In October 2009, the federal government appointed Marketa Evans as the country's first "counsellor" on the subject of corporate social responsibility in the mining sector. After two years, her taxpayer-funded office has accepted only two cases for review.
The first review ended abruptly and without resolution, when the mining company involved — Excellon Resources Inc. — pulled out.The second review is at an early stage of "trust-building" between the parties, a stage that can last about six months; the next stage is structured dialogue.
This was a predictable result. The Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Counsellor depends on the voluntary participation of both sides — the party who makes the complaint, and the subject of the complaint. The flaw in this system is obvious.
Not only does it let any mining company off the hook that doesn't feel like having its practices probed, but it virtually guarantees that any company that is actually doing something seriously wrong will never be investigated. Only companies that are in the right anyway, or have minor problems they're happy to fix, will see any public-relations benefit from participating in this process.
Liberal MP John McKay puts it this way: "Any file the Canadian public might actually be interested in would be a no-go zone."
Do the citizens of Canada really want to keep paying the office's annual cost of about $620,000 a year so the mining sector can very occasionally resolve minor issues? The pace has been awfully slow so far. The office took a year just to set up its dispute-resolution process — and the first test of that process was the case where the company pulled out and the dispute went nowhere.
Meanwhile, there are serious allegations going uninvestigated. For example: A recent, hefty Human Rights Watch report, into a mainly Canadian-owned gold mine in Papua New Guinea, details evidence that mine security personnel have been involved in abuses against local people, including gang rape. Such allegations hurt the image of the industry and of our country.
As of 2008, more than three-quarters of the world's exploration and mining companies were headquartered in Canada, according to the federal government's mining CSR website. It's a global industry that's practically synonymous with Canada, so how it behaves matters. The positive economic impact of the industry around the world is overshadowed by the stories of environmental degradation and shady mercenaries.
The Conservative government recognizes this. That's why it set up the counsellor's office in the first place. But while the office might have its uses, it isn't going to root out the worst problems, and it isn't even an effective fig leaf. Its limitations are evident.
Evans reports to the minister of international trade, Ed Fast. Fast's office didn't respond to repeated requests for an interview.
McKay says the problem doesn't lie with Evans herself, but with the "designed failure" of the office. "There may be other personalities who might have stretched the mandate. But if you are there by consent, you are not going to get very far. You could put Don Cherry in that position and it wouldn't make a difference."
Evans says that she wasn't surprised to receive only two cases so far, that it was in line with her expectations after looking into similar dispute-resolution mechanisms.
"In fact," she says, "we're a bit ahead of the game in terms of the number and how quickly we got our first request, which came in about five months after our process launched." Apparently the gears of voluntary dispute resolution grind slow. She points out that her office only deals with cases that fall into certain parameters. The participants have to be "project-affected", so NGOs can't request reviews on their own. And the problems have to relate to a set of voluntary standards.
So it looks as if the office's pace isn't likely to pick up in the coming years.
The executive director of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada declined to be interviewed. In a statement about the Excellon case, the association said its supports the government's CSR strategy and recognizes it will experience "growing pains."
Evans acknowledges that the office is not a "silver bullet" to solve all the industry's problems. "We're a voluntary process. We resolve disputes through constructive dialogue. That's how we work. I recognize that not all disputes are going to be amenable to resolution through construction dialogue, and that's one of the things that we are constantly assessing: under what conditions, what needs to be true in order to have the parties move to constructive dialogue."
Dispute resolution is not the office's only mandate; it is also there to advise stakeholders about corporate social responsibility.
"The amount of investment from the Canadian mining industry overseas has just skyrocketed over the last 10 years," Evans says. "A lot of that is going into emerging markets or developing countries, so I think it's fair to say that those are really challenging environments . . . We want to make sure that Canadian reputation is enhanced but we want to make sure that Canadian companies are positioned better to manage the kind of risks that come both with that rapid kind of expansion and that expansion into countries that perhaps don't have the experience with mining, they don't have a long history of mining, they might not have regulatory codes in place and so on."
It's great that the mining industry wants advice on corporate social responsibility. Mining companies are run by people — people who are almost certainly not evil. If the companies can raise their standards and their reputations, and improve relationships with mining-affected communities, that's better for them and their shareholders, and they know that.
The question is why taxpayers should pay for the industry to get the counsellor's advice.
A real oversight mechanism — of the non-voluntary kind, one that would deal only with serious cases — should be taxpayer-funded, because it shouldn't be beholden to the industry, and it would have a much greater impact on preventing the worst offenders from tarnishing Canada's reputation abroad.
A year ago, McKay's private member's bill on the mining sector very nearly passed. It would have required companies who receive support from Export Development Canada and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board to comply with human-rights guidelines. The government would have had to investigate any bona fide complaint from any Canadian or citizen of an affected country about a Canadian company in the mining, oil or gas business, and it would have to publish the results within eight months of receipt of the complaint.
It seems eminently reasonable for Canadians to ask that the companies who take our money not besmirch our good name. It also seems reasonable to ask that an office that has produced almost no results in two years be taken off the public payroll.