Canada’s dirty, oily hands

Our companies won't let human rights stand in way of a good deal

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We Canadians are hewers of wood and drawers of water and blasters of rock and pumpers of oil. We live less by our own resources than by our natural resources, and in the process we’ve done some unnatural things, or things that certainly ought to be so labelled.

Like gross violations of the rights of aboriginal peoples and grand assaults on the natural environment.

What we became skilful at doing at home we couldn’t resist doing abroad, and we’ve taken all this baggage with us. Thus, Canada’s largest independent oil and gas company, Talisman Energy of Calgary, is developing oil resources in Sudan, the worst hellhole on the face of the planet, and has managed to make things there not better, but even worse.

Call it our contribution to that many-headed monster that goes by the name of globalization. Oil, with its get-rich-quick promise, everywhere excites greed and risks tyranny.

Foreign Affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy’s fact-finding mission to Sudan to check out Talisman found that oil development was aiding and abetting that country’s deadly civil war. The answer seems obvious: this is a Canadian company, it’s giving us a bad name and it must cease and desist in its evil ways. (I say “evil” because there’s been a special place in hell added recently for those who say, “Not us – we’re just doing business as usual.”)

Companies clamour for tax cuts to give them the incentive to do good as they divine it. It’s something of a crescendo at the moment, with budget day imminent. So how about tax hikes to give companies like Talisman the incentive to stop doing bad as the rest of us define it?

There’s a straightforward way to do that in this case. Talisman pays royalties to the authorities in Sudan (providing them with revenues they can then use to buy arms to kill people). Talisman then claims that expense against taxes it would otherwise pay here in Canada.

In principle, that’s as it should be, but when it shouldn’t be, as in this case, the Canadian government could simply disallow the expense. Then, Talisman would be a little more diligent in how it conducts itself in Sudan and might reconsider whether it ought to be there at all.

If we don’t do something like this soon, the word’s going to get out that Canada’s just another of those countries that talks a good line on human rights but lets its companies wash their hands of responsibility when they go abroad, just as our governments have long done here at home.

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