Mining takes center stage at CBERN conference

 

Mining industry stakeholders gathered in Montreal in late May, to take part in a public dialogue, sponsored by The Canadian Business Ethics Research Network, titled “Human Rights, Resource Extraction and First Nation Economic Development.”

 

Industry leaders, financiers, activists, researchers and other stakeholders discussed a variety of issues at the one day event, held as part of the group’s annual conference. These included aboriginal issues, sustainable development, and efforts to expand current corporate and social responsibility initiatives.

 

The most interesting exchanges occurred in a two-hour morning panel discussion about Bill C-300, a private member’s initiative being put forward by John McKay, a Liberal Member of Parliament from Scarborough-Guildwood, that would spell out the ethical responsibilities of Canadian mining companies that are engaged in resource extraction in developing countries.

 

The bill has its roots in recommendations made in the federal government’s Final Report of the Corporate Responsibility (CSR) roundtable process, many of which it declined to implement, such as instituting an effective complaints and sanctions mechanisms for companies that fail to comply with voluntary guidelines.

 

If passed, the new bill would require that Canadian companies that seek assistance from federal agencies such as Export Development Canada, the Canada Pension Plan and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, meet certain minimal eligibility criteria.

 

“Canadian mining companies are among the finest in the world,” said McKay. “However when you have 3,000 projects around the world there are going to be some issues. We can dismiss some of the NGO complains that we have been getting, but after a while we have to give them an ear. For example we have heard stories about Canadians traveling in Guatemala taking off their Maple Leafs because of the bad reputation that certain mining companies have given us there.”

 

John Lewis, who spoke on behalf of KAIROS, an ecumenical partnership that takes positions on social issues agreed. “Canadian mining companies that operate overseas right now are not regulated,” said Lewis. “We need to change that.”

 

While private members bills generally are not taken too seriously, McKay has already sponsored two of them which have received royal assent. His current initiative got a big boost recently when it passed first second in the House of Commons and it is currently in the Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs and International Development, for further study.

 

The main problem with private members bills is that they cannot commit government funds, which severely hampers Bill C-300’s effectiveness, said Murray Rankin, a partner with law firm Heenan Blaikie LLP. “It is a laudable effort,” said Rankin. “But it is flawed from a procedural point of view.”

 

“The bill does not even include the rudiments of due process such as the right to hear the other side,” said Rankin. “And the potential for the politicization of the entire process is quite high.”

 

If the new measures become law, complaints against Canadian mining companies are supposed to be reviewed by two ministers, who according to Rankin, would almost certainly pass the job on to subordinates. Furthermore, since Canadian governments change frequently, so would the party affiliations of ministers charged with conducting those reviews, which means that they would be handled inconsistently. To top it off the bill foresees no appeal process.

 

Other participants in the open forum acknowledged the Bill C-300’s weaknesses, but cited it as an example as a good first step forward, an opinion shared by MacKay. “The sanctions foreseen for those who violate the guidelines are very weak, small slaps on the fingers really,” said MacKay. “But you have to start somewhere.”

 

 

Peter Diekmeyer (peter@peterdiekmeyer.com) is a Montreal-based freelance business writer.

 

 

 

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