Mining Injustice: Is ‘Canada’s University’ Complicit?

Apr 1, 2011

Mining Injustice: Is ‘Canada’s University’ Complicit?

A recent post on the University of Ottawa website celebrates the signing of an agreement between the University and the Devonshire Initiative (DI), a "forum for leading international development NGOs and Canadian mining companies to come together in response to the social agenda surrounding private sector investment and community development issues". However, the University’s support for the DI is raising a lot of eyebrows. Emelia Koberg, a student and a founder of Mining Justice Ottawa, says “this agreement was created without any consultation with students or professors and meetings are now closed to the University of Ottawa community, the very people who are supposed to be supporting this project – what do they have to hide?”

Mining Justice Ottawa, a student group at the University of Ottawa, organized a forum with representatives from the DI, including the Prospectors and Development Association of Canada (PDAC) and CARE Canada, as well as Mining Watch, an NGO. This sparked a discussion around the social and environmental impacts of Canadian mining companies operating abroad, as well as what the DI is proposing to do about it, or as some would say, not do about it.

Currently, Canadian Mining corporations are having devastating social and environmental impacts on communities. People in mining communities, often in countries with lax governmental regulations, lack access to legal support once their rights have been violated. What is more, they often do not have the option to say no to the mine in the first place. For example, the Marlin mine in Guatemala, which is operated by Canada’s own Goldcorp, continues to operate despite the community’s wishes to end the mine, the recommendation by the International Labour Organization (ILO) of the United Nations that it be suspended, and mounting evidence of negative health impacts.

In order to address these concerns, the Canadian government held a roundtable discussion in 2006 with representatives from civil society, business, and government. They established concrete recommendations including stoppingsubsidies for companies until they comply with regulations, and legal reforms so that communities have the avenue to sue companies who violate their rights. Many of these proposals were included in Bill C300, a Private Member’s Bill that lost by a mere six votes, which offered some standards and a complaints mechanism,but still did not provide access to courts.

The DI, which the University of Ottawa is proudly supporting, does not favor any of these policies. As Dr. Abu-Zahra, a Professor at the University of Ottawa stated, the DI is “not CSR, it’s PR”. Of the many recommendations coming out of the government roundtables process, the only one that the DI is actively supporting is further discussion.  This means that Canadian companies are continuing with business as usual under voluntary standards. Most importantly, in the eyes of Eugenie Boudreau, a University of Ottawa graduate student who attended the forum, “the DI does not ensure the right of communities to Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), basically the option of saying no to mining projects”.

DI representative Dennis Jones from the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) argued that communities should not have the ability to refuse a mining project on the basis that it may not be what is best for the region or country. CARE dismissed FPIC as being outside of their scope, saying that this issue plays out before they get involved. Paradoxically, while the purpose of the DI is for NGOs and industry is to discuss ‘community development issues’, they are missing a key actor: community. The DI assumes, falsely, in the eyes of many, that the DI’s Development NGOs like World Vision will be the voice for community members. 

In the words of Emelia Koberg, “mining is one of the most destructive industries on earth, and this initiative only looks into band-aid solutions after the destruction is done. In my mind, this is far from sufficient and distracting from the real dialogue we need to be having”.

Industry does not want regulations because it will make them “less competitive” than other companies. Dennis Jones says regulating mining companies would be to the detriment of CSR. He argues that if mining companies are forced to pull out, they will only be replaced by companies who are not as responsible as Canadian companies. However,Catherine Coumans, the Research Coordinator at Mining Watch Canada, explains that “Canadian mining companies are four times worse than those from other countries, such as Australia and the UK, in terms of the human rights abuses”. Penelope Simons, the panel’s moderator and a University Professor who specializes in mining issues, does not see the argument as valid either: “I don’t think that any company can argue […] that it’s better for us to be in there and be complicit in human rights abuses that constitute international crimes than another company. […] I mean, you might want to say it secretly, cause it’s better, you know, you can make more money, but you can’t say that out loud anymore”.

The linkages between the Devonshire Initiative and government are a cause for concern. Marketa Evans, who founded the DI, is now Canada’s CSR councilor. Audience member Sakura Saunders, editor of, asked why the Devonshire Initiative, which was founded at the University of Toronto’s Munk School for Global Affairs on Devonshire Place (Peter Munk, a large sponsor of the school is the chairman of Barrick Gold), had moved to the University of Ottawa – “to lobby government perhaps?” In fact, the DI has been meeting with governmental organizations, such as the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a Canadian Crown Corporation, to ask for support. In fact, CIDA is now funding the majority of a 1.5 million dollar project in Peru, while Barrick Gold, the largest mining company in the world, is paying 150 00 $. Catherine Coumans challenges CIDA for their financing of CSR projects, “Why is it that Canadian taxpayer dollars, earmarked for development aid, are subsidizing Canadian mining companies for their CSR projects, when this is the responsibility of corporations?”.

The forum hosted by Mining Justice Ottawa raised serious questions from many of the attendees.  “As students and teachers at the University of Ottawa, why are we supporting an initiative that isn’t holdingcompanies accountable for human rights violations abroad? Are we complicit?” asked Eugenie Boudreau.  Recent uOttawa graduate, Padriac O’Brien was skeptical as well, “unlike the DI, the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), including Mining Watch, Amnesty International Canada, Friends of the Earth Canada, and the North-South Institute, are working to promote the round-table’s concrete policy recommendations that will make an impact for communities. Why does our University support the DI instead of the CNCA?”

For student, Kerry Duncan, this is about a lot more than the Devonshire initiative; it is about growing corporate influence over our universities. “This is not the first time that mining companies have made an appearance at the University of Ottawa.  The Telfer school of Management is funded by Ian Telfer, the head of Goldcorp. There are also seven corporate represenatives on the University’s Board of Governors, the highest governing body of the institution that makes decisions about programs tuition increases; in comparison, there is only one undergraduate student who sits on the board.”