Visitors to the town of Cerro de San Pedro, Mexico, are greeted by a sculpture of a skeletal man with pickaxes for ribs, a bright yellow helmet and one eye. “Beto el Minero” (“Bob the Miner”) is a mute protest against an open-pit mine in the town, run by Vancouver-based New Gold. Locals have complained that the mine depleted a local aquifer and released cyanide. New Gold told Canadian Business it “remains committed to strong environmental practices and social responsibility,” adding that a recent independent review found it to be in substantial compliance with the International Cyanide Management Code. (New Gold expects to achieve full compliance shortly.)
As home to hundreds of mining companies, Canada often finds itself at the centre of such disputes. The federal government created the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor to mediate them. However its head, Marketa Evans, quietly resigned in October after three years with little to show for her efforts.
Mediation failed in five of the six cases she handled. Three were terminated because respondents—Excellon Resources, McEwen Mining and Silver Standard Resources—refused to participate. (John Smith, Silver Standard’s president, says his company withdrew because it had an existing engagement process.) In October Evans closed another case because she couldn’t reach the complainant. She closed the New Gold file the same month after community members called off a meeting. In her most successful case, a group from Mauritania complained First Quantum Minerals had no grievance mechanisms. The office ultimately informed the complainants such a mechanism actually did exist, and they should use it. (MiningWatch Canada claims it followed up “and found that no effective local-level mechanisms existed.”)
This is a far cry from what Liberal MP John Mackay had in mind in 2009 when he tabled a private member’s bill that would have charged the Department of Foreign Affairs with investigating complaints, holding mining and energy companies to legalistic standards and withholding government support from those found to be offside. Industry associations and the government argued the bill would invite vexatious claims and send companies packing to other jurisdictions. Instead, the CSR Counsellor’s office opened in Toronto in 2010 with no authority to investigate and no standards to uphold.
Today the office has no cases in progress. With total operating expenses of about $400,000 a year, it hasn’t broken the bank. But it hasn’t fulfilled its mandate, either. Although Ottawa and industry associations continue supporting it, a consortium of activist groups called the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability has begun campaigning for an ombudsman reminiscent of that proposed by Mackay years earlier.