New calls for Canadian mining ombudsman so far unanswered

A group of South American advocates wants Canada to take a more active role in regulating its mining activities outside its borders.

Federal mining watchdog spot empty for seven months

Advocates in Peru want Canada to appoint an ombudsman to oversee its foreign mining operations. Canada is the third largest foreign investor in Peru, after China and Australia. (Marion Warnica/CBC)

A group of South American advocates wants Canada to appoint an ombudsman to regulate its mining activities outside its borders.

The group says the federal government, which has yet to release the results of its long-awaited review into its foreign mining policies, should be more involved in the monitoring and management of its foreign operations.

"A great deal of economic development that Canada enjoys, a lot of that results in human rights violations that we cannot tolerate," said Archbishop Pedro Barreto, the president of the Solidarity and Justice Department in the Latin American Episcopal Council based in Huancayo, Peru.

Barreto spoke to CBC News as part of a larger investigation into water stress in Peru.

He has joined a growing number of advocates and NGOs who want Canada to appoint a legislated mining ombudsman to oversee Canadian extraction activities around the world.

"The government of Canada is decisively supporting mining enterprises, without caring for lives or their social responsibility and we are severely concerned about this,” said Barreto.

Critics await improvements to failed complaints process

Ottawa has been working for several years to improve foreign mining rules, resulting in the creation of an Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor in 2009.

The unit is responsible for hearing complaints about environmental degradation or human rights abuses worldwide.

However, the office came under criticism because the counsellor position lacked the authority to investigate complaints.

The position also didn’t have the judicial power to make sure parties to the complaints stayed throughout the arbitration process.

Marketa Evans, who held the counsellor position until October 2013, quietly resigned one year before her contract was up. As of late April 2014, she has not been replaced.

New laws more powerful than review

Stephen Brown, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in Canadian foreign aid, says Canada needs to be more involved in policing and monitoring its investments outside of its borders.

“We’re not policing [Canadian extraction outside the country] and that’s a major problem.”

Brown says Canada must have a role in supervising extraction because countries in the Global South often have legal and political systems that are susceptible to corruption and political influence. 

“It's very naive of the Canadian government to say we don't need such laws because they can access justice in the country where they are,” he said.

In a landmark case, an Ontario court recently ruled one group could sue mining company HudBay Inc. over alleged shootings and gang rapes at a mining project in Guatemala.

However, Brown says cases like this are rare.

New merger could make complaints more difficult

Some critics say recent changes to the ministries that oversee Canadian foreign mining activity could further complicate the complaints process against foreign mining operations.

The department responsible for international trade merged last summer with the Canadian International Development Agency.

Brown says the merger appears to be part of a growing effort to encourage Canadian mining companies to invest more deeply in the communities affected by their activity.

"The biggest challenge is to use these funds in ways that will put poverty reduction first. If Canadian companies can contribute to that, and also benefit if there's a convergence in interests that's great," he said.

However, others worry merging the department primarily designed to reduce poverty with one devoted to growing Canada’s economic interests will make it more difficult for people to bring complaints forward.

Maude Barlow, the national chairperson for the Council of Canadians, a non-partisan social advocacy group, says the change leaves communities with few options for voicing their concerns.

"Not to the Canadian government, not to the Canadian mining company, not to the NGO and the aid groups that are working there and not to their own government,” she said.

“It really leaves them boxed in."

The federal government has not said when a five-year review of the government’s corporate social responsibility strategy will be finished.

A spokesperson would only tell CBC News the review, which began in 2009  is “ongoing.” That spokesperson would not address whether or not that review includes consideration of a mining ombudsman.