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Pro-Life series: Canadian Mining Companies in Latin America

I was in a grocery store in a small Colombian city the other day, hoping against hoping to find the elusive holy grail of imports: cheddar cheese. While I did not find any cheese, what I did come across was even more unlikely. There, in the middle of the bakery section, were stacks of boxed donuts, each one adorned with a maple leaf sticker proudly proclaiming the contents a Product of Canada.

What do donuts have to do with life, you may ask? One the goals of my job in advocacy is to support people in Latin America in their desire for a life lived with dignity, free of violence and fear. Being pro-life is not only about protecting human lives from death, but also about speaking up for the kind of lives that our loving Creator intends for the works of His hands—lives of dignity and freedom. For me, therefore, supporting this right for a dignified life must include an examination of policies that impact those living outside of our borders. 

Just like those donuts, we may not often expect to find Canada in Latin America, yet the longer I live in Latin America, the more I learn of Canadian presence in the region, often with negative results that make living with dignity difficult.

What Canada does as a country in the rest of the world shapes who we are as Canadians and what we stand for; including human rights and respect for life.

Over the last eight years, Canada’s goals in the region have been highly focused on trade and economic policy in the region, implemented through Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). Currently, Canada has Free Trade Agreements with seven countries in Latin America (Honduras, Colombia, Panamá, Perú, Costa Rica, Chile, and Mexico) and is in negotiations for five more (Caribbean community, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic). Under the new Liberal government, Canada is currently deciding if they will enter into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade deal that involves, in the region, Mexico, Chile, and Peru.

Trade can have a positive impact on a society, but if precautions are not taken, engaging in trade with few regulations in countries of conflict or with high levels of human rights violations can cause negative social impacts. In the majority of Canadian FTA negotiations, local civil society has spoken out against the agreements because of fear of worsening conditions for human rights and thus the ability to live well. Colombia, for example, is the most dangerous country in the world to be a union leader. Civil society worries that the current FTA, which does not adequately monitor its impact on human rights, provides implicit approval for impunity. The same FTA has opened the doors for assault weapons export—weapons currently banned in Canada—to Colombia, a country that already has over six million internally displaced people because of violence.

Many of our FTAs facilitate access for Canadian based companies to extractive sectors in Latin American countries. These corporations are viewed as the most important actors in generating economic growth, yet there is a concerning lack of accountability, amid accusations of human rights violations and irreparable environmental destruction, ultimately harmful for dignified life.

Currently, Canadian companies are only responsible for upholding voluntary corporate social responsibility standards. As a recent Globe and Mail article states “Canada is host to 75 per cent of the world’s largest exploration and mining companies, as well as more than 100 medium– to large-sized oil and gas companies, many of which operate in developing countries. Major and minor players in Canada’s extractive industry have been the subject of serious allegations of complicity in grave human rights abuses.”

The Marlin Mine in Guatemala, owned by the Canadian company GoldCorp, is one of the most emblematic projects, for concerns raised about human rights violations, environmental degradation and lack of prior consultation, but it is not unique. In Honduras, for example, Canadian mining has displaced Indigenous groups and contributed to violence, after an FTA was signed after a military-backed coup in 2009.

In fact, laws and regulations currently in place favour the activities of Canadian companies abroad above all other considerations. A report entitled The Impact of Canadian Mining in Latin America and Canada’s Responsibility, outlines how Canadian companies are taking advantage of, and actively encouraging, weak legal frameworks around extraction in multiple Latin American countries.

We must hold our new Liberal government to account as they begin to officially formalize their foreign and trade policy. Is trade conditional on human rights standards being met by local governments, or does Canada engage in trade under any condition? How does our government hold our mining companies accountable for their actions?

As a Canadian living in Latin America, I would like Canada to be more known in the region for its donuts than for harmful foreign policy. Now is a good time to ask for change that upholds the right to a dignified life for all. 

This is the 12th post in our "What Being Pro-Life Means to Me" series! What does being pro-life mean to you? Over this fall, we'll hear various writers respond to that question. Learn more and subscribe for weekly email updates. 

[Image: Flickr user photos.de.tibo]

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