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The long reach of Canada’s mining industry

Written by Meera Karunananthan, Raul Burbano, Sakura Saunders and Jennifer Moore for The Hill Times. Published on October 8, 2012.

Major news stories recently provided a glimpse into the Harper government’s close ties with the mining industry. They hint at a cozy relationship that gives mining companies undue influence over Canada’s domestic and foreign policy, running counter to efforts to address the industry’s growing list of human rights and environmental violations.

MiningWatch Canada recently discovered in a leaked email that Goldcorp sponsored a junket for four Members of Parliament and one Senator to Guatemala at the end of August. Among those who traveled in the company of Goldcorp’s Chairman Ian Telfer, were Conservative MPs Dave Van Kesteren and Dean Allison, both members of the Foreign Affairs and International Development Committee. Goldcorp, among others, has actively participated in the committee’s study of the role of the private sector in international development, for a forthcoming Parliamentary report.

The Goldcorp junket also took place just after Indigenous organizations in Guatemala presented arguments in a constitutional challenge against the country’s mining law for failure to ensure pre-legislative consultation. President Molina had also recently pledged to modify the mining code, raising concerns among industry players.

Goldcorp’s Marlin Mine in Guatemala has been at the centre of constant controversy. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the Committee of Experts of the International Labour Organization and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Indigenous peoples have all urged a halt to the mine for lack of prior consultation with affected Indigenous communities and other impacts. Even the company’s own Human Rights Assessment said the company should halt further expansion or exploration at the site until adequate consultation could take place.

In late August, it was also revealed that Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, has close ties to Peter and Anthony Munk of Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold mining company. Wright is the godfather of Anthony Munk’s son and the two had previously worked together at Onex Corp, leading to speculation about possible lobbying over Canada’s relations with Argentina, where the company has significant interests. The federal ethics commissioner is now investigating.

Among Barrick’s many controversial operations, the Pascua Lama gold project is located on a glacier belt that straddles the border between Chile and Argentina. It threatens the water supplies and land rights of Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. The project is subject to a complaint before the IACHR from local Indigenous communities, and in May 2010, more than twenty organizations in Chile and Argentina published an open letter identifying problems with the project including outstanding lawsuits, the death of 15 mine workers, state sanctions against the company, irreparable damage to glaciers, and ongoing problems that Chilean and Argentinean farmers are facing. In October 2010, the Argentinean Congress passed a measure prohibiting mining in glacier and peri-glacier areas.

But this isn’t just about one or two controversial mines or a few political indiscretions. Canada has a special responsibility in this sector with some 60% of the world’s publicly listed mining companies on Toronto stock exchanges. These examples of lobbying and close government ties coincide with an increasing alignment between our public institutions, funds and policy development with the interests of the mining industry.

Modest attempts to introduce corporate accountability measures have been frustrated in the face of the same corporate lobby.

Such as was the case with Bill C-300, which sought to deny companies financial and political support if found in violation of international human rights standards, against which companies such as Goldcorp and Barrick Gold lobbied hard to prevent its passage.

Meanwhile, Canada is shoring up legal protections for its mining industry overseas by pursuing profoundly anti-democratic bilateral trade agreements that ensure the rights of Canadian companies continue to trump human rights, including in countries where there has been fierce opposition to mining and other significant impacts. Canada has also pledged a further subsidy to the industry, this time through foreign aid money to partnerships between billion-dollar mining companies and non-government organizations.

This initiative has been strongly criticized by groups like the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations who have asked CIDA to instead ensure that Canadian companies and states respect the rights of Indigenous peoples, given serious conflicts with companies such as Barrick Gold.

The appointment of Nigel Wright and the Goldcorp junket to Guatemala are symptoms of a much larger problem that must be addressed to bring about a reversal in the policy orientation of the Canadian government, if we hope to address the conflicts and costs this industry is having abroad.

Meera Karunananthan is International water campaigner for the Council of Canadians and Blue Planet Project. Raul Burbano is Coordinator of Common Frontiers. Sakura Saunders is Editor and Co-Founder at protestbarrick.net. Jennifer Moore is the Latin America Program Coordinator with MiningWatch Canada.