In 2015 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told The New York Times that Canadian values include “openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, [and] to search for equality and justice.”

Of the prominent corporations headquartered in Canada, such as the mining companies Barrick Gold, Nevsun Resources, and Hudbay Minerals; the transportation company Bombardier Inc.; and the software company Netsweeper, most carry out the majority of their operations overseas. This means that although they are technically Canadian, they overwhelmingly impact the non-Canadian communities that they operate within and employ from.

Nevertheless, their reputations are buoyed by their Canadian identity. The Globe and Mail reported that such corporations enjoy a “strategic advantage” in Canadian markets.

In other words, Canadian consumers are more willing to trust, purchase products or services from, and work for corporations with Canadian identities.

This is especially true for mining corporations, reports The Walrus. Such companies headquartered in Canada enjoy “a positive national image, a solid reputation for mining expertise, and access to government resources through [Canadian] embassies abroad.”

Yet as Canadian companies enjoy these perks back home, advocacy groups have questioned whether they are acting in accordance with Canadian values in their operations overseas. Many have grappled with lawsuits and protests stemming from alleged human rights violations in foreign countries, contravening the so-called Canadian values of compassion, equality, and justice.

Barrick Gold is a recent example of a Canadian corporation that made headlines for alleged human rights violations. The firm was founded by philanthropist Peter Munk, after whom the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy is named.

The Munk School of Global Affairs. File photo: BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY

Munk donated $6.4 million to the construction of the Munk School of Global Affairs, which was at the time named the Munk Centre for International Studies. The institution opened in 2000, and in 2009 his foundation made an additional donation of $35 million. In 2018, the school merged with U of T’s School of Public Policy & Governance to form the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

His foundation’s donations to the Munk School have drawn criticism from students and professors alike, some of which questioned whether the U of T is compromising its institutional integrity by accepting Munk’s donations.

Gold, human rights, and Papua New Guinea

On May 7, Barrick Gold faced scrutiny from the advocacy group MiningWatch Canada during its annual general meeting, a mandatory gathering for the corporation to hold for its shareholders.

“It is shameful that year after year since 2008, either I or people affected by your mines from all over the world, have had to stand here to testify to ongoing environmental and human rights abuses at your mines,” said Catherine Coumans, a research coordinator for MiningWatch Canada at the general meeting.

Coumans cited Barrick Gold’s alleged complicity in abuses including “excessively violent security guards” and unsafe disposal of waste byproducts from mining.

This corresponds with earlier accusations, including research from 2009 led by legal scholar Sarah Knuckey, now associated with Columbia Law School, alleging that Barrick Gold did not do “due diligence in hiring security” for its facilities in Porgera, Papua New Guinea.

According to Knuckey, Barrick Gold’s lack of diligence in hiring security contributed to a number of problems. Her team has since submitted “evidence of eight rapes and two other acts of sexual violence” to the Canadian government.

Flag held by demonstrators agitating against Barrick Gold. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY.

According to The National Observer, Barrick Gold “dismissed reports that security forces were killing men and raping women as lies,” until a report in 2011 by Human Rights Watch documented six alleged incidents of gang rape by mine security personnel in Papua New Guinea from 2008–2010.

During its 2019 annual general meeting, Barrick CEO Mark Bristow responded to Coumans by acknowledging that there are “specific issues that you [Coumans] refer to,” but noted that Barrick has “dealt with them in the past, and… will always continue to deal with those allegations.”

However, Bristow downplayed the role of Barrick in alleged incidents of rape, arson, and assault by mine guards in Tanzania, saying that Acacia Mining, which employed or hosted the guards, operates independently of Barrick, even though they are Acacia’s majority stakeholder.

Bristow further contended that Barrick seeks to “create value” for the communities in which it operates, raising the quality of life of its 17,000 employees across Africa by giving them training and employment to contribute to their local economies.

This echoes a previous defence given by Munk to the Toronto Star in response to protests in Toronto against Barrick’s activities in Papua New Guinea in 2010.

“By moving into these countries and developing their mines, we provide — way beyond the importance of money — we provide human dignity,” said Munk. “We provide an opportunity for these people to earn their money, rather than hold out their hands and depend on charity.”

While Barrick may not have deliberately directed violence against the locals, advocacy groups contend that the company had a responsibility to prevent violence committed by its personnel. Barrick’s response has been to deny responsibility and deflect attention from the negative consequences of its operations by drawing attention to its role in job creation.

Though Barrick’s response may minimize its legal exposure, advocacy groups contend that it has not prioritized the lives of its employees or local residents in the areas where the company operates.

Similar allegations levelled against Hudbay in Guatemala

Barrick is not the only Canadian mining company under fire for alleged complicity in human rights violations overseas. Hudbay Minerals has faced similar allegations in Guatemala, resulting in Canadian lawsuits for negligence.

Eleven women reported gang rape in 2007 and identified the perpetrators as men employed by Hudbay to remove them from their homes in Lote Ocho, Guatemala for the company’s operations, according to a report by The New York Times.

The Times further reported that Hudbay has faced legal claims over alleged negligence which resulted in the death of local leader and teacher Adolfo Ich Chamán, as well as the shooting and paralysis of a bystander, German Chub, as the result of gunfire during protests against Hudbay’s operations in El Estor, Guatemala in 2009.

Hudbay has denied wrongdoing, saying that no “mining security officials” were present during the evictions at Lote Oche, and that no rapes took place.

The corporation further disputed that it was liable for any alleged damages affecting these women, saying that the mine responsible for the evictions was owned by a subsidiary of Skye Resources Inc., another Canadian company, until 2008, when Hudbay purchased it.

In response to legal claims that Hudbay is responsible for the death of Chamán and severe harm to Chub, the corporation maintains that these resulted from self-defence on the part of the mine’s security guards against armed protestors.

Despite Hudbay’s position, Mynor Padilla, the mine’s head of security during the El Estor shootings, has been placed on trial in Guatemala for the death of Chamán and the paralysis of Chub.

Bombardier, Netsweeper face allegations of complicity in human rights violations, by virtue of their clients

Barrick and Hudbay have faced accusations of negligence due to severe crimes allegedly committed by their employees. Yet Canadian corporations such as Bombardier and Netsweeper have also come under fire for allegations of knowingly conducting business with entities likely to use their services to violate human rights.

Following the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, which used to be Ukrainian territory, Canadian foreign policy has been to support Ukraine in the de facto Ukrainian-Russian conflict.

But in July 2018, Bombardier won an $8 million contract to install rail-control systems which would help construct a railway line between Russia’s western and southern military districts.

According to military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer in an interview with The Globe and Mail, the railway line is “of highly strategic importance” to Russia, as the primary function of the line is to transport military personnel within areas of Russian territory near Ukraine.

In response to The Globe’s inquiries, Bombardier has maintained that its projects are “compliant with Canada’s sanctions against Russia,” despite the Ukrainian Canadian Congress lobby group contending that the project has “evident military implications.”

Bombardier has also come under fire for allegedly enabling human rights violations by Israel against Palestinians, according to a recently published book by Associate Professor David P. Thomas of Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.

Thomas, who studies politics and international relations, has contended that Bombardier has been “complicit” in the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory of Beit Surik, due to Bombardier’s sale of supply trains for Israel’s A1 railway. The high-speed rail link, which connects Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, uses land near Beit Surik, reports Reuters.

By selling the trains to Israel, Thomas asserts that Bombardier contributed to a project that requires the occupation of Palestinian territory, which Canada considers to be illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Netsweeper, a Waterloo, Ontario based company, has faced similar criticism for creating software that has enabled 10 countries to prevent access to “news, religious content, LGBTQ+ resources, and political campaigns” from their citizens, according to research by U of T’s Citizen Lab.

“Canada is a country that’s defined by its values. This is a Canadian company headquartered here,” said Citizen Lab researcher Ron Deibert to CBC News. The researchers maintained that the censorship enabled by Netsweeper’s software has posed serious concerns to the human rights of residents in those countries.

The role of Canadian courts

Canadian courts will judge whether companies like Hudbay are legally complicit in human rights violations.

A precedent-setting lawsuit against Vancouver-based mining company Nevsun Resources Ltd. has reached the Supreme Court of Canada, as three lawsuits stemming from allegations against Hudbay have been under review by the Ontario Superior Court.

The charges against Nevsun stem from its alleged complicity in using conscripted labour to build a gold mine in Eritrea. In an interview with The Varsity, Yolanda Song, a U of T research associate in the International Human Rights Program, said that conscripts allegedly faced conditions of “slavery, forced labour, and torture” from members of the Eritrean military.

The Supreme Court of Canada. RWHGOULD/CC FLICKR

The refugees who filed the case against Nevsun allege that the corporation knew or should have known about the use of forced labour in its mine, failed to do anything to stop it, and “knowingly decided to work with the Eritrean government, despite its poor track record of human rights violations,” explained Song.

Nevsun’s defence lies in the “act of state doctrine,” which asserts that Canadian courts cannot judge the lawfulness of the sovereign acts by another country. Song explained that Nevsun has asserted that the act prevents Canadian courts from determining whether the Eritrean program of indefinite forced labour is illegal.

If this is true, Nevsun argues that the corporation is not liable for the human rights violations of using forced labour in Eritrea.

“Our big concern is that if the rule was applied in this way,” said Song, “then you could have huge implications for corporate accountability for their practices.”

“It essentially immunizes companies who knowingly partner up with dictatorships… and it helps incentivize the corporations to pass off their responsibilities, and turn [a blind eye] if they do eventually discover evidence in some wrongdoing.”

Possible solutions 

As Maighdlin Mahoney of The Varsity wrote, corporate sponsorship of public events can deflect attention away from alleged complicity and enablement of human rights abuses.

Mahoney wrote about the hypocrisy of Bud Light in becoming a major sponsor of Pride Toronto while also being a major sponsor of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, despite Russia’s anti-gay purges in Chechnya.

Use of student activism, both inside and outside of social media, can draw attention to the alleged lack of accountability of such companies, mounting pressure on key stakeholders to act.

A key influence in pushing for accountability in companies, argues opinion columnist Errol Mendes of The Globe and Mail, is the stakeholders of these companies. Mendes contends that shareholders of Canadian companies have a responsibility in ensuring that the firms they invest in act ethically.

These ethical standards can be set by international instruments such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which provides a mechanism for companies to best ensure they do not contribute to human rights violations.

In contrast, Associate Professor Penelope Simons of the University of Ottawa, and Professor Audrey Macklin of the University of Toronto have placed greater emphasis on change stemming from legislation, in an op-ed to The Globe and Mail.

“The government needs to take bolder steps to protect the human rights of individuals and communities affected by resource extraction by Canadian companies,” they wrote. “Companies insisting that voluntary self-regulation is adequate and that their conduct already meets or exceeds global standards have little to fear from regulation.”

“They should welcome measures that compel their less scrupulous colleagues to cease engaging in the kind of conduct that gives Canadian extractives — and Canada — a bad name.”