Three weeks ago, the Harper government rejected a proposal to make diplomatic and financial support for resource companies operating overseas contingent upon socially responsible conduct. Under popular pressure, the Mining Association of Canada agreed to 27 recommendations put forward at a 2007 civil society roundtable urging government to better monitor and address human rights and environmental effects of Canadian companies operating abroad.
Barrick Gold and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce opposed the position of the Mining Association of Canada (a group not known for radicalism) and lobbied the Conservatives to reject the roundtable’s recommendations. And they won. After stalling on the issue for two years, Trade Minister Stockwell Day recently announced that there’s no need for additional measures to control Canadian resource companies operating abroad.
"Most Canadian companies have set standards for social responsibility when they go into another country," Day told reporters on March 25. "We want to see best practices highlighted and set out there as the benchmarks that companies should reach for." In other words, the Conservative government believes that voluntary standards are the best way to improve Canadian mining companies social responsibility.
This is not the first time Harper has gone to bat for Toronto-based Barrick, the world’s largest gold miner. The company gained important support for its highly controversial Pascua Lama operations during Harper’s July 2007 trip to Chile. He visited their Chilean office and said: "Barrick follows Canadian standards of corporate social responsibility." Harper was greeted with signs from mine opponents stating "Harper go home" and "Canada: What’s HARPERing here?"
During a November 2007 visit to Tanzania Harper once again met representatives of Barrick, which has more than $1 billion invested in the East African country. Days before meeting with Harper, Barrick declared illegal a strike at one of its Tanzanian mines and was looking to replace a thousand striking miners. More disturbingly, at Barrick’s North Mara mine security operatives were linked to seven violent deaths from July 2005 to late 2008. Mine critics claim it’s part of a strategy to silence them. In December 2008 The Dominion reported: "Mwita Mang’weina and some friends were engaged in an argument with Barrick security when one of the guards shot Mang’weina, who was unarmed at the time. This incident caused an uproar within the community, which immediately took up stones, overpowered mine security (who then fled), and attacked the mine, setting fire to millions worth of equipment … the killing of a local boy [in July 2005] sparked a similar uprising that resulted in the destruction of mine equipment and the subsequent detention of over 200 villagers."
In February 2009, Norway’s Ministry of Finance announced the country’s pension fund would no longer invest in Barrick due to the numerous deaths and environmental decay caused by its Porter mine in Papa New Guinea. Similarly, a recent Censored News poll found Barrick to be the fourth worst company in the world.
Pick a continent and you will find a Barrick run mine that has ravaged the environment and spurred social tension. Even the minimal federal government oversight proposed in the roundtable recommendations could damage the company’s vast operations.
Knowing the precarious nature of its business model, Barrick has spent a great deal of energy developing influence with politicians. Former US President George H. Bush became a board member after leaving office. As did Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. (When asked why he appointed Mulroney to his board, Peter Munk, chairman and founder of Barrick Gold, told Peter C. Newman: "He has great contacts. He knows every dictator in the world on a first name basis.") In February Embassy magazine cited Munk as one of "the Top 50 People Influencing Canadian Foreign Policy." "The head of one of Canada’s largest and most successful companies, which has operations all over the world, Mr. Munk is a major player in one of the few areas Canada can claim to be a world leader." Alongside the president of Montréal-based SNC Lavalin, Munk was the only person representing an individual corporation to make Embassy’s list (the other corporate representatives were leaders of trade associations but most of the individuals on the list were politicians).
On top of a personal interest in Canadian policy towards numerous countries in which Barrick operates, Munk has strong political views. In a August 2007 letter to the Financial Times headlined "Stop [Hugo] Chavez’ Demagoguery Before it is Too Late", Munk wrote: "Your editorial ‘Chavez in Control’ was way too benign a characterization of a dangerous dictator — the latest of a type who takes over a nation through the democratic process, and then perverts or abolishes it to perpetuate his own power…aren’t we ignoring the lessons of history and forgetting that the dictators Hitler, Mugabe, Pol Pot and so on became heads of state by a democratic process?…autocratic demagogues in the Chavez mode get away with [it] until their countries become totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or Slobadan Milosevic’s Serbia…Let us not give President Chavez a chance to do the same step-by-step transformation of Venezuela."
During Barrick’s annual general meeting a decade earlier, Munk praised the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet for "transforming Chile from a wealth-destroying socialist state to a capital-friendly model that is being copied around the world." Concerning Pinochet’s human rights record Munk, who was recently named to the Order of Canada, explained that "they can put people in jail, I have no comment on that, I think that may be true…I think [the end justifies the means] because it brought wealth to an enormous number of people. If you ask somebody who is in jail, he’ll say no. But that’s the wonderful thing about our world; we can have the freedom to disagree."
Until we build social movements that mobilize popular pressure against the foreign-policy establishment, people like Peter Munk will maintain undue power over Canada’s international relations.
For updates on Barrick check out protestbarrick.net Yves Engler is the author of the forthcoming The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy. To help organize a talk as part of a book tour in May or June, please e-mail yvesengler [at] hotmail [.] com.