Donuts and mining: Canadian elections, trade and foreign policy

This week’s guest writer is Anna Vogt, MCC advocacy and policy analyst for the Latin America Caribbean region. She lives in Bogota, Colombia and is from Canada’s Yukon territory. This piece originally appeared on MCC’s Latin America Advocacy Blog.

I was in a grocery store in a small Colombian city the other day, hoping against hoping to find the elusive holy grail of imports: cheddar cheese. While I did not find any cheese, what I did come across was even more unlikely. There, in the middle of the bakery section, were stacks of boxed donuts, each one adorned with a maple leaf sticker proudly proclaiming the contents a Product of Canada.

Just like those donuts, we may not often expect to find Canada in Latin America, yet the longer I live in Latin America, the more I learn of Canadian presence in the region.

The Marlin Mine,  San Marcos, Guatemala.  Photo by Anna Vogt

The Marlin Mine, San Marcos, Guatemala. Photo by Anna Vogt

We are currently in the midst of an election campaign in Canada, but within all the rhetoric, there is not a lot of honest analysis about our policies outside of Canadian borders, especially in the Americas. Part of what it means to be part of an active citizenship, however, is being aware not only how Canada’s policies impact Canadians, but how our policies also impact those living in other parts of the world, such as Latin America.  What Canada does as a country in the rest of the world shapes who we are as Canadians? Elections are a strategic time to think critically about connections and possibilities.

The current government has three goals for its engagement in the American Hemisphere, first outlined in 2007 under the title The Americas: Our Neighbours, Our Priority:

  • Increasing Canadian and hemispheric economic opportunity;
  • Addressing insecurity and advancing freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law; and
  • Fostering lasting relationships.

In practice, these goals have been highly focused on trade and economic policy in the region, implemented through Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). Currently, Canada has Free Trade Agreements with seven countries in Latin America (Honduras, Colombia, Panamá, Perú, Costa Rica, Chile and Mexico) and is in negotiations for five more (Caribbean community, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic).

Guatemalan community displaced to build the Marlin Mine. Photo by Anna Vogt.

Guatemalan community displaced to build the Marlin Mine. Photo by Anna Vogt.

Trade can have a positive impact on a society, but if precautions are not taken, engaging in trade with few regulations in countries of conflict or with high levels of human rights violations can increase harm and cause negative social impacts. In the majority of Canadian FTA negotiations, local civil society has spoken out against the agreement because of fear of worsening conditions. Colombia, for example, is the most dangerous country in the world to be a union leader. Civil society worries that the current FTA, which does not adequately monitor its impact on human rights, provides implicit approval for impunity. Also in Colombia, the FTA has opened the doors for assault weapons export–weapons currently banned in Canada–to Colombia, a country that already has over six million internally displaced people because of violence.

Many of our FTAs facilitate Canadian company access to extractive sectors in Latin American countries. These corporations are viewed as the most important actors in generating economic growth, yet there is a concerning lack of accountability, amid accusations of human rights violations and irreparable environmental destruction. Currently, Canadian companies are only responsible for upholding voluntary corporate social responsibility standards. As a recent Globe and Mail article states “Canada is host to 75 per cent of the world’s largest exploration and mining companies, as well as more than 100 medium– to large-sized oil and gas companies, many of which operate in developing countries. Major and minor players in Canada’s extractive industry have been the subject of serious allegations of complicity in grave human rights abuses.”

Small farm near the Marlin Mine. Photo by Anna Vogt.

Small farm near the Marlin Mine. Photo by Anna Vogt.

The Marlin Mine in Guatemala, owned by the Canadian company GoldCorp, is one of the most emblematic for concerns raised about human rights violations, environmental degradation and lack of prior consultation, but it is not unique. In Honduras, for example, Canadian mining has displaced Indigenous groups and contributed to violence, after an FTA was signed after a military-backed coup in 2009.

In fact, laws and regulations currently in place favour the activities of Canadian companies abroad above all other considerations.  A report entitled The Impact of Canadian Mining in Latin America and Canada’s Responsibility, outlines how Canadian companies are taking advantage of, and actively encouraging, weak legal frameworks around extraction in multiple Latin American countries.

It is important to keep in mind that previous governments, from other political parties, have also encouraged similar policies in the past, especially where extractive industries and free trade are concerned. We must hold all parties and candidates to account on these issues.

Let’s make sure, therefore, to ask questions to all parties about their foreign policy platforms when in office, including questions about economic policies. Is trade conditional on human rights standards being met by local governments, or does Canada engage in trade under any condition? How will different parties regulate Canadian companies working abroad accountable to respect human rights and uphold environmental protections?

As a Canadian living in Latin America, I would like Canada to be more known in the region for its donuts than for harmful foreign policy. Sadly, this has not been the case so far, but elections are a great opportunity to raise critical questions and demand change.

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