Persons Day

October 18 is Persons Day in Canada. It is a time to remember and celebrate the historic 1929 decision of what was then Canada’s highest court of appeal – the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain – to include women in the legal definition of “persons”.

The idea that women would not be considered persons seems absurd today and even more ridiculous to think that this was the case less than 100 years ago. Aren’t all human beings persons? Apparently not in Canadian law before 1929 when the definition was still based on a section of the British North America Act of 1867 which stated only “qualified persons” could be given rights such as owning property, voting, and sitting in the House of Commons and the Senate.  Of course, the Canadian government chose to interpret this phrase as meaning men only.

The notion was only challenged when five (now famous) women sought change and on October 18, 1929, the Privy Council of Great Britain announced “the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours. And to those who would ask why the word ‘person’ should include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?”

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Why not indeed. Women have proven themselves very capable in public office.

Emily (Ferguson) Murphy was the first woman in the British Empire to be appointed a police magistrate in 1916. However, a lawyer repeatedly challenged her rulings, claiming that she was not legally a “person.” In 1927 she led the legal challenge now known as the Persons Case.

She was joined by four other courageous determined women: Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, and Henrietta Muir Edwards. Together they implemented an obscure provision in the Supreme Court of Canada Act that said any five persons acting as a unit could petition the Supreme Court for an interpretation of any part of the constitution or at that time the British North America Act.

When Louise McKinney was sworn in to the Alberta Legislature in 1917, she became the first woman to sit in any legislature in the British Empire.

Appointed as Minister without a Portfolio in Alberta in 1921 Irene Parlby became only the second woman to serve as a cabinet minister in the British Empire and represented Canada at the League of Nations in 1930.

Nellie McClung was the first woman on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)’s Board of Governors, and a delegate to the League of Nations in 1939.

Henrietta Muir Edwards was active in prison reform and published and financed the first Canadian magazine for working women.

Today each of these amazing “persons” has a statue on Parliament Hill.

with the famous five (May 2015)

MCC Ottawa Office staff Rebekah Sears, Esther Epp-Tiessen, Monica Scheifele, and Jennifer Wiebe with Famous Five statues on Parliament Hill. Photo by Alison Ralph, MCC

As four women who have benefitted from their trail blazing, MCC Ottawa Office staff often visit these statues to remember their commitment to change. If not for their efforts there couldn’t be 41 (out of 105) female Senators and 89 of the current Members of Parliament might not be women. There wouldn’t be a gender balanced cabinet or a Feminist International Assistance Policy.

Unfortunately, there are still times and places even in Canada when women aren’t truly seen as “persons”.  When their voices aren’t heard or their contributions and accomplishments properly recognized.

On this Person’s Day may we remember that we are all created in God’s image. Every human being is a person with rights. We all have a role to play in bringing about positive change for a more a just world. Let us learn from the impressive examples of the many women before us who refused to give up and kept advocating for change until they were heard.

By Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for the Ottawa Office

No Way to Treat a Child

It was the middle of the night when Israeli soldiers came to 15-year-old Jarrah Masalmeh’s home to arrest him.

Jarrah Mesalmeh in the barbershop he runs below his family home. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

Over the next five days, Jarrah’s family had no idea where he was being detained.

When they attended court during the trial ten days later, the family still couldn’t speak to their son.

Eventually convicted of throwing stones—something he says he didn’t do—Jarrah was sentenced to nine months in military detention, in a jail far away from his home.

When he was released, he wasn’t the same young man.

Unfortunately, Jarrah’s Masalmeh’s story is far from an isolated incident.

Two legal systems…two different experiences

Every year, hundreds of Palestinian children in the West Bank—like adults—face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment under an Israeli military detention system that denies them basic rights.

Most are accused of throwing stones.

Since 1967, Israel has operated two separate legal systems in the same territory. While Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are subject to military law (where army commanders have full executive, legislative and judicial authority), Israeli settlers in the West Bank are subject to civilian law.

  • In more than half of all cases, arrest happens in the middle of the night by heavily armed Israeli soldiers;
  • During transfer, children are often blindfolded, hooded and/or painfully restrained with zip ties;
  • In the majority of cases, children are interrogated without legal counsel and without access to a parent or guardian;
  • Interrogations tend to be coercive, including verbal abuses, threats and physical violence that ultimately results in a confession;
  • Children are often shown, or made to sign, documentation written in Hebrew, a language most do not understand;
  • After sentencing, more than half of Palestinian child detainees are transferred from occupied West Bank to prisons inside of Israel—a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Upon release from prison, these children are typically traumatized, cautious about ever leaving the house for fear of going straight to prison again without question.

Relationships with their parents become strained, as there is a sense that they can no longer be protected.

There is a profound impact on children and families alike.

Why does it matter?

Beyond the moral questions, these practices are all in violation of international law, which protects children against ill-treatment when in contact with law enforcement, military and judicial institutions.

For instance, the UN Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)—both ratified by Israel in 1991—prohibit the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment under any circumstances. Full stop.

The CRC outlines, among other things, that:

  • The best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in all actions (Article 3);
  • Children should only be arrested and detained as a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible time (37);
  • Children have the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment (37); and
  • Children in custody have a right to prompt access to legal advice and to a prompt hearing before an independent court (37).

In other words, Israeli authorities have no right to treat Palestinian and Israeli children differently under the civilian and military legal systems.

What can we do in Canada?

Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, third party countries like Canada have an obligation to hold Israel to account for these violations—by cooperating with other states to bring an end to the situation, refusing to recognize the situation as lawful, and abstaining from giving aid or assistance.

In short, Canada has international obligations.

The No Way to Treat a Child campaign—led by Defence for Children International – Palestine—is urging Canada to live up to these responsibilities, in word and in deed.

As a first step, the campaign is inviting Canadians to sign a petition to the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, calling on Canada to prioritize the human rights of Palestinian children and to hold the Israeli authorities accountable for widespread and systemic ill-treatment of Palestinian child detainees.

We invite you to learn more, and join us as we work to draw attention to the situation faced by Palestinian children and their families!

By Jenn Wiebe, Ottawa Office Director

MCC participates in this initiative in both Canada and the U.S. In Canada, MCC’s engagement with No Way to Treat a Child is part of its own A Cry for Home campaign. 

 

Canada 150 – Two rivers

by Kerry Saner-Harvey, Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba Program Coordinator – Indigenous Neighbours. This is the second in a series of reflections on Canada 150.

For many it’s a time for celebration. Others lean towards lament. Either way, perhaps “Canada 150” can be for us an invitation to “re-imagine” our nation going forward in the next 150 years.

Historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson has suggested that nations are “imagined political communities” in which we hold in our minds a mental image of ourselves in kinship with a large number of people whom we have mostly never met. This mental image frames our identity in relation to each other, and thus we also make certain assumptions about how others in “our nation” see that relationship as well. In the case of a nation state like Canada, this also includes assumptions about our political history and relationship to the Land on which we reside.

RCAP_Logo_rev2016At a conference marking the 20th Anniversary of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Mark Dockstator from the First Nations University of Canada shared a provocative image of how European Settlers and Indigenous peoples have each imagined our histories.

Drawing upon the Two-Row Wampum from the Haudenosaunee legal tradition, he illustrated how each of us have imagined our history differently. In the almost universal Euro-Canadian paradigm up until 50 years ago, Indigenous peoples either didn’t exist at all or were imagined as “Indians” that needed to be assimilated into our historical stream or erased—essentially as “citizens minus.”

So, if I were to elaborate, while Indigenous peoples may have imagined themselves rowing their own canoe in their own river, if we Settlers perceived them at all it was to be brought aboard our steamship of civilization—or else tied on behind in some small broken-down canoe, pulled along in the wake of our river, if not already lost and forgotten somewhere downstream.

canoe on river

Unfortunately, we know that in many ways we are still taking away their paddles (or outboard motors) and dragging them along behind us.

Northern Stores and our welfare practices continue to create economic dependency. And northern mining and hydro development often care less about their consent than their compliance. I often hear that autonomy over Land remains one of the most important concerns for Indigenous communities today. Colonization is about taking away control and autonomy of a people, in whatever form that takes.

Around 1970, Dockstator suggests a significant number of Euro-Canadians began to perceive a diverging stream, as Canadian Settlers finally began to hear Indigenous claims to land and constitutional rights. Since then self-government and Nation-to-Nation negotiations not only emerged into our realm of possibilities, they began to slowly happen. We’ve begun to imagine a shift from “citizens minus” to “citizens plus” as we recognize much of the harms done and seek alternatives.

So, in our evolving Settler view of history, we look back on the last decades and see a new stream that has begun to diverge from our river. We now more broadly acknowledge that Indigenous peoples deserve to row in their own canoes. And this is significant.

But, as I think on this, I wonder if perhaps the Sepik Siawireal challenge for us Settler Canadians, looking back on the past 150 years, is to alter our perspective enough to re-imagine that Indigenous peoples have never really been traveling on our river in the first place.

Dockstator suggested that Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island have more or less always imagined themselves as sovereign. As far back as 1613, the original Two-Row Wampum (Tawagonshi) Treaty, the Haudenosaunee confederacy asserted that their Indigenous River should remain separate and parallel. Thomas King, in The Inconvenient Indian, reminds us that Aboriginal sovereignty is “a given”—and in fact has even been recognized in the U.S. and Canadian constitutions and Supreme Court decisions (194).

Perhaps we could look back across the field and see that the stream we thought has been branching from our river, has really been their own river all along. In other words, it never has been and still is not up to us to grant Indigenous peoples rights or sovereignty. To think this way is to recolonize history by assuming that we’ve been the ones to define the relationship since European contact. Rather, Indigenous Sovereignty is a continuous reality that we need to re-imagine for ourselves and to begin to act upon.

Perhaps we might even consider that our right to paddle in our river here actually emerged from the graciousness offered to us through the sacred Indigenous legal tradition of the treaties.

Of course, this is just about shifting our own Canadian Settler imaginations. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) reminds us it is Indigenous peoples’ right to journey their own river in whatever canoe or speedboat or cruise-liner they wish to travel in.

In an ever shifting political landscape, we all need to navigate carefully, but if we are willing to be intentional and creative in recognizing the two rivers flowing independently, we will hopefully find a way to reconciliation and peace in the generations to come.

Hope & Sumud – 50 Years of Israeli Military Occupation

By Seth Malone, Peace Program Coordinator, MCC Palestine and Israel

Today—June 5, 2017—marks the 50th year of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Under international law, military occupation is always meant to be temporary. This is because the longer an occupation lasts, the more likely it is that respect for human rights and dignity are eroded. This is certainly the case in Palestine and Israel.

Magad Amgad

Magad Amgad from al-Najd Developmental Forum, an MCC partner organization in Gaza, walks through a strawberry field. This MCC-funded agricultural project aims to provide greater food security for the people of Gaza who have been subjected to a 10-year blockade imposed by Israel.

Day in and day out, Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) partners work tirelessly to help their communities grow and flourish. Our partners come up against the worst aspects of the Israeli military occupation but continue to work for justice and peace all the same. From rehabilitating homes destroyed in war, to providing counseling services to women whose husbands have been killed, to organizing against the construction of the separation barrier that devastates every community that it snakes through, our partners are active and hopeful despite all odds.

In Arabic, this “steadfastness” or “perseverance” is called sumud. Sumud, in the face of occupation, has become an indispensable part of Palestinian life and the work of MCC’s partners.

Nowar Educational Centre

Children at the Nowar Educational Center of MCC partner Culture and Free Thought Association are making materials for their community advocacy campaign for traffic safety, January 19, 2017

Despite five decades of brutal military occupation, our partners and the people of Palestine continue to embody sumud. This is because—despite all evidence to the contrary—they believe there is hope. In 2009 the Palestinian Christian churches issued a statement called “A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” Known popularly as the Kairos Palestine document, it describes hope in this way:

“Hope within us means first and foremost our faith in God and secondly our expectation, despite everything, for a better future. Thirdly, it means not chasing after illusions – we realize that release is not close at hand. Hope is the capacity to see God in the midst of trouble, and to be co-workers with the Holy Spirit who is dwelling in us. From this vision derives the strength to be steadfast, remain firm and work to change the reality in which we find ourselves. Hope means not giving in to evil but rather standing up to it and continuing to resist it. We see nothing in the present or future except ruin and destruction. We see the upper hand of the strong, the growing orientation towards racist separation and the imposition of laws that deny our existence and our dignity. We see confusion and division in the Palestinian position. If, despite all this, we do resist this reality today and work hard, perhaps the destruction that looms on the horizon may not come upon us.”

This is not a passive hope. This is a hope which calls all of us to action—to act in solidarity with those who suffer. It calls us to responsibility. In the face of such injustice and violence, we are called to act justly and peaceably in the hope that God can take our humble actions, multiply them and make them bear fruit. We are called to remain steadfast—to embody sumud—by never giving up on our responsibility to God and our neighbour.

Such a hope and such a steadfastness is terrifying for those bent on propping up such a terrible occupation. The resistance, however small it may be, will always be the quiet voice that bears witness to truth, and tells the world that this unjust and evil occupation must end.

Omar Haramy

Omar Haramy leads a group through Sabeel’s Contemporary Way of the Cross, which takes participants to locations representing the various forms of Palestinian suffering. In the background are soldiers preparing to discharge tear gas and rubber bullets at children who were throwing rocks in Shoufat Refugee Camp in Jerusalem. Sabeel, the Palestinian Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, is an MCC partner organization that seeks to deepen the faith of Palestinian Christians in Palestine and Israel and works for justice, peace and reconciliation by using nonviolence.

So let us have the courage to join this resistance. Let us call for justice and peace. Let us call for an end to this occupation.

A note to Canadians:  Please send a message to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, letting her know that 50 years of occupation is enough.

When he woke up, the monster was still there

By Nancy Sabas, Connecting Peoples Coordinator for MCC Guatemala/El Salvador. She is from Honduras. Her reflection was originally published on MCC’s Latin America Advocacy Blog.

banana

“When he woke up, the monster was still there”[i]: The conflict of Banana and Oil palm companies in La Blanca community.

Tell me, given that you are a journalist and I didn’t go to school:
Drying lagoons is equal to development?
Fumigating communities is equal to development?
I didn’t go to school, but I know that that is not development
I am illiterate and I know that that is a violation.”

– Farmer and community member of La Blanca community.

A couple of months ago, I travelled to the community of La Blanca to interview neighbours and leaders of the South Shore Communities in Defense of the Territory along with the Co-Country Representative of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the MCC Advocacy Analyst for Latin America and the Caribbean to learn more about the issues of monocrops and agro-industry in Guatemala.

I recognized the community immediately; I had seen it in the documentary “Ocos Despierta” produced by the Pastoral of the Earth from the Diocese of San Marcos, which we usually watch with the learning groups when discussing monoculture and agro-industries. The scene that always catches my attention is one with a man in the middle of the Zanjón Pacayá river who denounces the killing of fish, which he claims is caused by contamination from the toxic waste disposed of by the banana and oil palm companies in the area. This scene seemed peculiar for the language used, which not only reflects his concern about community subsistence, but also his love and anguish for a river that he understands as alive and in the process of being killed. This man´s connection with mother nature, as portrayed in that scene,  made me despise a little my own urbanity that has taught me to see nature as a mere resource.

Unfortunately, this poor understanding of nature as a commodity that can be abused and exploited is the legacy of a capitalist logic. Under this logic, the agroindustry of mono-cultures in communities such as La Blanca, Guatemala, is destroying ecosystems under the banner of development.

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Monoculture  is a growing industry. According to data from the National Agricultural Survey of 2014 (ENA), Guatemala’s second most important permanent crop, in terms of production volume, is oil palm. According to the ENA, palm oil production increased by 118% in 2014 compared to 2013. The cultivation of land for African palm, therefore also increased by 33%, compared 2013.[ii] Official data published by the ENA in previous years have shown inconsistencies compared to the data provided by the Union of Producers of Palm in Guatemala (GREMPALMA ) and other researchers, who estimate that the expansion of crops has been even greater.[iii]

Surely this industrial growth must be a reflection of an increase in cash flow. These mega-companies provide unskilled jobs and fund local infrastructure projects. Does this translate into an improvement in the quality of life for community members?

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“In the past we had three crops and now there’s only one,” says Eduardo Juarez, president of the organization of the 12 communities on the South Shore supported by local partner the Diocese of San Marcos, “There are children with skin diseases and respiration problems.” Another member added, “Our river Pacayá gave us fish for our own consumption and to sell.  People from Coatepeque and La Blanca used to come here to fish. In the winter the river regenerated through small ponds. The prairie area, El Tigre, had lizards, turtles and different species of animals. The Monticulo hill became known as the ‘charm’ because of the sounds of cocks crowing and other animals. Now, only the oil palm lives. It is unfortunate that 10 years have passed and nobody is doing anything. The prairie still appears on the map but it does no longer exist. This has affected our right to life and food”

Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva explains in an essay: “ Nature has been subjugated to the market as a mere supplier of industrial raw material and dumping ground for waste and pollution. It is falsely claimed that exploiting the Earth creates economic value and economic growth, and this improves human welfare. While human welfare is invoked to separate humans from the Earth and justify her limitless exploitation, all of humanity does not benefit. In fact most lose. Pitting humans against nature is not merely anthropocentric, it is corporatocentric”.[iv]

banana 1

Guatemala has failed to establish appropriate institutions or laws to oversee water use; this failure represents a huge accountability problem when agro industries, hydroelectric and mining companies use an enormous amount of water for their operations. The multinationals present in the community of La Blanca are Grupo HAME and BANASA. The Dole Fruit Company and Chiquita Banana are the main buyers of their banana production. According to local testimonies, the company BANASA and Group HAME had a legal conflict over the water coming from the river, the Ocosito, to perform their operations, leaving the community stuck in the middle.

According to members of La Blanca and independent investigations, companies use an estimated 40,000 gallons of water per minute. In a paper presented by the South Shore Communities in Defense of  the Territory in the IV TLA Public Hearing before the Latin American Water Tribunal, they state:

“The National Banana S.A. (BANASA) has built an irrigation and drainage system that connects the river Ocosito with the Pacaya River, which covers the entire planting and aims to control moisture conditions on the land. This causes two types of impacts to rural communities: (1) in summer / drought farmers suffer water shortage due to water extraction; upstream of the current with very low flow; and (2) in winter time/rainy season the population is affected by severe flooding increase in their crops and houses. In addition, the venting of water from the banana farms to the Pacayá river has caused industrial pollution and the presence of dead fish in it. (…) Multiple extraction authorizations are granted over rivers, generating conflict between companies and also between companies/communities, with the consequent reduction of flows that the communities need. The State has failed to conduct detailed studies of water systems.”[v]

Last year marked the 10th year of the struggle of the 12 communities of the South Shore. 10 years of demanding compensation for damages to communities, restoration of the prairies, closing off the canals and wells, the establishment of a water treatment system,conservation of rivers and the abolition of monocultures. 10 years full of dignity and resistance to a model that does not revere life.

“Confronting them feels like dealing with a monster” a member of the 12 communities of the South Shore reported. But somehow, that “monster” has been unable to silence their voices calling for justice and their right to good living.

Watch the Ocós documentary.

[i] Augusto Monterroso was a well recognized Guatemalan/Honduran writer, known for his one-sentence story:  ¨When he woke up, the Dinasour was still there”.

[ii] Republica de Guatemala: Encuesta Nacional Agropecuaria 2014.

[iii] Memorial de denuncia ante la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (2015) Washington. Mikkelsen, Vagn. (2013). Guatemala: Comercio Exterior, Productividad Agrícola y Seguridad Alimentaria Pg. 10

[iv] Vandana Shiva (2014) Economy Revisited. Will Green be the Colour of Money or Life?Global Research

[v] Resolucion Banano y su impacto en las fuentes de Agua Guatemala (2015) Tribunal Latinoamericano del Agua

Haiti is passionate

The international press offers a single narrative of Haiti – one of political instability, malnutrition, disease and devastation. “The poorest country in the Western hemisphere” – this is how Haiti is too often described, ignoring the many layers that comprise Haitian culture and customs and make Haiti one of the most fascinating yet least understood countries in the region.

In late May, four staff from MCC’s North American advocacy offices and the Colombia-based regional policy analyst visited Haiti for one week to engage with MCC Haiti partners with the goal of strengthening MCC’s Haiti advocacy work among its New York, Ottawa, Washington, Colombia and Port-au-Prince offices. During this time they got to encounter Haiti as it is, not as the sensationalist press so often describes it. What follows is Rebekah Sears’ description of Haiti as she experienced it. It originally was published on the MCC Haiti blog

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Members of CCODMIR and the Dominican human rights organization Centro Bono with the MCC team in Malpasse.  Photo/Ted Owald.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic (D.R.) are facing a migration crisis. For much of their history, tensions have been high between the two nations, most recently due to D.R. policies that discriminate against Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants. In 2013, a new law stripped tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship and, along with Haitian migrants, were made victim to sporadic and sometimes violent deportations to Haiti.

These policies and actions in the D.R. can be understood as a further attempt by the D.R. government to blame the country’s social and economic ills on Haitian migrants or Dominicans of Haitian descent, essentially scapegoating an entire group of people.

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When one person’s human rights are violated, everyone’s rights are violated.” — Pierre Garot Nere, Coordinator of CODDEMIR in Malpasse, Haiti. Photo/Anna Vogt.

During our journey in Haiti we spent time at the border, visiting those working on the front lines of this crisis. We met with members of a coalition of 15 Haitian groups, collectively known as CODDEMIR. For the past seven years, CODDEMIR (in English, the Collective of Organizations working for the Defence of Human Rights for Migrants and the Repatriated) has been pooling financial and human resources for one common goal of standing with the displaced from the D.R.

CODDEMIR engages in national and international advocacy on their behalf, through press releases, reporting, emergency assistance and education. Their passion and dedication spoke volumes to me; I felt hopeful creating a sense of hope as they shared their desire to protect  those who face difficult and divisive situations

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Stripped palms on Lake Peligre, in the border area of Malpasse. Photo/Anna Vogt.

The influx of people crossing the border since June 2015 has caused resentment in some Haitian communities. CODDEMIR has come alongside these communities to educate them about returnees’ needs. As a result, when CODDEMIR’s welcoming center is overcrowded, more local families and communities take displaced people into their homes.

Human rights groups, including CODDEMIR, are calling for significant action; action inside the D.R. to reverse laws discriminating against Haitians and those of Haitian descent, and action by the Haitian national government to come alongside migrants and also invest more in Haitian communities so people don’t feel they have to leave. They are also calling on the international community to pressure both governments to respond justly to the situation.

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In 2015 Michana (R) was living in the D.R. with her infant son. They were deported spontaneously and had no relations to help them on the Haiti side of the border. Miatrice (L) saw her crying on the side of the road and convinced her parents, who already had 8 people living in their home, to take them in. Terre Froide. Photo/Ted Barlow, Operation Blessing.

At the core, these organizations are calling for the recognition of our common humanity, encouraging all of us to welcome others, support each other, and stand together. In this, we can say that Haiti is passionate about welcoming and caring for others.

Rebekah Sears is a policy analyst with MCC’s Ottawa Office. 

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.

Marlin Mine

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