[Canada’s] Mining oversight office shouldn’t be beholden to industry – by Kate Heartfield (Vancouver Sun – November 16, 2011)

The Vancouver Sun, a broadsheet daily paper first published in 1912, has the largest circulation in the province of British Columbia.

OTTAWA — 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.”

For the rest of this article, please go to the Vancouver Sun’s website: http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Mining+oversight+office+shouldn+beholden+industry/5716026/story.html