Among the many election issues thrown up in the dust of this federal campaign, we have yet to hear the parties position themselves on the fateful defeat of Bill C-300 in October, an attempt to regulate Canadian mining companies abroad.
But in early March, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, still basking in the glow of the bill's defeat - by a mere six votes - attempted at its annual convention to sell its alternative: a full package of voluntary standards.
Is it fool's gold or the real thing?
The Metro Toronto Convention Centre meet featuring workshops on everything from geophysics to tax incentives, plus a shocking climate-change denial keynote by Energy Probe International's Lawrence Solomon, was so jam-packed with agenda items on corporate social responsibility that many of these sessions ran concurrently. Talk about a rush to self-regulate.
Mining activists who plead for government enforcement of standards have little faith in these DIY monitoring efforts, and I'm admittedly skeptical myself, but PDAC speakers did drill down into the mechanics of a range of rights violations.
Several from the consulting firm AECOM Canada walked delegates through basic concepts like due diligence and risk management, explaining how companies can avoid polluting ecosystems and hiring local security guards who might be mixed up in political unrest or corruption.
Another consultant, Susan Joyce of On Common Ground, said governments of host countries don't always meet basic human rights or enviro standards. She mentioned the Marlin Mine in Guatemala, owned by Toronto-based Goldcorp, which has been accused of intimidating community members. Her point: "Companies need to be proactive and develop their own policies" to address the accountability gap.
At times, as participants worked through basic legal concepts, the sessions felt elementary. When Guatemala-Canada Chamber of Commerce president Peter Gregg asked if human rights extend to mining companies, Lloyd Lipsett of LKL International consultants patiently said no; such rights, he said, are uniquely held by individuals, and there's a reluctance to recognize the human rights of corporations beyond property ownership and legal and investment protections.
At a session on fraud, Mike Savage of Ernst & Young warned that bribery can begin with a free lunch and quickly escalate to "something that won't survive the cold light of day." Savage said supply chain audits and other reviews can keep firms from lending vehicles to police or disbursing cash that can end up offshore.
One bright note was the fairly frequent mention of free and prior informed consent - the right of local people to refuse a proposed development. But let's be clear: the words "consultation" and "consent" were used interchangeably, a sign that mining firms aren't necessarily willing to lose their investments. I heard much open acknowledgment that consent is a controversial concept.
At sessions addressing water contamination and local ecosystems, the environment also received attention. Justina Ray of the Wildlife Conservation Society, speaking of the mineral-rich Ring of Fire in northern Ontario, warned that it is one of the last intact areas of boreal forest.
In keeping with progress made in the past few years, there was considerable aboriginal participation at the convention. In fact, PDAC seems way ahead of the curve. Glenn Nolan, a vice-president of the org, is chief of the Missanabie Cree First Nation and an executive with Noront Resources, a company active in the Ring of Fire. He's poised to become PDAC's first-ever aboriginal president next year.
"The Ring of Fire has tremendous potential,'' said Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn Atleo in his speech. He cautioned, however, that First Nations "are not anti-development but do not believe in development at any cost." Three years ago, the AFN signed a memorandum of understanding with PDAC, a process that continued at the convention with smudging ceremonies.
At a separate session about uranium exploration on First Nations lands, the panel of six aboriginal Canadians was almost uniformly pro-nuclear - no surprise given the program blurb citing the recent rise in "anti-uranium rhetoric".
While a discussion of ethics has begun, in the context of an open understanding that the industry has a troubled past, there was little mention of actual issues. A few activists gathered outside with signs referring to various cases, including that of Adolfo Ich Chamán, a Guatemalan Mayan leader who was hacked and shot to death by security forces. His widow has filed a lawsuit in Ontario against HudBay Minerals, HMI Nickel and their Guatemalan subsidiary.
Three protesters walked inside with leaflets but were quickly turfed. No recognition here that without the years of protest there would have been no corporate social responsibility talk at all.
MINING THE DATA
25,000 Approximate number of registered delegates to the PDAC convention
$32 billion Amount Canada's mining industry contributed to Canada's GDP in 2009
3.5 Percentage of Canada's GDP accounted for by mining
306,000 Number of Canadian employees in mining extraction, processing and manufacturing
10,000 Number of worldwide exploration and mining projects led by Canadian companies
75 Percentage of the world's exploration and mining companies located in Canada in 2009 (1,800)
100 Number of nations in which Canadian mining firms are active
81 Percentage of global mining equity transactions handled by the TSX and its venture exchange
Sources: PDAC, Mining Association of Canada