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.
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.
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.
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.
One 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