OTTAWA — The federal government pledged Tuesday to co-operate fully with any investigation into the possible role of Canadian diplomats and a former Calgary mining company in the shooting death of a Mexican activist.
Family and supporters of slain activist Mariano Abarca this week asked the Public Service Integrity Commissioner to investigate his death, filing a notice that accuses Canadian diplomats of turning a blind eye to the human rights violations that ultimately cost him his life.
But it could be months before any investigation begins.
Abarca, a father of four who was gunned down in November 2009, opposed the Canadian mining project, saying it harmed the environment and was bad for his community in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
The complaint, by a group calling itself the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project, alleges Canadian diplomats in Mexico City were more interested in helping the now-defunct Blackfire Exploration overcome local protests than in upholding the values of human rights and good corporate behaviour.
"We believe that the acts and omissions of Canadian diplomats put the life and well-being of Mariano Abarca — who had gone to the (Canadian) embassy for support — and other people at risk," Miguel Angel de los Santos, the Abarca's family lawyer, told a news conference on Parliament Hill through a translator.
Blackfire ran an open-pit barite mine near the border with Guatemala. Abarca helped organize a three-month blockade of the project one year before his death — in a shooting in front of his house that remains unsolved to this day despite several arrests.
Less than two months before his death, diplomats from the Canadian embassy travelled to Chiapas to meet local Mexican officials to help Blackfire overcome opposition.
"The embassy's goal was to advocate for greater attention by Chiapas to try to resolve the challenges that Blackfire is facing," a trade official at the embassy wrote in an Oct. 13, 2009 email.
"Embassy made the point that Blackfire is a significant Canadian investment in Chiapas and its treatment will send a signal to other foreign investors, both Canadian and non-Canadian as to the attractiveness of Chiapas as an investment location."
The email also said that the embassy had "intervened at senior levels to troubleshoot for four Canadian mining investments in Mexico" and was "successful in obtaining progress in all four cases."
The email was part of a 982-page collection of documents released to MiningWatch Canada under an access to information request that underpins this week's complaint.
De los Santos said the intervention of Canadian diplomats would have likely been viewed as "out of proportion" by the Mexican state officials and would have prompted them to act against the company.
In early December 2009, 10 days after Abarca was fatally shot, Mexico's environment ministry shut down the Blackfire mine, citing several factors including pollution and the spread of toxic emissions.
A spokesman for International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said the government will co-operate fully with any investigation by the integrity commissioner, and is committed to supporting the work of human rights defenders.
Joseph Pickerill noted the department's announcement last month of the creation of a new ombudsperson to force companies to adhere to better corporate social responsibility.
"Also, to ensure our entire network can support defenders, the trade commissioner service will receive enhanced training on Canada's new approach in line with the government of Canada's expectations for responsible business conduct abroad and Canada's new guidelines on supporting human rights defenders," Pickerill said Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for integrity commissioner Joe Friday said he would take up to 90 days to decide whether to start an investigation.
Abarca's death sparked large protests. One march three weeks after his death attracted more than 1,500 people in Chiapas.