Thoughts on Bill C-300

I was just listening to the debate on CBC’s The Current between John McKay, Liberal MP for Scarborough-Guildwood and Jon Baird, president of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC).  The debate was regarding bill C-300, a private member’s bill put forward by John McKay that proposes a system of government oversight of overseas mining exploration & development by Canadian companies. John McKay’s website describes it thusly:

Bill C- 300, also cited as An Act Respecting Corporate Accountability for Mining, Oil and Gas Corporations in Developing Countries, will promote responsible environmental practices and international human rights standards on the part of Canadian mining, oil and gas corporations in developing countries.  The purpose of this Act is to ensure that corporations engaged on mining, oil or gas activities and receiving support from the Government of Canada act in a manner consistent with international environmental best practices and with Canada’s commitments to international human rights standards. The Act gives the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of International Trade the responsibility of holding corporations accountable for their practices by submitting annual reports to the House of Commons and the Senate for review.

So this, to me, seems to be quite a milquetoast bill, that does next to nothing. What it does, and which I fully support it, is that it demands companies act elsewhere in a manner acceptable within our own borders. Additionally, because so much of development is funded through Canadian taxpayers via CPP investment, or through Export Development Canada (EDC), it gives the government the ability to remove taxpayers’ complicity with the poor behaviour of these companies. I don’t like to think my taxes are in any way funding shady corporate practice, or potential human rights abuse abroad.

Jon Baird was arguing that this bill was unnecessary (if I understood him correctly), because there are so few problems (17 complaints a year was a number I heard), and that the industry would prefer to 1) self-regulate, 2) be led by carrot, not beaten by the stick and 3) represents meddling by the Canadian government on the sovereign affairs of other nations. So let’s break this down:

  1. Because the problem is a “small” one, it’s not worth correcting. Uh, why? Just because there’s only 17 complaints doesn’t mean that those 17 complaints a year don’t merit investigation. Given that attitude, it is clear that “self-regulation” simply will not work, because you’re worrying about the number of complaints to determine size an issue, not the severity of complaints.
  2. You should be rewarded, as an industry, for behaving well? What? Shouldn’t that be the default industry position. Further to that, I’d argue ongoing investment by CPP or EDC in your corporations is a carrot – not a right. It seems only reasonable to pull that investment if you’re not meeting some fairly minimum standards. The punitive measures of this bill are so mild as to be nearly laughable, apart from the ability to pull government investment dollars – nothing further.
  3. The final point, meddling in sovereign affairs is potentially a valid issue. But it too falls apart under scrutiny: These investigations are only undertaken if there are complaints filed against the company in a given nation. Which means, inherently, that they are perceived to be contravening some local standard or law.  Jon Baird’s counter-argument was how would Canada feel if Brazil started investigating the mining operations in Sudbury. You know what? I suspect we’d co-operate and demand full disclosure by the companies operating in Canada. For nations without strong “rule of law”, or poor internal human rights, we may *not* get government support. And there may be some tricky diplomacy around that. But I’d rather us try, and fail, to investigate Canadian companies operating in these regions than to just ignore any complaints.

I would humbly suggest an addendum to the bill to placate one of Jon Baird’s arguments about “frivolous” complaints from NGO’s that exist solely to do just this: Keep a record of who brings forward complaints. If they are brought forward by a legal entity (this bill should, and *must* support anonymous whistle-blowing to have teeth, I feel), it would be legitimate to use any records of previous complaints by the organization as evidence in the current one (I suppose a “boy-who-cried-wolf clause”).

One final aside – here’s another place where open data could be of use – if all EDC & CPP investment figures were easily available to anyone to analyze, break-down, review, etc, it could be matched up along international foreign-aid data, or human-rights abuse data, or who knows what else that could both help a company’s defence or the crown investigator to make decisions about the net effects of the company’s actions in a foreign country.