Canadian diplomats and trade commissioners went further than they should have in their quest to protect the interests of mining company Excellon Resources Inc. in a dispute with local workers and landowners at a silver mine in Mexico, critics say.

Water sign outside La Platosa mine

This sign outside the La Platosa mine says, "Water unfit for human consumption." (Prometeo Lucero/Red TDT)

Emails written during a blockade and protest in the summer of 2012 were obtained by MiningWatch Canada through an access to information request to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

At the time, tensions were rising between Excellon, some of the workers at the La Platosa mine and Ejido La Sierrita, the community that owned the land on which the mine was operating.

Landowners were upset, they said, because Excellon wasn't meeting its contractual obligations, for example, to build a water treatment plant for the polluted water coming from the mine.

The protesters filed two formal complaints in Canada, including one with the federal Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor.

Meanwhile, some of the workers were trying to unionize over concerns about health and safety conditions in the mine. Several unions were vying for the right to represent the miners and a vote was taken on July 5, 2012.

Three days later, protesters set up a camp that blocked an entrance to the mine. Excellon says it was organized by the union that lost the vote.

However, one of the protesters tells CBC News the action was more wide-ranging than that.

Daniel Pacheco

Daniel Pacheco says he and other landowners in the Durango area are disappointed with the deals made involving Canadian companies. (CBC)

"There was a clause violated that would have meant they didn't fulfil their obligations," Daniel Pacheco said in a Skype interview from Durango.

"They need to respect the rights of those in our community because the landowners are the ones that form the communities."

At one point, police and the army moved in to try to persuade the protesters to leave. They didn't go until their protest camp was forcibly broken up shortly after.

Now, MiningWatch Canada has obtained internal emails that suggest the Canadian Embassy may have gone too far in protecting Excellon's interests.

In one email, the ambassador agreed to a meeting with the protesters "to listen, possibly to gather intel helpful to the company."

Others show the embassy had arranged meetings with Mexican authorities at Excellon's request.

"We no longer have any choice but to shut the mine down and flood it in an orderly fashion, as we do not currently see any near term solution to this situation," current Excellon CEO Brendan Cahill wrote to embassy staff on Aug. 14, 2012.

"We would appreciate it if you could organize a meeting with the governor of Durango for Peter Crossgrove [then executive chairman, president and CEO] for next week.… We will need some support from the state police to ensure that we can properly flood the mine without damage to our own equipment, and to ensure the safe removal of equipment by third party contractors (drill rigs, etc.). Please call me to discuss in the morning. As always, we very much appreciate your help."

The email chain doesn't indicate whether the embassy set up that meeting, although Excellon thanked staffers for their help later.

Brendan Cahill

Excellon president and CEO Brendan Cahill says the company kept the Canadian Embassy in Mexico updated on its labour situation throughout the summer of 2012. (Excellon Resources Inc.)

But within two weeks of that email, the military and approximately 40 police officers were sent to the protest. The night before, one trade commissioner sent an email wishing Excellon well.

"I was quite alarmed to find no evidence that the embassy was at all concerned about the physical integrity and safety of the peaceful protesters from the Ejido La Sierrita and the workers," said Jen Moore, who wrote the report for MiningWatch Canada.

"It's also appalling, although it's no longer surprising to me, that contrary to what the Canadian government says in terms of encouraging companies to behave responsibly and to abide by local and state laws, the documentation was absolutely, there was no evidence that the Canadian government was urging the company to dialogue with the workers and with the landowners, to address the really reasonable demands they were making of company in order to respect their land and their decisions over their land, and to follow through on its contractual agreement."

Government responds

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade denied the accusations, releasing the following statement:

"To suggest that Canadian officials operating from our diplomatic mission in Mexico acted in a way that does not reflect the highest ethical standards and Canadian values is entirely without merit," a spokesperson wrote.

Jen Moore, MiningWatch Canada

Jen Moore, who wrote the report for MiningWatch Canada, says she was alarmed to find 'no evidence that the embassy was at all concerned about the physical integrity and safety of the peaceful protesters from the Ejido La Sierrita and the workers.' (CBC)

"The government of Canada expects all Canadian companies operating abroad to follow all applicable laws.

"Canada's mining sector leads the world in responsible mining practices. Canadian extractive-sector companies have interests in more than 8,000 properties in 100 countries, creating jobs in the countries that they operate in."

In a statement to CBC News, Excellon's Cahill writes, "The embassy was helpful in making introductions and scheduling the two meetings.… Information was not relayed through the embassy."

Said MiningWatch's Moore, "These findings confirm our fears that the Canadian government's policy to harness its whole diplomatic corps to serve private interests abroad, something it calls 'economic diplomacy' in its Global Markets Action Plan, will contribute to further harm."

"The lobbying should stop and Canada should focus on corporate accountability and re-orienting policy in the extractive industry to respect communities and the environment."

The recommendations of the MiningWatch Canada report include:

  • Replacing the CSR Strategy for the International Extractive Sector with actual legislation to regulate the overseas operations of Canadian-registered mining companies in strict accordance with international environmental, labour and human rights standards, including full respect for the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination and free, prior and informed consent.
  • Adopting federal legislation that allows non-Canadians who are affected by the overseas operations of extractive companies to bring civil lawsuits before Canadian courts.
  • Creating an independent ombudsman mechanism to receive complaints and verify the compliance of Canadian extractive companies with legally binding standards.

Members of the Ejido La Sierrita community are now in a legal process to get out of its 30-year contract with Excellon.

"We're all very disappointed with the deals made between our governments and Canadian companies," Daniel Pacheco said.

"The message we want Canadians to know is that Canadian companies don't honour their contracts they sign with land owners."