Last Friday in Ottawa, I saw the way Parliament Hill is supposed to work. Representatives from all across Canada came together in one room to discuss and debate questions and matters of great importance to this country with legal legislation in mind, both existing and proposed.

The atmosphere was open, sharing and informative — with meaningful answers being returned to meaningful questions…no, I am not referring to the hour I snuck out to take in Question Period in the House of Commons  — I am referring to the all-day conference on Bill C323 organized and hosted by MP Peter Julian and team.

Bill C323 is the latest attempt to put some sort of legal accountability in place to ensure that Canadian companies, particularly those in the extraction industries, adhere to some sort of respect for human and labour rights, particularly when dealing with countries in which Canada has treaty agreement concerns or in cases where international law has been violated.

There have been prior attempts at this sort of regulation in Canadian Parliament; the previous session of Government saw the introduction of Bill C300 by MP John McKay. That bill was defeated on the floor of the House after some intense and even threatening lobbying from Canadian mining companies, and in all likelihood Bill C323 won’t pass this session because of the Conservative majority — but that does not reduce the importance of this legislation nor the will of Canadian and International activists who know this legislation needs to be put in place.

The amount of open transgressions by Canadian resource companies operating abroad is staggering. The morning portions of the conference included presentations by several panelists who have had firsthand experience both living and visiting with peoples in regions that have been exploited by Canadian companies.

We heard specific testimonials of the disastrous effects of the extraction process used by Canadian companies from Latin America to Africa to the Philippines and Southeast Asia – all underscoring the dire need for some sort of legal framework to hold Canadian companies accountable in their actions when operating outside of Canadian jurisdiction.

Former Chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nations and current professor of Indigenous Studies at Queen’s University, Robert Lovelace, put it clearly.

“You wouldn’t let students grade their own papers, why would you let Canadian corporations self-regulate?”

International civil claims against Canadian companies have been pursued in Canadian courts in the past. That these cases have been largely unsuccessful in either obtaining justice for the affected communities or getting the Canadian companies to change their operational procedures speaks volumes to the impunity Canadian corporations currently enjoy because there is no legal accountability framework.

We did hear of some success stories, Toronto lawyer Cory Wanless gave an update into having a Canadian mining company operating in Ecuador actually de-listed from the Toronto Stock Exchange. He also reported on the progress of a case his law offices are currently working on involving Peruvian villagers who have been harassed, attacked and even murdered in broad daylight by security thugs on the payroll of Canadian mining companies.

Felix Molina is a Honduran journalist with over twenty-five years of broadcasting experience and the current host of Resistencia, a radio program that has been broadcasting in support of social movements and against the current Honduran regime since the coup in 2009.

Mr. Molina reports that the de-stabilization campaign that led to the Honduran coup of 2009 was started long before and to a large extent funded by foreign companies, Canadian in particular, who knew to expect a large windfall of extraction-friendly government contracts from the new, corporate-driven regime once in place.

This was a process of political imposition from these Canadian companies that led many in the room to draw parallels with what Canadian corporate interests acting through the guise of NGOs did to the Haitian government of Jean-Pierre Aristide several years earlier, and have been participating in doing to governments worldwide as far back as the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo decades ago. 

Bodia Macharia, President and Board Member of Friends of the Congo, says that the as long as Canadian corporations are allowed to continue exploiting foreign resources with impunity, Canada’s role in the world will continue to decline.

“Canada’s reputation in the world has gone from ‘helpful’ to ‘voyeurism’,” she sees.

Reverend Shaun Friday is a minister with the United Church of Canada. In January of 2012 he organized a 14-member delegation, called the Beaconsfield Initiative, to the Philippines to study the impact of Canadian mining interests throughout the Northern Luzon region, specifically Abra province.

In August, the delegation will report its findings to the General Council of the United Church of Canada, and may be able to influence the body which develops church policy to create some sort of statement or advisory that its members can put into practice for holding our mining interests accountable in any way.

Organizations like MiningWatch and Amazon Watch have been trying to hold our mining interests accountable for years. With coordinating support from the umbrella groups like the Latin American and Caribbean Solidarity Network or Common Frontiers, the individual organizations keep in touch and share information.

Most important for these groups working on-site is training the community members themselves to monitor and document the transgressions of the companies for themselves, so that when our governments are ready to seriously deal with the crimes of our extraction interests we will have not forgotten and we will be ready.

Diana Sarosi, Manager of Policy and Advocacy at the Nobel Women’s Initiative, spent January of 2012 travelling throughout Latin America, documenting effects of mining violations on Indigenous communities, women in particular.

It is the things that she and others have seen with regards to how our extraction companies exploit people, as well as the resources, which brings about the on-going call for legal accountability to be put in place for Canadian companies.

Nick Milanovic, from the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carelton University, pointed out that there have been precedents for legal out-of-jurisdiction accountability for corporations in American law dating all the way back to 1789 — so it’s about time we got some in Canada.

Mark Rowlinson, with the United Steelworkers’ Canadian National Office also made it clear that the ramifications of mining companies that take advantage of easier regulation in foreign countries will have a negative effect on the jobs available for workers at home also — something he said that Canadians can’t afford to overlook.

The information package that each participant at the conference received summarized things this way:

“In short, it is vital to our place in the world community that the Canadian Government, Canadian corporations, and ordinary Canadian citizens traveling abroad respect the human rights of non-citizens so we can effectively pursue our interests at home and around the world.”

It may be even more important than that. The reality is that there is a community in the world that is progressing outside of Canada (and even the United States). If we cannot show that we are willing and able to be part of a responsible, global consensus that will keep our own accountable when they commit transgressions in other countries, then we will be left out of this progressive global community.

Some argue that this is already occurring, and has resulted in events such as Canada being denied the privilege of sitting on the United Nations Security Council when the world was put to vote in 2010.

In any event, it will be a long, determined battle by activists and concerned citizens alike, but if the convergence of the grassroots on Parliament Hill last Friday was any indication, we are up for the challenge.