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Member Profile February 2014


MiningWatch Canada


Mining Watch Canada Profile

MiningWatch banner hanging in La Puya, north of Guatemala City, where protestors continue to block a mining project from moving forward. Translation of banner message: In solidarity with the people of San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc - For their peaceful struggle in defence of health, water and a decent standard of living.

This month CCIC had an interesting conversation with Catherine Coumans, Research Co-ordinator at Mining Watch Canada. We discussed the work being done by the organization to influence public policy and mining practices to ensure the health of communities and the environment, and how Canada could become a leader in making mining companies accountable...among other things!


CCIC - Your mission is about “Changing public policy and mining practices to ensure the health of individuals, communities and ecosystems”. What are some of the main challenges and opportunities in achieving this in the current context?

Catherine Coumans - There is a fundamental conflict between the public interest — especially mining-affected communities who seek to protect their access to land and ecosystems which form the basis for sustainable social, environmental, and economic development — and the interests of mining companies that seek to exploit the natural resources beneath the surface. Canadian mining interests are strongly supported by the actual Canadian government.  Some Canadian civil society organizations, consultants, and others are also partnering with, or working for, the industry.  We believe this magnifies a crippling imbalance of power that disadvantages communities with minimal resources and capacity in their struggle to protect values of importance to them.  MiningWatch Canada seeks ways to address this power imbalance through our research, advocacy, and policy work.

We work within a global context of struggle for environmental and social justice rooted in intensive long-term strategic work by civil society movements in the “host” countries where Canadian mining companies and their international supporters operate. The tools of this struggle range widely, including: local moratoriums, referendums, protests, and blockades; media campaigns (including social, alternative, and mass media), shareholder activism; non-judicial grievance mechanisms (e.g., in Canada: the Canadian National Contact Point (NCP) under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, or the World Bank’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman), legal action (e.g., the current Hudbay case undertaken by Klippensteins), requests for anti-corruption investigations by the RCMP under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act, and policy engagement with representatives of host and home governments and various UN bodies.


CCIC - A lot of your work is about advocating for change and good practices in the mining sector; who are your key partners, in Canada and overseas, for achieving this work?

Catherine Coumans - From the time it was founded fifteen years ago, MiningWatch has been clear that only by working together with national and international allies would we be able to effect positive change. We have enjoyed support from our member organizations that include Aboriginal, social justice, environmental, and labour organizations from across Canada. Beyond our membership, we work with activists, academics, communities, and networks to build campaigns and carry out research, both nationally and internationally.  

Within Canada, one of the most important networks we helped found and continue to work intensively with is the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), which has united diverse voices calling for social and environmental justice with a particular focus on mining. We are also part of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group and are doing research with a view to generating public debate on the criminalization of environmental, Indigenous, and human rights defenders in Latin America and Canada, with particular emphasis on the use of anti-terrorist legislation and concepts. We are active in the Americas Policy Group and also the Africa Canada Forum within the CCIC, which provide a forum for collaborative policy proposals on issues of trade agreements and aid distribution, to which we bring our focused work on the mining sector. We collaborate with various university-based initiatives across the country, presenting, researching, writing and publishing on a wide range of mining-related topics.

Internationally, we focus our energies on areas where we are able to work in collaboration with local allies to contribute to their empowerment as authors of their own development. We look to such partnerships to move from the micro to the macro, to have local struggles strengthen environmental justice movements. The ever-present goal is to influence policy, to educate the public, and to set positive precedents — to create systemic change.


CCIC - How do you connect local and global issues in the mining sector? How can your work in Canada and overseas reinforce one another?

Catherine Coumans - In some ways, social and environmental issues are specific to each mining project: no two communities face exactly the same challenges or necessarily arrive at similar positions. Indeed, diverse perspectives within communities often contribute to tensions among members. However, there are common threads that mean that communities within a particular area or country or even from different parts of the world can learn much from one another, can benefit from support from social justice organizations, and can mutually gain strength from collaborative actions. Connections between mining-affected communities in Canada and the Global South are therefore important components in the struggle for social/environmental justice. With our allies, we facilitate these relationships through Canadian participation in Southern initiatives, and exchanges between actors when partners from the South visit Canada.

The interconnectedness of the issues is complex, but in fact contributes to finding common goals. A community’s efforts to protect water are also about citizens’ democratic right to speak out; an exposé of a company’s failure to be transparent with investors about obstacles to getting mining permits may well include a description of its unfair labour practices; an analysis of a country’s inadequate monitoring capacity will often also refer to interference by the Canadian government striving to promote its companies. In our calls for progress on any given front, many closely related issues are either explicitly or implicitly part of that work.


CCIC - Mining Watch is supporting the “Open for Justice” campaign. Can you tell us more about the need for such a campaign, and what you are hoping to achieve?

Catherine Coumans - Canada’s companies are the dominant players in the mining sector in developing countries. They are also too often implicated in environmental and human rights abuses. When companies harm the human rights of their workers, or of affected communities, or when they do not comply with local laws — when they commit environmental crimes or their local personnel carry out acts of violence, or they are found to use illegal means to influence host governments, or they are guilty of tax avoidance — they often are not held to account in the countries in which they operate because of weak regulatory and judicial institutions in those countries. There have to be ways that Canadian companies can be held to account in Canada. The Open for Justice campaign calls for legislated access to courts in Canada for those harmed by the international operations of Canadian extractive companies operating overseas, and an ombudsman with the power to investigate complaints, report out on the findings of investigations, recommend remedy, and make policy recommendations to government.


CCIC - Some people in Canada and overseas believe that mining activities can make a positive contribution to economic development; do you agree with that? And if so, what do we need to realize this potential?

Catherine Coumans - The reality is that the mining “business as usual” model creates long-lasting development deficits, not benefits. MiningWatch has written extensively on this issue.  An answer to this can be found in a December 2013 article, “Mining and development – how much will it cost us to clothe the naked emperor?”, where we cite analysis done by economists such as Joseph Stiglitz who conclude that poor countries that rely on the development of their mineral resources for economic development “have done even more poorly than countries without resources.” He and others have witnessed deepened poverty, increased inequality, increased corruption and conflict at the national level as characteristics of the “resource curse,” indicating that even at local level social, environmental and economic impacts exacerbate poverty of many community members around mine sites.

There is also a need to address the massive capital flight out of poor countries associated with transfer miss-pricing arrangements of Canadian mining companies that mean the taxes they should have paid in those countries, end up in tax havens such as the Cayman Islands. Moreover, financial bonds should be posted to cover the true costs of managing the ongoing toxic threats from mined-out projects for the length of time these threats will prevail – which is often “in perpetuity.” In Canada alone, there are thousands of legacy sites that taxpayers now have to pay to clean up and manage: a bill that runs in the billions of dollars – and counting. This is a financial burden developing countries cannot bear.


CCIC - How could Canada become a leader in making mining companies accountable?

Catherine Coumans - In order to make mining companies more accountable, Canada must take seriously its obligations to protect the human rights of all Canadians, and Indigenous peoples in Canada. This means, among others: creating legislation that is in line with Canada’s human rights commitments as a signatory to numerous UN conventions and treaties, including legislation that implements Free, Prior and Informed Consent for Indigenous peoples; upholding and strengthening national legislation and enforcement capacity to protect the environment and the rights and ability of Canadians to have a say in development projects; support research to provide baseline environmental and socio-cultural data, and preserve such taxpayer-funded data that has been collected in the past.

With respect to the activities of Canadian companies operating overseas, Canada should, among others: provide true access to remedy for people harmed by the activities of Canadian companies by legislating access to Canadian courts and by providing an effective non-judicial grievance mechanism in the form of an ombudsman; assure that diplomatic activities and trade and investment agreements do not protect the interests of Canadian companies over those of citizens and environments in other countries; set standards for Canadian extractive companies operating overseas and make their continued Canadian corporate registration and stock exchange listing — as well as publicly-funded political and financial support — contingent on meeting them; require revenue transparency so that Canadian companies publish, project by project, what they pay to governments in other countries; take steps to halt the illicit flow of revenues from Canadian mining operations by requiring disclosure of the beneficial of corporate subsidiaries and contractual relationships; take steps to document and control the mining and distribution of metals that contribute to conflict, particularly in the Great Lakes region of Africa.


CCIC - In your opinion, what are some of the key benefits of being a CCIC member? And what does Mining Watch bring to the table?

Catherine Coumans - As a member of CCIC, we are able to be part of a community of small and large international development and social justice organizations from across the country to debate the key issues of the day, work together to engage the Canadian public in international initiatives, and ensure that elected representatives and other decision-makers consider broader social perspectives in their deliberations. As the only NGO in Canada focused on the specific issues related to mining in Canada and operations by Canadian companies abroad, we bring expertise and analysis on an industry that affects the lives of so many people in Canada and in the Global South and act as a resource to CCIC members working with mining-affected communities.



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