A new era of accountability in Canadian mining, or business as usual?

Change often comes slowly, if at all. At least that’s what we’re told, especially when it involves the impact of advocacy on government policies and practices.

Ken Battle, President of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, coined the term “relentless incrementalism” to describe the often slow-moving nature of advocacy. Advocacy is often a laborious task requiring endless patience, as we often see only little droplets of change at a time.

But what happens when it is clear that a government has no intention of moving forward on particular legislation or actions that would bring about change?

This appears to be the case when it comes to enacting tougher accountability laws and standards for Canadian companies operating at home and abroad—something civil society advocates have long been calling for.

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Goldcorp’s Marlin Mine, San Marcos, Guatemala. Photo by Anna Vogt

In terms of global business, Canada is, by a wide margin, home to the majority (75%) of the world’s mining companies. In Latin America, specifically, in the last 10-15 years the proportion of Canadian companies active in exploration and extraction has increased significantly. According to MCC coalition partner the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC), in the five years between 2002-2007, the proportion of Canadian mining companies operating in the region jumped from 30 to 50 percent. Within certain countries, these numbers are up to 70 percent. Over 500 Canadian companies are active within Latin America, with investments of over $40 billion.

In many of the contexts in which Canadian companies operate, mining activities play a role in fueling violence and exacerbating tensions, damaging the environment, negatively impacting health, and causing community displacement.

In many mining-heavy contexts such as Peru, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, countless communities, civil society groups, and human rights defenders have also been threatened or targeted for speaking out against mining projects, particularly when the government has a vested interest in the profits.

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Citizens of Bucaramanga, Colombia defend their water supply from a Canadian-owned gold-mining project, 2013. Photo courtesy Pastor Virviescas Gómez / CBC.

Further, in many countries legal and illegal armed groups have a stake in the mining industry, either because they offer direct security services to mining companies or because they profit from the trafficking of natural resources. There have been many notable instances—Hudbay Minerals’ abuses in Guatemala, for example—in which the local security forces hired to protect mining projects are accused of carrying out violence and human rights abuses against nearby communities. When it comes to trafficking, in a context such as Colombia there have been reports that some illegal armed groups have abandoned the production and trafficking of illicit crops as a means to fund their operations in favour of controlling mining projects instead.

Companies fall under the laws and regulations of the countries in which they operate. Proponents of tougher corporate social responsibility, however, point to the weaker legal frameworks of host governments when it comes to things like environmental protection, working conditions, and transparency of financial reporting. And, even when the laws exist on paper, the lack of robust enforcement and broken judicial systems make them virtually meaningless.

Most of what the Canadian government has put in place when it comes to corporate social responsibility standards has been voluntary in nature and ineffective for holding companies accountable.

For instance, the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Counsellor, a position established in 2009 under the previous government to assess and mediate complaints about Canadian companies committing abuses abroad, has been widely criticized as having a mandate with little-to-no power. In addition to the process being entirely voluntary for companies, the counsellor has no civil or criminal powers of enforcement, nor can he/she impose remedy or issue sanctions against a company.

Reportedly, this mandate apparently will remain unchanged under the new Liberal government, despite earlier promises to the contrary.

In light of these realities, many civil society organizations such as Development and Peace, Mining Watch Canada, KAIROS, and Publish What You Pay are calling for a more robust system of corporate social responsibility in Canada.

open-for-justice-logo-temp-TRANS.PSDOne campaign, named “Open for Justice,” calls for a number of changes to Canada’s framework. This includes an independent ombudsman with the power to monitor, investigate and impose economic and legal sanctions on Canadian mining companies that violate clearly-established environmental or human rights standards. The campaign also demands that Canadian courts be open to hearing and processing complaints from communities where Canadian mining companies are accused of abuses and local judicial systems are broken.

During the fall election campaign, the Liberals promised to establish such an independent ombudsman. This is apparently no longer the case. Will they consider reassessing Canada’s CSR strategy overall to ensure better accountability for the extractives sector?

If Canada’s CSR standards remain unchanged, one has to wonder what kind of impact mining operations will continue to have in Latin America and around the world.

Do we dare to expect, or even hope to see, change on the horizon when it comes to the actions and consequences of Canadian mining operations abroad? Given how important the extractives industry is to Canada, how will values of justice, human rights, and sustainable development play against economic gain?

By Bekah Sears, MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

Let the little children come . . .

But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” – Mark 10:14

I read this familiar scripture text while travelling in Palestine a few weeks ago, specifically, the day we visited a Bethlehem refugee camp and learned about the life of children there. I read the text again a week later; it was posted on the wall of a Christian organization that provides rehabilitation services to children and youth who have been injured, detained or traumatized by political violence.

I have travelled to Palestine four times in the last dozen years.  This visit, more than others, I was touched with the devastating impact of military occupation on children.  Over and over I heard and witnessed how Palestinian children and youth are assaulted physically, emotionally and psychologically as they endure occupation. Israeli children suffer too.

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Boys play soccer next to the separation wall.  Photo Ryan Dueck

Palestine has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. Over the past 50 years, that occupation has become entrenched by a high separation wall, hundreds of checkpoints, severe restrictions on movement, and the growth of Jewish-only settlements in Palestinian territory. An end to the occupation is nowhere in sight, and another generation of Palestinian children is growing up without the hope of freedom.

At the Bethlehem refugee camp, in existence since 1948 when the creation of the state of Israel created 750,000 Palestinian refugees, a father tells us how his 5-year-old daughter expresses the wish her mother give birth to another girl rather than a boy – because a boy is so much more likely to be detained, injured or even killed. When a baby boy arrives, the daughter tells her parents her new brother should sleep in an inside room, away from the window, where he will be protected from the teargas and the bullets that are common occurrences.

As we walk through the refugee camp, our guide points to a wall listing some of the names of the 551 Palestinian children killed during Israel’s war on Gaza in July 2014.  It doesn’t list the 3,346 injured and the 10 percent permanently disabled. Life is very cheap for Gazan children, it seems. During my two-week stay in Palestine and Israel, two more Gaza children are killed by an Israeli missile attack, a brother and sister, 10 and 6 years of age.

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Schoolgirls in East Jerusalem walk along the separation wall. Esther Epp-Tiessen

A group of human rights lawyers tells us about children and youth in military detention. Defense for Children International, an NGO monitoring children’s rights around the world, has documented the arrest of 8,000 children since 2000.  Most of them have been detained for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. They are usually arrested by heavily-armed men during night-time raids, blindfolded and bound, taken to an unknown location without accompaniment and then interrogated at length.  While most youth detained are between 10 and 20, some are as young as eight years of age.

The lawyers tell us that the night raids are so terrifying, many mothers stay awake most of the night so that if soldiers arrive to conduct a raid, the mothers can waken their children quietly rather than have them woken by the door being smashed open by soldiers. (Not surprisingly, many mothers in Palestine suffer high levels of anxiety, headaches and hypertension.)

Children who are released from detention are severely traumatized. They sleep poorly, have recurring nightmares and often wet themselves. They typically withdraw from others, refuse to return to school or play with friends. Children who have been detained are 13 times more likely to drop out of school than others. Without rehabilitative help, young people who have been traumatized are much more likely to engage in violence and destructive behaviour themselves.

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Palestinian boys play with a kite while soldiers observe. Photo Ryan Dueck

As the occupation drags on, the hopes and dreams of young people fade and disappear.  Many youth cannot even imagine living freely in the land that is their home.  Another father, a longtime advocate for a free and independent Palestine, observes his daughter’s despair.  “Give up, Dad,” she says. “The Israelis have won; there will be no free Palestine.”  I wonder if despair is what drives Palestinian youth to attack Israelis on the streets of Jerusalem. Their actions are not defensible but they are understandable.

The occupation not only victimizes Palestinian children; it also harms Jewish Israeli children and youth.  At a new Jewish settlement In East Jerusalem (by international consensus, Palestinian land), I witness children playing behind a massive iron bar fence with separates them from soccer-playing Palestinian kids nearby. The Jewish children are guarded by a dozen or so machine-gun toting soldiers.  In a few years they will be soldiers themselves, as mandatory military service demands that they become part of the machinery that upholds the occupation.  I mourn that Jewish children and youth grow up with the sense that they are surrounded by danger, and that the only response is military might.

It is deeply and profoundly wrong that generations of Palestinian children have grown up essentially imprisoned in their own land.  It is deeply and profoundly wrong that Jewish Israeli children grow up learning that the security of their people requires the oppression of another.  It is unconscionable that much of the world continues to turn a blind eye.

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator of the Ottawa Office.

A Forgotten Epidemic

This week’s blog, first posted on Third Way Cafe, is written by Katharine Oswald, MCC policy analyst and advocacy coordinator in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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Haiti is home to the world’s worst cholera epidemic today. The outbreak was instigated in 2010, unknowingly, by United Nations (U.N.) peacekeepers. Five years later, Haitians are still waiting for an adequate response to this disaster.

I sat beneath an almond tree in Poirée, a rice-planting village on the outskirts of St. Marc, in northwestern Haiti. Though 40 townspeople formed a tight circle around my makeshift interview station, my attention was focused on the slight woman seated across from me.

“Did you contract cholera?” I asked her.

 “Yes.”

“Did anyone else in your family contract it?”

A pause. Her eyes darted from my own to the ground beneath us. Then Renette launched into her story: “My name is Renette Viergélan. I am 31 years old. In 2010, I was struck by cholera. While I was in the hospital, my baby also became sick with cholera. Before I regained consciousness, he had died.”

Renette has two surviving children, but she admitted her thoughts are ‘’consumed by the memory of [her] baby.’’ With her town’s continued reliance on river water and poor access to medical care, she is afraid she or her children will contract the disease again.

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Images of Renette Viergélan (far right) and other cholera victims were put on display across from U.N. headquarters in New York during General Assembly meetings in October 2015. Photo credit: New Media Advocacy Project.

It was September 2015, and I was interviewing cholera victims and their families as part of the Face | Justice campaign, which commemorated the five-year anniversary of cholera’s infamous introduction to Haiti. The campaign showcased images and testimonies of those affected by cholera at the U.N. in New York, Port-au-Prince and Geneva.

The pain wrought by cholera in Haiti is evident in individual stories like Renette’s. Yet the scale of the devastation is not grasped until one confronts the numbers – cholera has killed 8,987 Haitians and infected over 762,000. Joseph, a young man in a neighboring village, shared bluntly, “Every family in my community has lost something…because of cholera.’’

Cholera was unknown in Haiti before 2010. It travelled here through the unlikeliest of sources. Nepalese troops with MINUSTAH, the U.N.’s peacekeeping mission in Haiti, were stationed at a base near Haiti’s main river, the Artibonite. Sewage from the base, contaminated with a particular strand of cholera endemic to Nepal, leaked into the river when it was negligently disposed of by a U.N. contractor.

The disease quickly spread to all corners of the country. After a gradual reduction in infection rates over the past three years, new cases are now on the rise. It appears that cholera is in Haiti to stay.

The U.N.’s role in creating this humanitarian disaster is now undeniable, yet it still has not accepted responsibility for its actions. Instead it has developed a sweeping Cholera Elimination Plan–which is only 18 percent funded after five years of fundraising efforts. As a key decision-maker within the U.N. system, the U.S. government should use its unique position to help fund the Plan and encourage the U.N. to publicly acknowledge its negligence.

With such a poor international response, and the Haitian government reticent to make demands of the U.N., victims’ hope for remedies have waned. However, the people we spoke with are clear: they want their pain to be acknowledged; they want better lives for their communities; they want international donors to live up to their humanitarian principles; and they want the U.N. to finally face justice.

Refugees and Rights: A Compassionate Response

This week’s guest blog is written by Amy Matychuk, law student at the University of Calgary.

From February 18-20, I was part of a group of 30 students and MCC staff from across Canada who met in Ottawa to learn about refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons at the annual MCC Student Seminar. We heard from United Nations staff, from Members of Parliament, from civil servants, from MCC staff who work with refugees, and from volunteers with newcomers to Canada.Thomas' selfie photo

For two and a half days, we learned about displaced persons, Canada’s response to their needs, and ways in which we can help. Those who work intimately with refugees were able to provide our group with insights into the steep set of challenges that refugees face. I learned many details both about the Syrian refugee crisis and about refugees worldwide that helped to inform my perspective on how Canadians and Canadian Christians should respond.

Firstly, I was shocked to learn how few refugees have the opportunity to resettle in places like Canada and how many remain in refugee camps for indefinite lengths of time. I assumed that refugee camps were places of transition, but many people stay there long enough to have children and grandchildren. I found this fact heartbreaking, but also valuable to know as I respond to those around me who are upset or suspicious about the refugees the Canadian government is accepting.

So much of what news stories seem to focus on are things like security risks or the difficulty of integrating refugees or the amount of money spent on re-settlinmccstudentseminar-8g Syrians that could be used to benefit the lives of Canadians. In responding to these suspicion-filled narratives about refugee resettlement, I think it is helpful to focus on the humanity of people who have no choice but to spend huge portions of their lives with no opportunity to work, no access to education, and sometimes very little hope for their futures. Elizabeth May, one of the speakers, described the many years refugees spend in camps as “a waste of human potential.”

As Christians, we should be less concerned about our own wealth or safety than about being God’s hands and feet and participating in God’s work of, as Jeremiah 29:11 puts it, giving others the chance to prosper and to have a hope and a future.

Secondly, I learned about the difficulties refugees face once they reach Canada. As though being displaced from their home countries because of threats of violence wasn’t enough shock and upheaval for a lifetime, they often struggle with some aspects of integration.

For this new influx of Syrian refugees in particular, the government infrastructure for receiving refugees is sparse and disorganized. Because of linguistic and cultural barriers, they don’t know where to go grocery shopping, how to use public transit, or how to manage the very small living stipend that the government provides them (the same amount as a Canadian on social assistance).mccstudentseminar-9

These facts underscored for me how important it is to be on the lookout for those who need my help, as a Canadian and an English speaker but also as a friend, advocate, and listening ear. As a student, I can’t give much financially, but I realized that I still have time and skills that could dramatically change someone’s life for the better.

Thirdly, the presenters at the seminar challenged me to reconsider the way I view my rights as a Canadian. I can guard my rights jealously; I can protest that it is not my fault that I was born in a country that guarantees my rights to movement, expression, and religion, and that I should not be responsible for the well-being of people I have never met because I happened to be born in a wealthy country.

On their face, these statements are logical. Nothing legally forces me to be concerned for Syrian children in refugee camps, and there is no code that sets out my obligation to ensure their rights are respected. However, if I consider my rights as a Canadian alongside the values Jesus exemplified, I should instead be humbled that I did nothing to earn my good fortune. I should consider it the greatest and most significant expression of my rights as a Canadian that I seek to include others in the same freedom and opportunity that I enjoy.

In seeking to extend these rights as far as I can, I should avoid the temptation to fear that my own wealth or safety will be compromised. However compelling as these arguments may be, they are distractions that prey on my own greed and self-interest rather than enabling me to live as Jesus would have.

I hope that in the years ahead, Canadians will be able to look back and be proud of the welcome we extended when the vulnerable needed our help the most.

 

Sacred space, sacred journey

Upon entering, I was asked to remove my shoes, as this was now considered sacred ground.

I had gone to Carleton University’s Art Gallery to see a commemorative art installation meant to draw attention to the thousands of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women an01walkingposter-225x300d the injustice of residential schools. Entitled “Walking with Our Sisters,” I quickly realized this exhibit was something to be experienced, rather than simply seen. As the title suggested, I was invited on a journey to recognize and remember victims of violence and injustice.

Burning sweet grass filled the air as visitors were invited to smudge while audio recordings of over 60 traditional, honour, grieving, and ceremonial songs played softly in the background. The floors were covered with red cloth as well as the traditional medicine of cedars, on top of which were placed over 1,700 moccasin tops, or “vamps,” each pair created in memory of missing or murdered Indigenous women. An additional 108 vamps for children’s moccasins stood as reminders of those who did not return from residential schools.

Tissue boxes were strategically placed along the path, and I was thankful, as I found it hard not to be overwhelmed by the losses represented by so many unfinished moccasins.

Beside each box of tissue was a paper bag marked “tear collector” for used tissues. These tear collectors, along with small pouches of tobacco people could carry with them in their left hand near their heart to gather their prayers, would be burned in a sacred fire when the exhibit left Ottawa.

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Photo courtesy of Walking With Our Sisters

Each pair of vamps was incredibly beautiful and unique—just like the lives they were meant to honour. Some were obviously created by skilled hands, while others appeared to have been done by the less experienced. Yet all reflected a tremendous sense of love. The various designs and materials represented many cultures, experiences, beliefs, and dreams.

On viewing each vamp, I felt a mixture of sadness for the loss, celebration of the life that was, and hope that the awareness raised by this work would bring justice for those lost and those left waiting.

Perhaps the government’s promise for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls will be one more way Canadians can walk with our sisters and move the journey forward.

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Photo courtesy of Walking With Our Sisters

My feeling of being in a sacred space grew as I prepared to leave. But I stopped at the sound of live drumming. A small group of women who gathered in the center of the room began singing and praying as a new pair of vamps was “welcomed” and added to the installation.

At the end of this brief but moving ceremony, strawberries were distributed, and each of us in the room was invited to wait and to share this symbol of life together. Serving as a form of communion, it was a powerful reminder that while all these mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins, aunts, grandmothers, wives, and friends may be missing, they are not forgotten.

As I moved with the line of people slowly winding their way around the room, I found myself offering brief prayers for this sacred journey.

For those whose journeys were interrupted,
We take a step.
For those whose journeys ended violently,

We take a step.
For those who are lost, for those who are missing,

We take a step.
For those left behind to grieve,

We take a step.
For those with visible and invisible wounds that make their journey more difficult,

We take a step.
For those with nowhere to go,

We take a step.
For those filled with pain, despair, and anger,

We take a step.
For lost traditions and cultures,

We take a step.
For damaged relationships,

We take a step
For understanding and healing,

We take a step.

Creator God,
We ask you to guide our steps.
To bring meaning to our journey
That our steps may lead to healing
And our journey be one of reconciliation.

Amen.

By Monica Scheifele, MCC Ottawa Office Program Assistant