August 2010

Mining takes centre stage at business ethics conference

Speakers explore common and contested ground

By P. Diekmeyer

Mining industry stakeholders gathered in Montreal in late May to take part in a public dialogue titled “Human Rights, Resource Extraction and First Nation Economic Development,” a one-day event that was part of the Canadian Business Ethics Research Network’s third annual conference.  The event brought together academics and professionals engaged in business ethics research and practice for three days of discussions and workshops designed to connect silos of expertise and experience.

Among the sessions on the public dialogue, “theme day” focused on the challenge of sustainable development inside Canada. It included the experiences of the Naskapi Nation in the iron ore producing region of northeastern Quebec, as well as a presentation of the impact and benefit assessment community toolkit, designed as a resource for First Nations communities looking to begin negotiations with resource companies.

A lively a two-hour morning panel discussion addressed Bill C-300, the private members’ initiative being put forward by Liberal MP John McKay that would spell out the ethical responsibilities of Canadian mining companies that are engaged in resource extraction in developing countries.

If passed, the new bill would require that Canadian companies that seek assistance from federal agencies, such as Export Development Canada, the Canada Pension Plan and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, meet certain minimal eligibility criteria.

“Canadian mining companies are among the finest there are,” said McKay. “However, when you have 3,000 projects around the world, there are going to be some issues. We can dismiss some of the NGO complaints that we have been getting, but after a while we have to give them an ear. For example, we have heard stories about Canadians travelling in Guatemala taking the maple leafs from their backpacks because of the bad reputation that certain mining companies have given us there.”

John Lewis, who spoke on behalf of KAIROS, an ecumenical partnership that takes positions on social issues, agreed. “Canadian mining companies that operate overseas right now are not regulated,” said Lewis. “We need to change that.”

While private members’ bills generally are not taken too seriously, McKay has already sponsored two of them that have received royal assent. His current initiative has passed a second reading in the House of Commons and is currently in the Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs and International Development for further study.

The main problem with private members’ bills is that they cannot commit government funds, which severely hampers Bill C-300’s effectiveness, said Murray Rankin, a partner with law firm Heenan Blaikie LLP. “It is a laudable effort,” said Rankin. “But it is flawed from a procedural point of view.”

“The bill does not even include the rudiments of due process, such as the right to hear the other side,” Rankin added. “And the potential for the politicization of the entire process is quite high.”

If the new measures become law, complaints against Canadian mining companies are supposed to be reviewed by two ministers who, according to Rankin, would almost certainly pass the job on to subordinates. Furthermore, since Canadian governments change frequently, so would the party affiliations of ministers charged with conducting those reviews, which means that they would be handled inconsistently. To top it off, the bill foresees no appeal process.

Other participants in the open forum acknowledged Bill C-300’s weaknesses, but cited it as an example as a good first step forward, an opinion shared by MacKay. “The sanctions foreseen for those who violate the guidelines are very weak, small slaps on the fingers really,” said MacKay. “But you have to start somewhere.”

To close the day of public dialogue, CIM executive director Jean Vavrek and James Cooney, retired vice-president, international government affairs for Placer Dome, invited delegates from academia and business to suggest research opportunities or collaborations that could advance and improve CSR initiatives.

For more information on material generated at the conference or questions related to CBERN contact Hilary Martin (

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