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Canada has greatly economically benefited from foreign mining, especially in Latin America where they own 50-70% of all mining industries. Often, these companies take advantage of institutional weaknesses, allowing for less responsible mining practices that harm workers, the environment, and locals, especially Indigenous communities. Specifically, economically vulnerable governments often loosen environmental and human rights regulations to attract investment, allowing Canadian firms to generate more profit without being overly concerned about ethical practices.
The actions of Canadian mining companies abroad have faced years of criticism from scholars, citizens, and the international community, yet very little has changed. The shift from the former pro-mining Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the current comparatively “progressive” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was anticipated to be a pivotal shift in operations. However, the Liberals have done very little to improve conditions and have proved that environmentalist policies and Indigenous sovereignty are put on the backbench when the prosperity of the Canadian economy is on the table, especially when violations occur in the Global South.
Canadian Sponsored Human Rights Violations in Latin America
Between 2000 and 2015, 28 Canadian mining companies were responsible for 44 deaths, 303 injuries (often inflicted during protests), and 709 criminalizations (including charges and arrests) across Latin America. Governments often provide little to no space for citizens to consult on mining projects, with many projects undertaken without the consent or knowledge of affected communities. Despite protest often being the only avenue to impact mining operations, protestors have been imprisoned, threatened, wounded, and killed. One of many examples is the 2009 confrontation between police and citizens resisting the building of the Petaquilla mine in Panama, where officers fired tear gas at protestors and arrested 19 farmers who were later physically abused and imprisoned.
Beyond violence incurred at protests, mining operations are devastating to the environment. Chemical contamination of waterways, deforestation, and erosion are only a few examples of the harm done by Canadian mining companies. Their activities create serious health impacts for those who inhabit the land, including skin disorders, infections, and respiratory diseases. Contamination and pollution also work to displace those who use local resources, often Indigenous communities. In addition to destroyed land causing displacement, mining operations often push local communities away through the forced establishment of mines.
Years of Escalation: The Harper Administration
From 2006 to 2015, Harper was a vocal supporter of overseas Canadian mining. His version of regulating the mining industry was the Corporate Social Responsibility Council, which focused on voluntary dialogue rather than concrete action and sanctions on companies committing human rights abuses abroad. Its ineffectiveness was unsurprising as it was likely never created with the intention of working.
Beyond Harper, pro-mining lobbyists and anti-regulation members of Parliament also contributed to the lack of action. A significant first step to pressure companies would have been the proposed Bill C-300, which would have attempted to establish more binding guidelines on mining and considered withdrawing government funds when countries breached these. Liberal MP John McKay proposed the bill, which all three opposition parties initially supported. However, worries about the bill impacting Canada’s competitiveness in Latin America and concerns from MPs representing mining-dependent ridings overrode the beginnings of impactful legislation.
Despite years of international criticism, the bill was defeated 140-134 in the House of Commons. One reason for this defeat may be the extensive lobbying by the Mining Association of Canada and various mining companies leading up to the vote. Barrick Gold’s lobbyists alone met with 22 MPs and 3 Senators. Of the 24 MPs absent from voting, a recorded 9 were lobbied by the mining industry. McKay stated that before the vote, lobbyists were so present that “you couldn’t turn around without bumping into one of them in the lobby.”
Continued Inaction: The Trudeau Administration
Trudeau was a welcomed alternative for Canadians discontent with Harper’s environmental policy. During his campaign speeches, Trudeau often emphasized his foreign policy as the antithesis of Harper’s and stressed his dedication to human rights and environmental protection. Before being elected, the Liberals also promised the establishment of an independent ombudsperson on mining. An ombudsperson is a designated official who investigates and resolves complaints, in this case, an avenue to regulate mining. This promise remained unfulfilled for four years, but a new wave of hope arose with the creation of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE), which was meant to replace Harper’s Social Responsibility Council. CORE had the power to recommend the government deny or withdraw funding and trade support on the condition that they are confident a company has contributed to human rights abuse.
Despite the Liberals’ criticism of the Social Responsibility Council, CORE relied on a similar structure. The primary failure of CORE is its inability to subpoena documents or force influential executives to testify in cases. Much like Harper’s watchdog, CORE is only effective when companies go against profit, their primary reason for existence, and willingly hand over evidence of potential wrongdoings. This is a naive ask and allows for key documents and people not to be considered in trials. The watchdog proved so inadequate that all fourteen union and NGO representatives who advised it resigned in the Spring of 2019, stating that the government had ignored their advice.
The government’s lack of action could not have been due to a lack of criticism. Numerous articles, books, films, and even four United Nations bodies have pushed for more stringent regulations from Canada on their overseas companies. Jamie Kneen of MiningWatch Canada states that giving CORE the ability to investigate would be relatively simple, that “the real issue is political will.” Above all, mining in Latin American countries, while profitable to Canada, is transparently disastrous to the environment and Indigenous sovereignty and creates daily human rights abuses. Even for a Prime Minister who did not run a new, “progressive” stance on environmentalism, regulating this industry should be a clear choice.
So Why Has Nothing Changed?
The first answer is profit. With Canadian mining assets abroad worth CAD 188.2 billion in 2020, Canada is only becoming more dependent on overseas mining. Canada’s preference for locating mines in Latin America may be due to loose legal frameworks, low tax burdens, and a lack of avenues to seek justice against human rights violations. These allow for low-cost and high-reward operations, at the expense of millions.
Another reason may be the Liberals prioritizing Canadian environmental policy over Latin America. Jamie Kneen comments on the party’s carefulness in picking fights; the success of their carbon tax is already significantly pushing their climate agenda, and that concession in other policy areas is necessary for domestic policy wins. Concessions in policy to appease voters are not unique to the Liberals. In the vote for Bill C-300, 4 of the 24 MPs who skipped the vote were New Democrats, primarily from ridings dependent on mining. While the Liberals receive international acclaim for reaching admissions targets and passing progressive environmental regulations in their home country, their actions overseas may receive less attention. For Canadians who do not realize their pensions fund human rights abuses, electoral favour may be easier won in domestic policy.
The lobbying demonstrated in Bill C-300 has also continued. Karyn Keenan of Above Ground criticizes the Liberals for succumbing to pressure from the mining and oil industries with their ineffective ombudsperson. One of the organizations that supported CORE was the Mining Association of Canada, the lobbying group with the most contact with the Canadian government from 2013 to 2018. Furthermore, between 2018 and 2019, the mining industry lobbied the Canadian government 530 times. This correlates to the 2018 promise to create an effective ombudsperson and the appointment of the actually powerless ombudsperson in 2019.
Canada’s numerous mining operations in Latin America are extremely harmful and require extensive policy change. A start would be the creation of an actually effective ombudsperson, similar to what the Liberal government promised but never achieved, one who has the power to subpoena documents and mandate testimony. Other steps require investigating before investment, creating avenues for victims to find justice (both in their home country and Canada), and overall responsibility by Canada for their international companies. However, these steps require sufficient will from the Canadian government on human rights in Latin America and to de-prioritize profit or domestic success — something that has proved consistently rare in the past several years.
Edited by Bethlehem Samson