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Supreme Court decision on Ecuador-Chevron case to set global precedent on corporate responsibility

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The Supreme Court of Canada will decide today if Ecuadorian Indigenous communities have the right to pursue Chevron's assets under the Ontario's court, in order to enforce the $9.5 billion judgment for the destruction of Ecuador's Amazonian forest.

The Ecuadorian-Chevron case is by no means an easy case. We will try to present it here in a nutshell: Between 1964 and 1990, the United States (U.S.) oil giant Texaco (now Chevron) contaminated Ecuador's Amazon rainforest with billion gallons of toxic wastewater. Texaco merged with Chevron in 2001. After three decades of oil exploitation, Texaco-Chevron contaminated about 18 billion gallons of rivers and drinking water, subsequently destroying wildlife and negatively affecting homegrown agriculture. This has led to high cancer rates and birth defects among the local population, or to what we have come to know by now as the Amazonian Chernobyl.

In 2011, an Ecuadorian court ruled for Chevron having to pay $9.5 billion dollars for the destruction it has caused. Surprise, surprise, Chevron already liquidated all of its owned assets in Ecuador. Indigenous people were left with no other choice but to pursue Chevron's resources globally. After all, Chevron is Chevron everywhere. Trading under the same symbol on New York and Toronto Stock Exchanges. Initial attempts were made in the U.S. but the door was quickly shut down, soon after Judge Kaplan's intervention proclaimed the Ecuadorian judgment as corruptly decreed.

The next stop was successively Canada. On December 17 2013, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that Ecuadorian Indigenous communities have the right to pursue Chevron's assets in Canada. Chevron appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, arguing that its subsidiary Ecuadorian company (i.e. Chevron Ecuador) is not one and the same with Chevron Canada.

What Ottawa will decide on today is a jurisdictional matter. It will determine whether Ontario can serve as jurisdiction for hearing the Ecuadorian case. A decision regarding jurisdiction is a decision that would permit for things to be further decided. It will not give us a result about the verdict of the case per se but rather an ok for the verdict to be ruled in the Ontario court.

As Canadians, we should at least spare a thought about what's happening with this case. Canada is a country of immigrants. Only in Toronto alone, over 50 per cent of the population is born outside Canada. Most of us here today are Canadians but also Ecuadorians, Romanians, Columbians or Guatemalans. This is a transnational justice case. If a global world allows Chevron to operate globally, to pick and choose its countries of interest, to pack up and leave when convenient, social responsibility should also be demanded across national borders but also within national borders.

Nevertheless we should not ignore that Chevron is based in Canada and operates within the Canadian context. Chevron Canada is currently responsible for crude oil and natural exploration in British Columbia, Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador and Northern Canada. Chevron is also the sole corporate face of the Pacific Trail Pipeline project. It initially partnered with Apache in building a fracking gas pipeline across the 500 kilometres of land in Kitimat, British Columbia, but Apache has been out of the picture since 2014, when it abandoned the project. Resistance efforts against Chevron are carried out in B.C. by the Unist'ot'en Indigenous people.

Chevron practices are problematic in other parts of the world as well. In northeast Romanian village of Pungesti, accompanied by state riot police, Chevron physically forced in its shale gas explorations in 2013, although the village council unanimously adopted a decision to ban shale gas exploitation and villagers have subsequently set up a resistance camp to stop Chevron machinery. Human rights abuses for having dispatched four-to-five gendarmes per villager have been brushed off as insignificant by the Romanian state but also by the company.

With some luck the Supreme Court will make the sensible decision today and will give the go ahead for the judgment to be deliberated by the Ontario Court. Today's verdict will be a historical verdict. It will set a precedent (or either a non-precedent for that matter) in terms of enforcing and acting on the idea of corporate responsibility -- particularly as it is (un)practiced by Canadian companies operating abroad.

There is a clear need to evaluate our law making and law producing system vis-à-vis these ready-made ideas of 'corporate veil', 'corporate identity' and 'corporate separateness'. It is about time we no longer accept these principles sine qua non, as universal and fundamental. Subsidiary or not, with one unique symbol traded on the stock exchange, Chevron is Chevron regardless of its alleged separate operations conducted under Chevron Ecuador, Chevron Canada, Chevron Romania or Chevron U.S.A. 

 

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