first time that Canada’s much maligned whistleblower system will come under scrutiny at the highest court.
Mariano was shot and killed in 2009 after speaking out against the social and environmental impacts of a Canadian barite mine in his hometown of Chicomuselo, Chiapas. Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration opened its mine in Chiapas in 2007 and, from the start, the company appealed and received significant aid from the Canadian embassy. This included sending a high-level delegation to the Chiapas Governor’s office to pressure state authorities to protect the company and quell protests, despite knowing that Mariano was receiving threats from company employees and that plain clothes police had acted on a company complaint to arrest and detain Mariano for eight days. Seven weeks later, Mariano was murdered in broad daylight in front of his restaurant.
Believing that the Canadian Embassy’s unconditional support for Blackfire put Mariano at further risk, his family filed a complaint under Canada’s whistleblower law in 2018. The Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, whose responsibility is to look into complaints by whistleblowers and ensure confidence in the public service, was offered almost 1000 pages of evidence from an access to information request, documenting the Embassy’s actions. The Commissioner declined to accept, let alone read the evidence, but nonetheless decided not to commence an investigation.
This February, the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the Commissioner’s decision largely based on a mere technicality. According to the judge, because the access to information release was cited in footnotes and not physically handed over to the Commissioner, he had no obligation to read them. Second, using similar logic, the court refused to consider arguments from three intervening parties in the case, including on Canada’s international human rights obligations and the importance of the PSIC being a publicly accessible office, because these arguments were not originally before the Commissioner.
The Commissioner’s approach will put even more barriers in the path of whistleblowers. Canada has already been ranked the worst in whistleblower protection out of 62 countries in a study conducted by the Washington-based Government Accountability Project and UK-based International Bar Association.
“The process for reporting wrongdoing by civil servants is supposed to be informal and accessible”, said Nicholas Pope, one of the lawyers that filed the request for leave to appeal on April 6. “But now it is rigid and formalistic and will only further discourage people from coming forward. In this case, the end result is that the Canadian Embassy's acts and omissions that may have contributed to the murder of a human rights defender have gone uninvestigated.”
“We are being denied our right to know the truth about the pressure the Canadian embassy exerted on Mexican authorities and how that could have played a role in the brutal murder of my father,” says Jose Luis Abarca, one of Mariano’s four children. “We know that nothing will bring my father back, but we want to see Canada take meaningful steps to stop this from happening in the future.”
The relevance of this case to Canadian foreign policy is undeniable for Gustavo Castro, a member of Otros Mundos Chiapas, who worked with Mariano before he was murdered and continues to support the family:
“An investigation in this case would open the doors to a serious reckoning about how Canadian foreign officials provide unfettered support for Canadian corporations at the cost of people and the environment in Mexico and other parts of the world. We believe that this is why an investigation has been refused so far and truly hope the Supreme Court of Canada will see its tremendous importance and provide an opportunity to move it forward.”
- Nicholas Pope, Hameed Law, 613-656-6917
- Shin Imai, Professor Emeritus, Osgoode Hall Law School, 647-524-2312
- Kirsten Francescone (to set up interviews with the family), 873-376-1465