For more than a decade, against a backdrop of targeted killings, sexual violence, ecological damage and exploited workers, a coalition of civil society groups pressed the federal government to take meaningful action to oversee and investigate the behaviour of Canadian mining companies operating abroad.
The unrelenting campaign by the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA) has now led the federal government to announce the creation of a Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise.
The new ombudsperson's office offers hope to vulnerable people and communities in developing countries who have had nowhere to turn when their rights were violated by Canadian companies. The ombudsperson's office promises to improve respect for human rights and to enhance the international reputation of Canadian companies.
My union, the United Steelworkers, is a proud member of the CNCA, along with more than 30 other human rights, development, faith and labour groups. More than 100,000 Canadians signed the CNCA petition demanding respect for human rights and the environment by the 1,500 Canadian mining companies operating in more than 100 countries.
It is a gross understatement to assert there are urgent and compelling reasons to create a strong, independent and effective ombudsperson for Canada's extractive sector. Or that such an office is long overdue — given the well-documented abuses linked to Canadian companies.
Recent examples include the operations of Canada's Torex Gold in Mexico, where the company continues to frustrate workers' demand to exercise their right to join the union of their choice. During a workers' protest near Torex operations last Nov. 18, two workers were killed.
Likewise, allegations of rights violations by Canada's Excellon Resources at the La Platosa mine in Mexico have never been resolved and the harm to local landholders and terminated workers continues.
In Latin America alone, hundreds of deeply troubling incidents associated with Canadian mining companies were revealed in a meticulously documented 2016 report by researchers from Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School.
The report listed 44 deaths — 30 of which were classified as "targeted" — associated with Canadian companies over a 15-year period, as well as more than 400 injuries from confrontations and demonstrations and more than 700 cases of arrests, detentions, charges and other forms of "criminalization" of people opposing the actions of Canadian companies.
Equally alarming was the researchers' conviction that these cases represented only "the tip of the iceberg." Canadian companies were linked to hundreds of other credible incidents of violence, assassination attempts, forced displacement, illness from environmental contamination, deliberate destruction of crops and property, etc. These incidents were not included in the final report due to the researchers' onerous criteria that cases had to be corroborated by two separate and independent sources.
As the report emphasized, neither the mining industry nor the Canadian government have monitored or reported on the vast majority of such incidents, including hundreds of other cases elsewhere around the world, particularly in Asia and Africa.
Domestic and international human rights groups, including the United Nations, have long urged the Canadian government to take meaningful action to improve corporate accountability and stop human rights abuses.
These groups rightly point out that Canada's current process is weak and almost totally ineffective. It consists of an Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor who is virtually powerless to investigate companies for improper activities.
Therefore, the Jan. 17 announcement of a new Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise is welcome news. While many details of the ombudsperson's office have yet to be finalized, it is incumbent on the government to act quickly to establish the office and ensure it has all the resources and powers needed to do its job effectively.
Crucially, the ombudsperson's office must:
- Operate independently from government;
- Have strong investigatory powers, including the power to compel evidence;
- Make recommendations to government on remedies and sanctions;
- Operate transparently and make public its findings, recommendations and reports.
Labour and civil society organizations — and particularly vulnerable workers and communities abroad who will bear the consequences, will be watching closely to ensure the ombudsperson's office fulfills its promise.
Ken Neumann is the United Steelworkers' National Director for Canada