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Backed by Conservative government, Canadian mining companies are plundering Africa

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Tabakoto North Underground Gold Mine - Mali, West Africa. Owned by Toronto-based

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Canadian policy in Africa can be summed up in nine words: Do what is good for Canadian-owned mining companies.

Despite rhetoric about aid to the poorest people in the world, the Harper Conservatives have worked assiduously to ensure that Canadian corporations profit from Africa's vast mineral resources.

Even widespread criticism of their operations has failed to dampen the Conservatives' support for Canada's many mining interests in Africa. Canadian mining companies have been accused of bribing officials, evading taxes, dispossessing farmers, displacing communities, employing forced labour, devastating ecosystems and spurring human rights violations.

But, more important than the specific instances of abuse, which I detail in my forthcoming Canada in Africa: 300 years of Aid and Exploitation, the mining industry contributes little to sustainable economic development. Instead it is a prime part of a vast vacuuming up of resources to benefit wealthy people, only a very few of whom live in Africa.

Indifferent to the deleterious impacts of the sector, International Trade Minister Ed Fast has included numerous mining executives in his delegations to the continent while former foreign minister John Baird visited African countries partly based on where Canadian resource companies sought business. For his part, International Development Minister Christian Paradis praised the sector's development benefits in a bid to (misleadingly) convince African officials that "Canada owes much of its economic growth to extractive industries."

Stephen Harper personally promoted Canadian mining companies. When leaders from Tanzania, South Africa and Benin visited Ottawa in 2013 he used the opportunity to promote mining interests. During a trip to Senegal in 2012 the PM met with representatives from five resource firms or trade associations and publicly lauded the sector.

On a visit to Tanzania in 2007 Harper gave audience to more than 10 Canadian resource firms, describing the meeting as an opportunity to discuss "the general business climate [and] what the government of Canada can do to assist in building our investments here." In the months after Harper's visit, reported This Day, the Canadian High Commission launched an "intense" lobbying effort to convince Tanzania's Parliament to reject the country's Mineral Sector Review Committee's recommendation that a larger proportion of profits from higher mineral prices be retained by the government.

Since 2012 Ottawa has pumped tens of millions of dollars into mining initiatives in Africa. The public money helped establish branch offices of a professional society, the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum, in Senegal and Burkina Faso and a Senegalese school for geomatics (combining geography and information technology to map natural resources). Last year, Canada gave $18.5 million of tax money for an extractives skills training centre in Mozambique and earlier this year Ottawa announced a $12.5 million grant for the Project Strengthening Education for Mining in Ethiopia "to develop more industry driven geology and mining engineering undergraduate programs." In 2014 the Conservatives budgeted up to $25 million per year for the Extractives Cooperation for Enhanced Economic Development (EXCEED) initiative, which it described as "a new funding mechanism to expand Canada's involvement in areas of high development impact in the extractive sector in Africa."

In addition to promoting the sector in general, the Conservatives' ploughed millions of dollars into specific companies' corporate social responsibility projects. One example of this "aid" was a $4.5-million grant to Lundin for Africa, the philanthropic arm of mining giant Lundin Group of Companies, for its operations in Ghana, Mali and Senegal. Ottawa also put up $5.6 million for a project between NGO Plan Canada and IAMGOLD near the company's mine in Burkina Faso.

As they pumped tens of millions of "aid" dollars into initiatives supporting the controversial sector, the Conservatives blocked efforts to regulate an industry notorious for abuses in jurisdictions with weak legal structures. The Conservatives blocked legislation -- Bill C-300 -- to withhold diplomatic and financial support from companies found responsible for significant abuses abroad. They also opposed legislation, modelled on the U.S. Alien Torts Claims Act, to allow lawsuits against Canadian companies responsible for major human rights violations or ecological destruction abroad.

In maybe their most significant support to Canadian mining corporations in Africa, the Conservatives negotiated Foreign Investment Protection Agreements (FIPAs) with more than 10 African countries. FIPAs give corporations the right to sue governments -- in private, investor-friendly tribunals -- for pursuing policies that interfere with profits. In essence, the aim of a FIPA is to counter "resource nationalism."

Having benefited from two decades of privatizations and loosened restrictions on foreign investment, mining companies operating on the continent fear a reversal of these policies. These concerns can be somewhat alleviated by gaining rights to sue a government if it expropriates a concession, changes investment rules or requires value added production take place in the country. Academic Paula Butler notes: "Canada appears keen to negotiate FIPAs with some of the most economically and politically vulnerable but resource rich African countries before they develop a taste for resource sovereignty."

Canadian policy in Africa has become largely synonymous with the interests of Canadian mining companies. The Harper Conservatives have sought to ensure that the continent's mining policy serves the interests of foreign corporations, the majority of Africans be damned.

A version of this article appeared on Ricochet.

Image: Flickr/Dave Dyet

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