Canada's mining, oil and gas firms think of themselves as good offshore citizens. Certainly, they are a rich source of overseas jobs, wages, royalties and social benefits. Barrick Gold Corp., for example, ploughed $8 billion back into host communities in 2008, employing 19,000 people at mines in Canada, the United States and a half-dozen other countries. It built roads, schools, clinics and more.
But Canadian firms in Mexico, El Salvador, Ecuador, Congo, India, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea have come under fire since 2000 for violent clashes with anti-mining activists, for allegedly damaging the environment, for uprooting small-scale farmers and for other shortcomings, as the Star's Brett Popplewell has reported.
This is notoriety the industry doesn't need.
In Ottawa today, the Commons foreign affairs committee will meet to consider a private member's bill introduced by Toronto Liberal MP John McKay that would have Ottawa tighten scrutiny of mining companies' offshore operations.
McKay's bill would put offshore firms on notice by empowering Ottawa to set corporate social responsibility standards and to create a complaints mechanism. A study group commissioned by the previous Liberal government went further and urged the naming of an ombudsman to police the sector. These are ideas Parliament has good reason to examine.
The industry opposes stricter oversight, warning that it may create friction with host governments, generate "legal uncertainty," put our firms at a disadvantage, and deter investment. That argues for commonsense in drafting standards and weighing performance.
But companies that behave as good corporate citizens should have little to fear from McKay's bill, or from an ombudsman. Getting an official Ottawa stamp of approval would certify that a firm is doing its best to manage inevitable social and environmental risks. That would enhance its stature abroad, and put critics on the defensive. It's hard to see how that would be bad for business.