Correction appended: Friday, Oct. 22
Bill C-300, a Private Member’s Bill that would intensify investigations into environmental and social complaints against Canadian mining companies overseas, is set to be voted on next Tuesday in the House of Commons.
Several McGill professors helped work on the bill, which would mandate the withdrawal of federal funding from Canadian mining companies if they are found to be in violation of environmental and human rights policies.
John McKay, Liberal MP for the Scarborough-Guildwood riding, first presented the bill to the House of Commons in 2009.
“We had help from the University of Ottawa, the University of Toronto, and McGill University Law programs. … We’ve had every NGO in Christendom sign on. We have a pretty bullet-proof piece of legislation,” said McKay.
McGill Law professor Richard Janda helped formulate the wording and possible objections to the legislation as part of an informal working group.
“[The bill is] about managing, first and foremost, the basis upon which Canada puts money into operations abroad. Secondly, it’s about setting up a way of determining whether standards are being met,” said Janda.
Despite the years of work put into the bill, neither McKay nor Janda were certain it would pass. A diverse array of lobbyists have mobilized against the bill, including Canadian mining companies Barrick Gold and Goldcorp, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC), and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
“They’re going to have [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper’s minions attack you, all 450,000 of them. The government would like to terminate this bill with extreme prejudice,” said McKay.
The main arguments against passage of the bill are that it would invoke an extra-territorial application of Canadian law, and that it would damage the finances and reputations of Canadian mining companies.
“We agree with the principles of accountability. We don’t agree with the methodology the bill is trying to put into place,” said Bernarda Elizalde, Program Director of Sustainable Development at PDAC. She also said that unnecessary investigations stemming from passage of the bill “could damage [a company’s] image based on some allegations.”
Susanna Cluff-Clyburne, Director of Parliamentary Affairs for the Chamber of Commerce, said the potential withdrawal of federal funding from Canadian mining companies could have severe effects on the companies’ business, and the Canadian economy as a whole. The Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) is a major source of federal funding for Canadian mining companies.
“[The bill] would cut [financial] resources, and diplomatic resources from Canadian companies. It leaves nobody better off,” she said. “For many Canadian extractive companies…[federal] funding is critical,” she added.
The bill is likely to die in the Senate, if not first in the Commons. McKay said the Senate had a “super-veto” in place against all Private Member’s Bills the Conservatives don’t want to pass.
“The Senate would not welcome this legislation with open arms. There would be an effort to study it to death,” said Janda.
If the bill is not passed in the Senate before the next federal election, it would have to be issued again at the start of the next Parliamentary session.
The invisible gold rush
According to a 2009 PDAC report obtained by the NGO MiningWatch – and posted on their website on Tuesday – Canadian mining companies are implicated in four times as many violations of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a form of corporate self-regulation, as mining companies from other countries. Canadian companies and global industry leaders such as Barrick Gold have had a number of mines in developing countries under scrutiny.
The report describes that, of 171 CSR violations reported since 1999, Canadian companies accounted for 33 per cent. The report also says that Canada has over 75 per cent of the world’s mining and exploration company headquarters, and that “it follows that there should be a proportional concentration of CSR violations. While our analysis suggests this is the case, this does not make the individual or corporate violations any more ethically acceptable.”
McGill History professor Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert was conducting research on the history of the central Mexican town of San Luis Potosí in 2001 when, through information gleaned from one of his colleagues, he started to investigate a Metallica Resources mine near the town.
One case involved local lawyer Enrique Rivera Sierra challenging the Canadian-operated Metallica Resources (now New Gold) mine on the outskirts of the town. Rivera Sierra was the legal representative for the Frente Amplio Opositor (FAO), which fought Metallica Resources and the ecological damage the mine brought to the town in the mid-1990s.
“The project destroyed plant life and wildlife that was very important to the region. There was water pollution, air pollution, [and] soil pollution,” said Rivera Sierra in Spanish.
Studnicki-Gizbert later presented his findings to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development.
His investigations soon became the catalyst for a broader investigation into the environmental and human rights violations of Canadian mining companies in Latin America.
“The project was illegal under Mexican law,” he stressed.
The FAO says that the cyanide-leaching gold and silver mine will contaminate the local aquifer that provides water for 1.5 million people and 73 per cent of the local agriculture.
“Mining in Latin America happens in densely populated zones. People are using the land intensively, and need the land for their livelihoods,” said Studnicki-Gizbert.
There was little mining in Latin America in the early 1990s, but developments in open pit mining – a far more invasive and ecologically unstable method of extraction – began a gold rush midway through the decade. According to Studnicki-Gizbert, the average concentration of gold is around half a gram per ton of earth, but open pit mining is able to capture this small but abundant concentration.
“It’s an invisible gold rush. The scale of gold has gone down so much, you need an electron microscope to see it,” he said.
The open pit system has had disastrous effects on the environment throughout Latin America.
Studnicki-Gizbert described how, when sulphurs in the soil are exposed to the air in an open-pit mine, they metabolize and generate acids that acidify the water and soil. He also described heavy metals like arsenic, magnesium, and lead which have been known to leech into the soil.
Open pit mines are designed to contain these waste products within “tailing ponds.” Studnicki-Gizbert said that tailing ponds, however, often fail to prevent toxic material from permeating the natural environment in surrounding towns.
“The reaction goes on for centuries,” said Studnicki-Gizbert. “The waste pile for an open-pit mine is the size of Mount Royal.”
Studnicki-Gizbert said that companies often claim they are aware of risks associated with tailing ponds, and take measures to mitigate the risks, but that the costs in time and money of such projects are so high that they can’t stop pollution that will affect regions for centuries.
“It takes hundreds of millions of dollars to do. They spend years working on this shit,” he said.
“They’re playing with really big dice on these mines. Do we want to be trashing other people’s environments for one-hundred years?”
Rivera Sierra said he was beaten and intimidated by corrupt state government and paramilitaries allegedly hired by Metallica Resources.
“The government used the police to repress freedom of speech. One year before I left Mexico I was attacked by…[people] that are helping the mining company,” said Rivera Sierra. “My life was in danger.”
Rivera Sierra fled to Canada and gained refugee status in Montreal in May 2007, where he knew people from FAO were already living.
“The companies are terrorists…they assassinate people, they beat people, communities disappear,” said Rivera Sierra, who alleges that in 2006, after condemning the San Luis Potosí mine, the town mayor was assassinated by paramilitaries.
Nine community activists across Latin America were killed in 2009 for their work against Canadian mining projects.
Student groups and NGOs have mobilized to promote Bill C-300, reach out to MPs, and inform people of the violations associated with Canadian mining projects in Latin America. Greenpeace McGill and the McGill chapter of Amnesty International are a part of this effort and a rally is scheduled to take place outside the Shatner Building at 1 p.m. today.
“[The Bill] is in the interests of protecting both human rights and the environment,” said Nora Hope, Campaign Coordinator for Greenpeace McGill. “Many Canadians are unaware that this Bill will be voted on next week.”
“If those companies want the benefits of being Canadian, they should comply to the rules we as Canadians think are just,” said Sean Phipps, a member of Greenpeace McGill.
According to Elizalde, the 2009 PDAC-commissioned report detailing the extent of these environmental and human rights violations in developing countries was never meant to be made public. She said that it was “totally unethical” that MiningWatch made the report public.
“It was an incomplete study. It deals with unproven allegations and unproven violations,” said Elizalde.
“The problem isn’t human rights,” she added. “The problem is that companies have problems with community engagement. … [It’s] like any other human relationship: sometimes there are misunderstandings. Sometimes there are fights.”
Mining companies Barrick Gold, Goldcorp, and IM Gold have commissioned their own reports, conducted by retired Supreme Court of Canada Judge Frank Iacobucci, to expose the flaws in Bill C-300. The report will be released before the vote next week.
Regardless of whether the bill passes or not, Rivera Sierra remains skeptical that it would bring sweeping change to how mining companies conduct business in developing countries, given political ideologies and corruption. Studnicki-Gizbert said that Mexico has a sophisticated system of environmental regulation, but that enforcement is a serious problem.
“We don’t have a lot of confidence in the bill, and we don’t have much confidence in the MPs. Countries like Canada make lots of laws, they talk very, very well, and they say many things, but the fact is that they are countries that [profit] from the companies,” said Rivera Sierra.
“[Stephen] Harper in Canada, Felipe Calderón in Mexico…this type of president seems to defend the interests of the companies. …We are not going to achieve much. … We have to follow the political system that allows the companies to come here.”
In an earlier version of this article the caption of the graphic showed the “location of ownership of CSR violating companies.” In fact, it shows the “location of ownership of companies with alleged CSR violations since 1999.” The Daily regrets the errors. A paragraph stating that 75 per cent of mining and exploration companies are headquartered in Canada was also added.