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Too much to ask? Put mining justice on the foreign policy leaders' debate

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Taking in the Los Filos mine, Guerrero, Mexico. Photo: Cristian Leyva.

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Among questions about the Syrian refugee crisis and Canada's military deployment abroad, the central role of the Canadian mining industry in the dispossession and forced displacement of many thousands of people around the world, including countless men, women, and children murdered, wounded, and raped, deserves serious attention when Harper, Trudeau and Mulcair head into the Munk Debate on Canada's Foreign Policy in Toronto this Monday.

While it is unlikely that a debate that carries the name of one of Canada's biggest mining magnates will permit critical questions about Canadian mining overseas, these abuses and atrocities are a direct result of the industry that has become a key driver of Canada's foreign policy for which some answers are urgently needed.

Monday is a timely opportunity to hear the candidates for Prime Minister debate, for instance, what led to the murder of Mariano Abarca in Chiapas, Mexico, a well known community leader who was shot dead in front of his family restaurant in Chicomuselo, Chiapas on November 27, 2009.

The Canadian Embassy in Mexico knew of tensions around Blackfire's mine; Abarca himself had told the Embassy about armed mine employees intimidating peaceful protesters. When Abarca was detained, mere weeks after speaking about this with the Embassy, the Embassy received some 1,400 letters expressing dire concern for Abarca's life. Nonetheless, the Embassy's response focused on affirming the legitimacy of Blackfire's operation. Three months later, Mariano was murdered. All of the suspects in his killing were connected to the company, and justice has still not been served. The Embassy denied any responsibility, arguing that to show support for community leaders who are being persecuted would be to interfere in Mexican sovereignty. The Embassy has said it does not harbour the same reservations about lobbying Mexican officials and agencies on behalf of Canadian companies.

This is what the Canadian government calls "economic diplomacy" as expressed in the 2013 Global Markets Action Plan that puts 100 per cent of the Canadian foreign service at the bidding of private interests, just one of the many ways the Canadian government promotes the interests of Canadian mining firms abroad.

What do the prospective Prime Ministers think? Will we continue to see Canadian Embassies at the beck and call of mining firms after the election, as we have in Mexico, Guatemala, Greece, Honduras, Tanzania, the Philippines, and elsewhere -- even when people's lives and livelihoods are in jeopardy, or entire populations are opposed to this activity? Will the Canadian government continue to remain silent when violence reaches such crisis levels, as it has in Mexico, presumably to avoid shaking the carpet in a country that is the destination of choice for Canadian foreign investment in the mining sector overseas?

Courageous individuals have already brought cases that are starting to proceed through courts in Ontario and British Columbia, starting with Angelica Choc, the valiant widow of community leader and land rights activist, Adolfo Ich Chaman, who was murdered in 2009 by HudBay Minerals' then-head of security in eastern Guatemala. Choc has brought a lawsuit for negligence against the company in Toronto, along with twelve other Guatemalans alleging negligence for other violent crimes in connection with the same Fénix nickel project. In a second case, a group of mostly farmers, wounded when Tahoe Resources' then-head of security ordered guards to dispel their peaceful protest in 2013, are suing the company in British Columbia courts.

But these are just a very few of the mining related harms that must be accounted for. Would the candidates for top leader in this country tell us what their future government will do to ensure that those affected can find justice -- and remedy -- here?

While the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and Canada-EU Trade Agreement come under increasingly harsh scrutiny, too many existing agreements already allow companies to sue states in international tribunals, putting a chill on public policy making in the interest of public health and the environment.

Canadian mining companies are suing other countries' governments in order to bully their way around. OceanaGold is currently suing El Salvador for $310 million -- an amount that could be better spent on much-needed social programs -- for not granting it a permit to put a gold mine into operation, despite the fact that its project didn't even meet regulatory requirements. Gabriel Resources has just filed a similar case against Romania, Eldorado Gold has threatened to do the same to Greece, and the cases keep coming.

While such cases makes it very difficult for other governments to make informed, democratic decisions or policies on mining and the environment, we are also learning how international tribunals can negate decisions made in the interest of public health and the environment here at home -- or worse, completely marginalize our whole environmental planning processes, already seriously damaged.

Earlier this year, a NAFTA tribunal found in favour of US company Bilcon, which sued Canada for over $100 million after the federal government and the Nova Scotia provincial government decided to protect an ecologically sensitive fishing and whale-watching area from a proposed basalt quarry on the basis of a joint environmental assessment. The tribunal decision represents an astonishing assault on environmental protection in Canada. Canada has signed many investment agreements that permit companies to leapfrog over domestic courts in order to bring costly suits in international tribunals, and has strongly supported such agreements even in the face of stiff criticism. Would any of the party leaders propose a way out from being subject to such damaging arbitration?

The Conservative government has made "rip-it-and-ship-it" resource development the core of Canadian international relations, just as it has for the domestic economy -- with equally detrimental results, it should be noted. Monday night would be an opportune time to hear the party leaders talk about refashioning Canadian foreign policy on the basis of respect for the lives and wellbeing of communities, workers, and the environment instead.

Photo: Cristian Leyva

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