On January 17 2007, a half-dozen armed men claiming to work for Hudbay Mineral Inc., a Canadian mining corporation, stormed the one-room house of a woman living in Lote Ocho Guatemala. The men took turns raping her, before dragging her from her home and setting it on fire. There were ten other reported incidents of gang rape in the community that day, and many other homes were torched.
Two years later, on June 18 2009, the body of Marcela Rivera, a Salvadoran political activist and opponent of a proposed mine from the Canadian Pacific Rim Mining Corporation, was found dead in a well with his fingernails removed and indications that he had been strangled to death. On December 29 of that year, another prominent opponent of the mine, eight-months pregnant at the time, was assassinated in front of her two-year old son.
These are only a few of the incidents described in a recent report from Osgoode Hall Law School called “The Canada Brand: Violence and Canadian Mining Companies in Latin America.” The report, compiled by Law Professor Shin Imai with assistance from law students at Osgoode, McGill, and Harvard, documents 44 deaths, 403 injuries, and 709 cases of criminalization, including arrests, detentions, and charges, that are in some way connected to Canadian mining operations in the region.
While the report does not claim to assign direct legal liability to Canadian companies in any of the documented cases, it maintains that “the close proximity of Canadian mining operations in Latin America to violence and criminalization, paired with the frequency with which such incidents occur, demonstrate a significant systemic problem that demands action by the Canadian government.”
It also stresses that, even if Canadian companies are not to be held directly legally liable, there is still a troubling complicity in the creation of a “community context where violence and criminalization could occur.” In one instance, for example, Tahoe Resources, a Vancouver-based corporation, commenced a lawsuit against the government of Guatemala, demanding greater protection for its mines and from the large-scale protests that had erupted around it. Although the court dismissed the case, by the end of the year there were an estimated 7 deaths, 29 injuries, and 50 arrests connected to government actions against those protesting the mine.
This apparent complicity in acts of violence can even be found in many companies’ disclosure statements and risk reports. According to a statement from Barrick Gold, for example, the “manner in which the company’s personnel respond to civil disturbances and criminal activities can give rise to additional risks where those responses are not conducted in a manner that is consistent with international standards relating to the use of force and respect for human rights.” This, it goes on, “can result in harm to employees or community members [and] increase community tensions.”
Companies listed on the Canadian stock exchange are legally required to disclose information that may affect their business to Canadian Securities Administrators. However, the report finds a “marked disparity between what was reported by local media sources, NGOs and academics, and what Canadian companies disclosed about the same events.” Only 24.2 per cent of incidents resulting in deaths and only 12.3 per cent of injuries to community members, for example, were reported by the relevant companies.
Indeed, it appears that relatively lax standards on company disclosures are one of the reasons why companies prefer to be incorporated in Canada. A report from Tahoe Resources, for example, says that “the regulatory and compliance costs to us under U.S. securities laws as a U.S. domestic issuer will be significantly more than the costs incurred as a Canadian foreign issuer.”
The current mechanisms in Canada for enforcing corporate social responsibility (CSR) abroad have little power to actually investigate allegations or mediate conflicts, and primarily monitor adherence to voluntary, non-enforceable CSR codes. While the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor can recommend the withdrawal of Canadian embassy support and funding from Export Development Canada for non-complying companies, there is not yet any evidence that it has done so.
The Osgoode Hall report is not the first to document these human rights abuses or to call on the Canadian government to take more responsibility. Four United Nations bodies have insisted that Canada do more to hold its mining companies and their subsidiaries accountable, while the American Commission on Human Rights has called on Canada to help prevent the continuation of “multiple human rights violations.”
In 2010 the Federal Liberals themselves, while in opposition, tried to pass Bill C-300, which would have created a new ombudsman’s office with the power to investigate complaints of Canadian companies and, if necessary, deny further government funding. Now in power, Justin Trudeau has promised a “Canada’s Back” brand of foreign policy that seeks to position the country as an exemplar for how to conduct business and diplomacy abroad. Until the government renews its initiative to hold these Canadian mining companies accountable, then it too can be considered complicit in the violence and human rights abuses that continue to proliferate.