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People abroad hurt by Canadian mining can now complain to new federal office

With Canadian mining companies facing allegations of environmental and human-rights abuses on different continents, the federal government has opened an office to settle foreign-based disputes.

A new ombudsman's office, which opened for business last week, is ready to field complaints from people in developing countries concerned over Canadian resource operations in their region.

Marketa Evans still hadn't received her first grievance after a few days on the job, but the calm may not last long.

"This is a pretty contentious industry," Evans said in an interview.

"I believe there have been many documented complaints, certainly not just about Canadian companies. This is, as I said, a pretty big-footprint industry."

Canada is a global leader in the mining and exploration sector, with interests in 10,000 projects in more than 100 countries.

Evans' office opens its doors as federal politicians prepare for a final vote Wednesday on a divisive private member's bill designed to control overseas practices.

Bill C-300, authored by Toronto-area Liberal John McKay, aims to make the country's mining, oil and gas companies more accountable for their actions through sanctions and ministerial investigations.

Canadian mining companies have come under attack for numerous alleged transgressions abroad.

The allegations are vast — from violence to ecological destruction.

Companies are blamed for draining rivers, forcibly evicting people from their lands, dumping chemicals into drinking-water sources and, sometimes, they face even more ominous accusations.

Last December, environmental concerns led a Mexican state government to shut down a barite mine operated by Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration Ltd.

The closure came just days after local anti-mine activist Mariano Abarca Roblero was shot dead in Chiapas, a state that borders Guatemala.

Roblero's death triggered angry protests in the region, including one rally that saw demonstrators interrupt a state visit by Michaelle Jean, then the governor general, with chants of "Canada, get out."

Blackfire has denied any connection to the slaying and is adamant the mine was operated in an environmentally responsible way.

McKay has heard other allegations from South America, Central America and as far away as Papua New Guinea.

"I could literally take you on a world tour," he said.

He desrcibed the new ombudsman's office as "political cover" for the Conservatives, who have almost unanimously opposed his legislation in earlier votes.

The new office lacks teeth because, he says, it has no authority to impose sanctions or require companies to participate in the process.

"It is a rather insignificant outcome out of C-300 already," he said.

His bill would help to change that, McKay argued.

"Somebody's got to rein these guys in and C-300 is a very modest effort to rein these folks in," said McKay, who expects Wednesday's vote to be tight.

"I don't think it's quite penetrated the consciousness of Canadians how badly our reputation has been damaged by these companies."

But the Mining Association of Canada welcomes the creation of an arm's-length government ombudsman.

A senior executive for the organization said the process is more constructive than Bill C-300 because it seeks to mediate rather than penalize companies.

Paul Hebert says the legislation would invite political bias into conflict resolution.

"If (Bill) C-300 passes, then we're talking about opening up a complaints desk within a ministry of government . . . which is a politicized position," Paul Hebert said in an interview.

Hebert says the industry doesn't deserve its poor reputation.

He says the mining industry is only hit with a handful of complaints every year — a tiny amount, given the scope of operations abroad.

"Canadian mining companies are leaders in the area of CSR (corporate social responsibility)."

He thinks Evans' office should be given a chance to succeed.

The ombudsman explains that the role of the three-person bureau in Toronto is to solve problems by bringing parties together, not by investigating allegations.

Evans promises to create a low-cost, accessible tool for those impacted by mining operations — with no lawyers needed.

She says people around the world can reach her Toronto office by telephone, email or via the post office. They can also contact Canadian diplomatic offices in their own country.

"Canadian companies have tremendous incentive to improve their practices," said Evans, who declined to comment on Bill C-300 because it is before Parliament.

"(Companies are) making very significant investments in a lot of countries that are typically extremely poor.

"So, to me that's a huge opportunity to improve standards of living of people."

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Tags: canada, corporations
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