Fall can be depressing enough as it is with the big push to move a number of projects forward after the brief respite of summer. To make things harder, there is also the recognition that the ensuing momentum of this effort will accumulate and generate additional activities that will carry through until the last office Christmas party ends. And then there is the fact that the House of Commons failed to pass bill C-300.
Bill C-300, An Act Respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas in Developing Countries, was a private member’s bill introduced by Liberal MP John McKay. The bill was preceded by a few notable events. There were several complaints about human rights abuses committed by Canadian oil, gas, and mining companies around the world. In June 2005, a major report on mining in developing countries and corporate social responsibility was tabled by the parliamentary standing committee on foreign affairs and international trade. This report included recommendations for Canadian legislation to hold Canadian companies accountable for human rights violations they committed abroad. In response to the seriousness of the report, in 2006 the Canadian government held a series of National Roundtables on Corporate Social Responsibility and the Canadian Extractive Sector in Developing Countries. These roundtables effectively brought all of the stakeholders to the table and resulted in additional recommendations. In March 2009, the government responded by creating a corporate social responsibility officer institution, rather than the ombudsman that was recommended, who will receive complaints and get the parties to the dispute together to talk about their differences. This is a voluntary process and there is no means of forcing parties to the table or enforcing any agreement that may be reached.
As acknowledged by those who helped draft bill C-300, it was a modest legislative proposal. It did not include measures for criminal accountability, fines, or direct measures to prevent non-compliant companies from continuing to commit human rights violations. Rather, the bill focused on regulating the provision of financial and government support for Canadian extractive companies operating in developing countries. It included a complaints mechanism. If a company was found to be non-compliant it would lose its eligibility for funding from Export Development Canada, among others as well as consular and diplomatic support beyond the core services available to all Canadians.
The shock stemming from the failure of the House of Commons to pass the bill was particularly emotional because the vote was so close — 140 to 134. The only reason it was defeated was because 13 Liberals, four NDP, and five Bloc members did not show up for the vote. It is difficult to accept that those who we thought were strong supporters of human rights in developing countries in fact are not.
There will always be tensions between human rights and business activities. This is the force that drives the existence of unions and has lead to legislation on a variety of public health and safety measures.
In Canada, as in most industrialized nations, regulation for the public good is part of the fabric of our social contract and part of doing business. It is an accepted practice, and one in which Canadian companies continue to be able to compete and make a profit.
In addition, we are at a crossroads, a point in history where our desire to pursue extractive activities must be tempered with a clear understanding of their effect on the environment. Whether or not one believes in climate change, it has become impossible to deny that our plunder of the earth is destroying essential eco-systems. We may not be the ones to cut down the last tree on Easter Island, but we are getting close.
The fact that bill C-300 survived to its third reading is a testament to the public support behind this type of measure — a fact that the extractive industry should take note of. There is growing consensus that Canadian companies cannot remain globally competitive with behaviour that contravenes accepted human rights and environmental norms. These companies should be planning for a day when such legislation is part of their regulatory landscape.
Sonya Nigam is the executive director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.