This is what the inside of a mine looks like. via Flickr.
While working on a piece I wrote last month about a Canadian gold mine being shut down by protesters in Kyrgyzstan, I came across a statistic that I thought must have been a mistake. With all of the noise and criticism both domestically and internationally of Alberta’s Tar Sands, it seemed to me shockingly underreported that 75% of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada.
All over the world, companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange and run out of lawyer’s offices on Bay Street or skyscrapers in downtown Vancouver (whose real financiers may live in Australia or Nevada) are handling the mining game at home, throughout parts of Asia, South America and surprisingly, even with all the talk of China’s investment in Africa, it turns out that it’s Canada, not China, who is quietly dominating and exploiting African mining. All told, almost 1,300 mining companies based out of Canada are investing hundreds of billions of dollars in over 100 countries around the world.
So the question is, why? What makes Canada such an attractive option for the ‘extractive sector’? Canadians don’t own all of these mining companies—but these organizations do plop their headquarters down here—what is it about this country that makes it such an industry haven?
I asked Jamie Kneen, research coordinator with Ottawa based MiningWatch Canada, a non-profit organization that describes itself as “a direct response to industry and government failures to protect the public and the environment from destructive mining practices and to deliver on their sustainability rhetoric.” Just why it is that Canada is the go-to place for mining companies to set up shop?
“There’s two sides to it,” he said. “One is that there is a concentration of expertise in mining finance and mining law, it does have a historical basis” He is of course referring to the various Canadian gold rushes, the nickel deposits in Sudbury, coal in Cape Breton, etc. “The other side is that Canada provides very favourable conditions. The listing requirements for the TSX are pretty lax, the disclosure requirements are pretty lax, you don’t have to have Canadian directories or Canadian shareholders to be a Canadian company... and the Canadian government doesn’t ask too many questions about whether you’re paying your taxes in other jurisdictions (i.e. foreign countries where the mines are operating).”
I was getting the impression that companies just pay taxes on their offices here and are sent on their merry way overseas to do whatever they want. I asked Jamie if there is any Canadian government oversight that’s keeping an eye on how these companies are operating—insofar as their relationships with the local populations, how they’re treating their employees, or the mine’s surrounding environments—and he responded: “In a word, no. There are really only two Canadian laws that apply internationally to mining practices, and one is against having sex with children. The other is against bribery and corruption. The RCMP has told us that there’s absolutely no way that they can control that at all. They’ve had a lot of resources thrown their way to try and make Canada look better as far as bribery and corruption activity abroad, but there’s way more than they can keep tabs on. It’s just kind of, cross your fingers and hope that they act responsibly.”
While the RCMP reportedly has trouble policing our overseas mining interests—and how could they not have trouble, when you think about it—there still have been some successful mining-bribery busts. Just this January, Griffiths Energy, based out of Calgary got booked offering a $2 million dollar bribe to the government of Chad on a resource deal. Try again, Griffiths.
While a Google search of something like “Canadian Mining Abuses” will turn up a plethora of stories that point to a systemic problem of conquistador and Avatar-esque narratives, here are a few examples from different regions that illustrate just how brutally these mining companies are acting while representing Canada overseas.
Barrick Gold Corporation is a name that comes up on a number of issues. Based out of the TD Canada Trust Tower at 161 Bay Street in Toronto, their gold mine in Papua New Guinea has been the site of fatal shootings as well as of hundreds of rapes, gang rapes,and beatings of indigenous women by the mine’s security forces. Barrick has acknowledged the problem by offering victims some compensation—on the agreement they sign away their rights to ever legally sue. I wasn’t able to find any evidence of Canadian government investigation or intervention in the matter.
In the Congo in 2005, Anvil Mining Ltd, based out of Quebec, allegedly provided logistical support and transportation to the Congolese militaryas it made its way to the port city of Kilwa where it massacred hundreds of people. A Canadian organization representing survivors of the massacre, the Canadian Association Against Impunity—whose mandate is to hold mining companies in Africa accountable for their actions—had their class-action suit thrown out by the Supereme Court of Canada, saying the complaint should be heard in the Congo (whose military the mine supported). This, again, reinforces my understanding that our mining companies can act with impunity overseas, without the threat of any legal repercussions in Canada.
Calgary based TVI Pacific has employed its own paramilitary force in a remote region of the Philippines to intimidate and remove the indigenous population from their ancestral lands so they can mine for gold. In one documented incident, members of TVI’s security force—all of which are employees of Canadian companies—entered the house of a local man, beat him with a hammer, smashed a small-scale piece of mining equipment that he owned – likely his only livelihood – then, just for good measure, slapped his pregnant wife, and shot at the feet of their teenage daughter.
A protest in Vancouver over our mining operations in Tibet. via Flickr.
The recklessness of Vancouver-based China Gold International left 83 Tibetan miners after a landslide in March—a natural disaster that many believe was caused by the environmental disruption that the mining industry has caused in the area. Apparently more than 5,000 Chinese troops were sent in to “serve as rescue efforts” but a Tibetan monk from the area, who lives in Canada, believes they were actually there to curb protests by the locals.
In Central and South America, Canada’s reputation is being dragged through the dirt to the point where in some countries, it’s apparently better for travellers to say they’re American than Canadian, and it’s not hard to see why. Vancouver-based Pacific Rim is suing the government of El Salvador, a country with a GDP of $23 Billion (Canada’s is $1.7 trillion) for $315 million dollars because they didn’t let them follow through with a mine that threatened to pollute the Lempa River—a watershed that accounts for 60% of the country’s clean water.
As if that’s not enough, a region of Guatemala was militarized last month—and the right to protest or form meetings has been suspended by the president—following clashes between local protesters who are concerned for their drinking water and employees of Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources inc.
While most companies probably do operate ethically and to the best of their ability—while maintaining healthy and sustainable relationships with local cultures and their environments—unfortunately these few stories really are the tip of the iceberg as far as Canada’s mining reputation that is beginning to be noticed as the worst in the world.
The basic Canadian government line on mining abroad, according to Jamie Kneen, is that “we expect Canadian companies to respect the law of whatever country they’re operating in and the fact is they may or may not. And that’s subject to whatever the law is in that country and their ability to enforce it.”
Despite the recent history of environmental abuses by our mining industry worldwide, we are still doing our best to keep up appearances with our global partners. Just a couple of months ago, Minister of International Cooperation (Everyone’s favourite Ex-Toronto Police Chief and former Chief of the Ontario Provincial Police) Julian Fantino was in Cape Town promoting Canada’s “responsible resource development in Africa.” Clearly, though, we are not as responsible as we should be.
Canada has a longstanding history of getting involved in foreign conflict under the banner of human rights—and we certainly enjoy maintaining the veneer of our role on the world stage as one of the good guys. But why aren’t we holding our mining companies to those same standards that we hold other guilty nations to? After learning about what’s happening with Canada’s extractive sector, it’s impossible to distinguish Canadian foreign policy from Canadian mining policy—and our hypocrisy is glaring.
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