Human rights violations at Canadian gold miners' operations abroad have become harder to ignore, but that's a strange thing to celebrate
This year marks the 10th time I’ve organized a protest against Barrick Gold at the company’s annual general meeting in downtown Toronto. And while that seems like an accomplishment, it’s definitely one that would be strange to celebrate.
You see, 10 years ago I’d never been to Toronto and had very little understanding of the stranglehold Barrick, and mining companies generally, have on the Canadian government and even the mainstream media.
All I knew was that I was part of a powerful network helping affected communities battle an unnecessary industry. (We currently get 34 per cent of our gold from recycled sources.) It seemed historic that we had found each other, and I felt lucky to be part of this network of communities, so I quit my job in San Francisco and made my way to Toronto to confront the company in its own meeting.
Shareholders allowed us to use their proxies so we could address the meeting. We got Naomi Klein to do a speaking event, Canadian filmmaker Mark Achbar sent an email out to his entire listserve, and Six Nations held a ceremony to welcome our guests from abroad who could speak to their own experience in dealing with Barrick’s abuses. Everywhere we went, people supported us.
But then there were the places beyond our reach.
Even though we’d brought indigenous leaders from around the world, the mainstream media seemed slow to note their concerns.
But with time, the conflicts we spoke of at Barrick’s mine sites became harder to ignore: an entire village burned down in Papua New Guinea, a massacre in Tanzania, a mine shut down in Chile over environmental violations, and alleged gang rapes in Papua New Guinea and Tanzania. The mistreatment was acknowledged by Barrick itself.
After a number of disturbing revelations, we expected Barrick to be held accountable, at least in part. But much to our surprise, the company was praised in the press for its supposed transparency, the atrocities explained away as the cost of doing business in the developing world.
For victims in Papua New Guinea and Tanzania, for example, Barrick put together compensation packages complete with stipulations that they could not sue the company. Of more than 200 women who lodged complaints of rape and gang rape, about 120 received about $10,000 each. Barrick had escaped human rights violations for just over a million bucks, even while some survivors refused its compensation, pursued legal action and won much higher out-of-court settlements. The struggle continues to win redress for the survivors and higher compensation for the 120.
Yet the larger challenge remains: how to address the root causes of these human rights disasters if the consequences for Barrick are, relatively speaking, negligible?
One answer is for the Canadian government to hold the country’s corporations abroad responsible so these atrocities don’t happen.
Bill C-300, a Liberal private member’s bill that sought to make companies accountable, lost by a mere six votes in 2010. Now that a new government is in power in Ottawa, addressing this legal impunity should be a focus of Canadians concerned with injustices perpetrated by our mining companies abroad. In 2016, we can do a lot better.
Sakura Saunders is co-founder of Protest Barrick.
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