A federal agency created by the Conservative government to mediate complaints about Canadian mining operations abroad has spent more than $1.1 million in the past two years, but has yet to mediate anything.

At the same time, the agency — the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor — has racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel, entertainment, training, meetings, reports and other expenses, documents obtained by CBC News show. Renovations to a federal government office to accommodate the agency's three employees alone cost Canadian taxpayers $189,000.

Its senior official, Marketa Evans, has been flying around the world to conferences, roundtables, workshops and other meetings — in all, 47 trips to Africa, South America, Washington and cities across Canada. She earns up to $170,000 a year.

What the agency hasn't done is mediate a single complaint against a Canadian mining company, the third federal agency CBC News has uncovered that is spending a lot to achieve little.

As CBC reported recently, the Employment Insurance Financing Board is supposed to invest surplus EI funds — except there aren't any. And the Public Appointments Commission bureaucracy lives on years after it was scrapped.

Altogether, the three agencies are costing taxpayers millions of dollars a year.

The federal mining watchdog is supposed to be helping to resolve allegations of environmental damage and human rights violations involving the hundreds of Canadian mining companies operating in foreign countries. To date, the agency has fielded only two complaints. One case quickly came to a dead end and the other appears to be in limbo.

In an exclusive interview with CBC News, Evans defended what critics describe as a complaints department in search of complaints.

"We are not going out there to solicit [complaints], if you will, but we do have a responsibility to let people know that we exist," Evans said. "So we have spent considerable time and energy and effort raising awareness of the office."

Evans says the agency is "very careful" with taxpayers' money: "We travel very selectively. We went to Africa; we travelled economy class."

Waste of money

Critics say the agency is entirely living up to their expectations that it would be largely a waste of money.

Liberal MP John McKay tried unsuccessfully to get the previous Parliament to enact tough laws to crack down on Canadian mining operations abroad. He says the Harper government instead created Evans's organization and gave it a mandate that was a "recipe for failure."

Evans has no authority to investigate anything, McKay said, and participation in mediation of complaints is entirely voluntary. If a company accused of wrongdoing decides it doesn't want anything to do with the process, that's the end of it.

The inability of the agency to address controversies surrounding Canadian mining companies abroad was exposed last year by CBC's Wendy Mesley in a special report for The National. Now, government expense reports and other documents obtained by CBC suggest the mining watchdog has mainly been taking a bite out of taxpayers.

 

'I think with the mandate this agency has, this is a waste of taxpayer dollars.'— Catherine Coumans, the head of MiningWatch

The Conservative government created the office and appointed Evans, both by cabinet decree in 2009.  She spent much of her first six months on the job flying between Toronto and Ottawa to attend conferences and meet with other federal bureaucrats. That cost about $170,000 in salaries and expenses.

At the same time, government decorators were busy renovating and furnishing an office for Evans, her adviser and an administrative assistant in a federal building in downtown Toronto. Evans says she has no idea how the Public Works Department managed to spend almost $190,000 fitting up an office for three people.

"Oh, I am sorry, but I am sure that was done before my time," she said.

Over the ensuing year, according to the agency's 2010 annual report, Evans and her staff "built relationships with key constituencies, and raised awareness of the office" on trips that took them to Peru, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mexico, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Washington.

The agency issued six reports on how the mediation and review process would work if anybody used it.

At the same time, Evans and her agency hosted more than two dozen luncheons, receptions and other gatherings at a total cost of $8,529. In total, taxpayers shelled out another $444,824 to the end of March last year, and still there was no sign of a single complaint to mediate.

Finally, on Apr. 8, 2011, Evans's office received a complaint from a mining union in Mexico involving Toronto-based Excellon Resources. The next month, she and her senior adviser flew to Mexico for a fact-finding visit to the mine, only to discover her own government had issued a travel warning for Canadians to stay away from the region.

Instead, they met with Canadian Embassy officials in Mexico City and flew back home. They returned two months later and visited the mine, but it all came to nothing.

Evans and her staff had run up about $22,000 in travel and other expenses on the case when the company finally declared the whole process was pointless and simply walked away from it. That left Evans with no choice: Case closed.

Case in limbo

The agency has since received a complaint about a mine in Mauritania operated by Vancouver-based First Quantum Minerals. But months after the complaint was filed, the case appears to be in limbo. Documents show the agency is expecting to spend another roughly $300,000 in the current fiscal year ending March 31.

"I feel badly for the counsellor herself," McKay said. "I think she was just set up to fail."

Catherine Coumans, the head of MiningWatch, an independent group that monitors the activities of the mining industry agrees with McKay: "I think with the mandate this agency has, this is a waste of taxpayer dollars."

For its part, the federal government seems to be standing by its agency.

Trade Minister Ed Fast said he sees no problem with it, calling it a "common sense approach."

Greg Weston can be reached at greg.weston@cbc.ca.