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Academics urge an extractive industry ombudsperson. Will Trudeau listen?

Photo: Canadian Shield, by Karl Nerenberg

For all the Trudeau government's talk of the knowledge economy, of innovation and of people being Canada’s greatest asset, the fact remains this country's prosperity still relies to a large extent on natural resources. Canada cuts trees for export, catches and farms fish and seafood to sell globally and, in the case of minerals, is a monster player on the world stage. 

We are home to 75 per cent of the world’s largest mining and exploration companies -- and to many medium to large-sized oil and gas companies as well. A group of academics cites these facts in an open letter urging the Trudeau government to live up to yet another promise not yet fulfilled: to "enact legislation to establish a credible and effective independent ombudsperson to investigate and hear complaints about Canadian extractive companies operating abroad."

Canada’s extractive companies are not only active on Canadian soil, they have extensive operations abroad, especially in developing countries. Those offshore operations have been riddled with human rights abuses for decades. Four months ago, we reported, here, on a study by a group at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, which documented violence at Canadian mining companies' operations in Latin America. 

The study documented 44 deaths, 30 of them "targeted," as well as a large number of injuries and other human rights abuses. It pointed out neither the Canadian government nor Canadian mining companies ever report on these incidents. The signatories of Tuesday’s letter cite another, earlier, report, undertaken in 2009 by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, this one not limited to Latin America. It documented 171 "high profile incidents" implicating Canadian companies over the preceding decade. Those included conflict with local communities and "unethical behaviour."

The 90 academics who signed the open letter want the government to proceed quickly to establish an extractive industry ombudsperson. The government has put in place what it calls an enhanced corporate responsibility strategy, but that is not sufficient to deal with the extensive abuse associated with Canadian companies' activities. An ombudsperson would empower local communities in countries where Canadian companies operate. Their only other option to seek redress for violence and abuse is through Canadian courts, and that is expensive, slow and cumbersome.

"UN treaty bodies, as well as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, have all called on your government to regulate Canadian extractive companies operating abroad," the letter states. "Other countries have recognized the need to step up and Canada is lagging behind."

The letter concludes by arguing that Canadian companies and the Canadian economy should not profit from human rights abuses and other harms committed in other countries. 

The Trudeau government seems almost obsessed these days with trade and with relations with Canada’s biggest trading partner, the Trump-ruled U.S., and it has much of the news media singing from the same hymn book. It was a different story during the last election campaign. Then the Liberals worked hard to appeal to progressive voters by promising to adopt all of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to put in place a robust environmental review system before approving new pipelines and to reform the electoral system.

That was then. This is now.

It is not at all clear a government whose chief economic guru is British-based Dominc Barton of the global business consultancy McKinsey still considers reigning in a major economic sector in Canada to be a high priority. 

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