Voluntary guidelines for Canadian oversees mine companies

  • April 3, 2009
{mosimage}The federal government has opted for a voluntary code of conduct for Canadian mining companies abroad, with no sanctions for those that fail to comply.

The 200,000 Catholics who have sent postcards to Ottawa asking Parliament to set rules for Canadian mining companies operating in smaller and poorer nations around the world have been answered with a set of voluntary guidelines, an office that will investigate complaints only if the mining company agrees and an industry-run “centre of excellence” to encourage mining companies to be more open when it comes to the environment, labour rights and corporate governance.

For ecumenical social justice organization KAIROS , the voluntary guidelines are a step backward.

“We really felt like we made a breakthrough (with the National Roundtables in 2007) and the government has really squandered that,” said KAIROS corporate social responsibility expert Ian Thomson, adding it “is just the status quo repackaged.”

The biggest disappointment is the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor which would only be able to investigate mining operations if the company either requests the investigation or agrees to it, Thomson said. The investigations would not be public, though the counsellor would issue a “statement” when the investigation and mediation are complete.

Corporate social responsibility and Canadian mining

Canada’s new corporate Social Responsibility policy for mining has been years in the making.
  • June 2005 the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade (SCFAIT) reports that there is a serious problem with Canadian mining companies operating in poor countries, saying revenues from Canadian-owned mines have fueled wars and stoked corruption. The mines themselves have devastated local and aboriginal communities and caused irreparable environmental damage. The all-party committee asks the government of Canada to find ways to ensure companies live up to Canadian values when mining abroad.
  • November 2005, the government gathers representatives of the mining industry, churches, development agencies, environmental groups and socially responsible investors to hold a series of “National Roundtables.”
  • June 2006, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace along with Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability launches its campaign to hold Canadian mines to account for operations outside Canada.
  • March 2007, the CSR advisory group of the National Roundtables puts down on paper principles the NGO community and mining industry can agree to in response to the SCFAIT report. Among those principles is an ombuds office with power to impose sanctions on companies that refuse to live up to international standards on human rights, environmental protection, transparent reporting and corporate governance.
  • June 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper accepts the National Roundtables report and promises Canada will lead the G8 nations in corporate social responsibility.
    From 2007 through 2008, more than 200,000 Development and Peace postcards are mailed to Members of Parliament demanding more accountability in the mining sector.
  • March 27, 2009, International Trade Minister Stockwell Day announces voluntary guidelines for corporate social responsibility, along with plans for the Office of the Extractive Sector CSR Counsellor to investigate complaints.
“Voluntary initiatives can advance public policy objectives in a flexible, expeditious and less costly way than regulation,” International Trade Minister Stockwell Day’s office told The Catholic Register in an e-mail.

Julie Gelfand, the Mining Association of Canada ’s vice president of sustainable development, concedes the government program is less than industry and civil society agreed to at the end of a year of tough negotiating, but said her organization is willing to work to make it better.

“We are happy that they’ve done something,” she said. “We’re totally willing to work with the government to put a little meat around the bones of this counsellor.”

For the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace , the Catholic development agency behind the 200,000 postcards, the focus now shifts to getting an opposition private member’s  bill passed that would put teeth into Canada’s codes of conduct for mining companies.

“Our bishops, the Philippine bishops and other bishops around the world have been very vocal about what they see as some problems with some elements of the Canadian mining industry,” said Development and Peace programs co-ordinator Siobhan Rowan. Among complaints are that the companies use unsafe mining practices, degrade the local environment and bring negative impacts on the communities they operate in.

“This government doesn’t appear to be very open to dialogue on this issue. We will be putting our attention now on Bill C-300,” said Rowan.

C-300 was to come up for second reading in the House of Commons April 3. If it’s approved in principle there will be a second vote to send it to committee after the House’s two-week Easter break. Liberal MP John McKay’s bill would deny access to Canadian consular services and government funding mechanisms for mining operations that don’t measure up.

“I don’t want to say it’s worse than doing nothing, but you can’t really fathom how more minimal the government’s response could be,” McKay said.

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