Canada’s Biggest Eco Embarrassments

Green Living performed a reality check on the nation’s environmental record—and the results weren’t pretty

Embarrassment #3: Mining

It is said that modern mining was invented in Canada—and the majority of the world’s mining companies are listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) (pdf). Naturally therefore, Canada boasts the largest number of mining companies operating overseas—and in developing countries where they can operate under far less stringent environmental standards.

“As we attempt to tighten environmental regulations domestically, many of these companies will just take their projects to the developing world where there are fewer restrictions,” says Bruce Cox executive director of Greenpeace Canada. “Add to that not just the environmental degradation, but also human rights abuses—our companies recognize that these countries desperately need wealth and they take advantage of that.”

The TSX is an attractive home for mining companies because it “has much more minimal requirements about disclosing environmental and social impacts than other stock exchanges, such as the NYSE,” says Catherine Coumans, research co-ordinator with Mining Watch. “There are a lot of Canadian companies facing allegations of severe environmental impacts and human rights abuses. We get complaints from every corner of the world: Zimbabwe, Tibet, Mongolia—the only place we haven’t received complaints from is Antarctica. Part of the problem is that Canadians tend to live in urban centres, away from mines, and they think of mines as just holes in the ground that we fill up afterwards, and aren’t aware of how huge the toxic footprint can be.”

The Mining Map (pdf), produced by Mining Watch and eight other NGOs, highlights 23 well-documented cases of Canadian mining companies facing local opposition and legal actions—and it is “just the tip of the iceberg,” says Coumans.

Canadian companies have been accused of irresponsible and damaging operations in particular in Latin America, such as in Guatemala, Ecuador and Mexico, leaving poisoned lakes and piles of toxic slag in their wake. One of the more infamous cases is the Boac River spill in the Philippines, where a mine operated by Placer Dome dumped several million tonnes of mine tailings containing heavy metals into the river.

A 1996 survey by the Canadian Centre for the Study of Resource Conflict found that only five percent of Canadian mining companies use the guidelines of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as a development for their corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies, and that voluntary CSR among Canadian extraction companies “remains remarkably low.”

One of the problems is that there are no laws in Canada to govern the operations of our mining companies overseas—but a new bill, Bill C-300, aims to rectify this: If it passes, Canadian mining companies operating overseas will be finally be regulated.

And let’s not forget that Canadian operations at home still have their own problems: Just this month opposition by First Nations groups opposed to the environmental havoc that would be wrought by mines at Kitchenuhmaykoosib and Mount Milligan made headlines.