Digging for mining accountability

Local high school students are demanding accountability in Canadian mining operations abroad, despite Ottawa denying a bill that would do just that.

With the recent defeat of the mining accountability bill sponsored by Liberal MP John McKay, students at Pope John Paul II Catholic Secondary School say they aren’t giving up their efforts. Instead they plan to continue an ongoing campaign that ensures human rights and environmental standards are kept with Canadian mining companies overseas.

“I’m disappointed with the results, but this is just the beginning for us, not the end,” said Abirami Shanmugaratnam, a Grade 12 student at Pope John Paul II.

Over the past year, a small group of students took the lead in a mining campaign at Pope, encouraging the signing of 1,600 postcards by their peers and community.

The postcard drive was part of a larger campaign run by Development and Peace, a Catholic charity that managed to deliver 500,000 cards from across Canada to Parliament Hill in support of mining accountability.

“I remember dragging all these cards to the postbox and dumping them in, hoping that someone would take notice,” said Stephanie Silliker, Pope teacher and facilitator for the school’s mining campaign.

Which is exactly what the Scarborough-Guildwood MP, McKay did.

“The kids at Pope John Paul were some of our first big supporters for the bill, their cards got my attention” McKay said.

Getting more involved in the democratic process, students petitioned MP’s who opposed the bill and had talks with McKay at the school to build awareness.

Mining first became an important issue to many of the students when they traveled on a class trip to Mexico last February, witnessing firsthand the impacts from Canadian companies.

“It really opened my eyes to what was happening in other parts of the world and how other people are suffering because of our actions in Canada,” Shanmugaratnam said.

The majority of mining companies overseas involved in gold, copper and coal operations are Canadian companies.

In a leaked report in 2009, Canadian mining operations were found to be involved in four times as many violations as mining from other countries, according to Toronto-based Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada.

The abuses from Canadian companies include cultural and environmental disruptions to host communities, as well as physical violence, said the PDAC report.

McKay’s mining bill, Bill C-300, attempted to change this by ensuring accountability in the mining sector. The bill intended to cut Canadian taxpayer dollars to mining companies found guilty in violating international standards.

But not everyone agrees Bill C-300 was necessary.

“Canadian companies adhere to corporate social responsibility standards and have a track record that’s among the best in the world,” said international trade minister Peter Van Loan.

He said he’s pleased the bill was defeated because it would have put thousands of jobs at risk.

But the students at Pope John Paul II want the bill to see another day. They hope the bill will be rewritten and pass through Parliament in the next few years, Shanmugaratnam said.

Which is what McKay plans to do next. Going forward, McKay wants to put together a more comprehensive bill than Bill C-300, including ensuring corporate responsibility abroad through legal ramifications within Canada.

Till then, staff said the school and the students would provide on-going support till the bill passes.

“Despite the bill’s defeat, the students are soldiering on,” Silliker said.