Amnesty International's Graham Allen on Bill C-300

November-13-09

Bill offers Canada chance to deal with concerns raised by mining abroad

By Graham Allen

The Canadian government, in a March 2009 report, acknowledged it has a problem: “Within the wider community, increasing concerns have been raised about the human rights impacts of the activities of Canadian extractive companies with respect to their operations abroad.”

Liberal MP John McKay, on the day which his private member’s bill, Bill C-300, passed second reading, was more specific: “There are examples of Canadian corporations behaving badly in places like the Philippines and Guyana and as many as 30 other countries.”

If this is all true, what is Canada doing about it?

In a nutshell, the Canadian government started off well, then dropped the ball, and now has one good chance of doing the right thing.

Starting off well?

The governmental activity of recent years started with the June 2005 report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade entitled Mining in Developing Countries – Corporate Social Responsibility. This was followed by the momentous convening of four National Roundtables on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), “organized by a Steering Committee of Government of Canada officials working closely with an Advisory Group comprising persons drawn from industry, labour, the socially responsible investment community, civil society and academia”. This remarkable process culminated in the Advisory Group Report of March 29, 2007. Its central recommendation concerned the development of a Canadian CSR Framework:

Advisory Group members urge the Government of Canada, in cooperation with key stakeholders, to adopt a set of CSR Standards that Canadian extractive sector companies operating abroad are expected to meet and that is reinforced through appropriate reporting, compliance and other mechanisms.

There followed a series of recommendations, within six major components, in support of this objective. It was a golden moment for those concerned about Canada’s reputation in the developing world.

Dropping the ball?

In its March 2009 paper entitled Building the Canadian Advantage: A Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Strategy for the Canadian International Extractive Sector, Canada laid out its response to the national roundtables. It sought to promote what it called “widely-recognized international CSR performance guidelines with Canadian extractive companies operating abroad”. And it proposed setting up two new institutions: an Office of the Extractive Sector CSR Counsellor and a CSR Centre of Excellence “to encourage the Canadian international extractive sector to implement these voluntary performance guidelines by developing and disseminating high-quality CSR information, training and tools”. It was the word “voluntary” that was the problem.

In comparing Canada’s CSR strategy with the six components of the Advisory Group Report, professor Richard Janda of the faculty of law at McGill University found it to be “partially consistent” with three components and “not consistent” with three others—a disappointing outcome.

Again, McKay was more specific in his criticism of Canada’s response; he complained that the CSR counsellor is appointed by government, not independently, and could only investigate incidents with the approval of all parties, an obvious flaw. Moreover, voluntary guidelines had not proven to be adequate in the past. He was reported as saying: “Let’s be clear here. Canada has a choice. It can legislate a response, which would put Canada at the head of the class. Or it’s more business as usual, see no evil and hear no evil.”

Doing the right thing?

Bill C-300, mentioned above, explains its purpose in the following summary:

The purpose of this enactment is to promote environmental best practices and to ensure the protection and promotion of international human rights standards in respect of the mining, oil or gas activities of Canadian corporations in developing countries. It also gives the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of International Trade the responsibility to issue guidelines that articulate corporate accountability standards for mining, oil or gas activities...

Despite the significant limitation of a private member’s bill, that it cannot provide for the expenditure of public funds, Bill C-300, in Janda’s analysis, was “consistent” with two of the Advisory Group Report’s components, “partially consistent” with two others, and “not consistent” with two, thus being closer overall to the national roundtables. Professor Janda hence spoke favourably about Bill C-300, but concluded:

"Indeed, if Bill C-300 were adopted, the CSR Counsellor’s role could be expanded and altered to fulfill functions under the legislation. Bill C-300 would then provide a legislative footing for that role."

Bill C-300 is presently at the committee stage before facing its third reading. If the government could be persuaded to support this bill—instead of claiming that its own CSR strategy is sufficient—Canada would be well-served. As said by Liberal MP Michael Savage in the House debate on Bill C-300:

"As an international player, I am afraid we are not the gold standard anymore, but we can do better. We should do better. We should live up to the expectations that the people in this country have for us, and we should go beyond them."

If you are interested in supporting Bill C-300, you can take action via Amnesty International Canada’s Web site.

Graham Allen is a lawyer practising with Boughton Law Corporation. He specializes in arbitrations, property-tax assessment, and First Nations economic development. Allen has been a member of Amnesty International since his teens, and is presently studying for a master’s degree in international human-rights law at the University of British Columbia.