The news was grim, but not surprising. Yannick Lamonde, an official within Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), received word in January last year of an impending report by a prominent non-governmental organization. Its contents were explosive: Human Rights Watch claimed a Canadian-owned mine in Eritrea had been built partly by de facto slaves. Department officials were already well-acquainted with the mine’s majority owner, Vancouver-based Nevsun Resources, and certainly its mine, Bisha, located in the dusty interior of the North African nation. They had even heard similar rumours at least a year earlier. But with those unproven allegations now receiving widespread publicity, remaining silent was no longer an option.
The first order of business was to prepare for the inevitable questions from reporters. According to documents obtained by Canadian Business under the federal Access to Information Act, the DFAIT’s media relations team was given a series of stock responses to deliver. Corporate Canada “leads the world in responsible mining practices,” the officers told reporters from the CBC, La Presse and elsewhere when they called. But as for claims about people forced to build a mine in distant lands, those were the responsibility of local authorities. Headlines followed, but the furor quickly passed.
Among the allegations commonly lobbed at Canadian mining companies, permitting forced labour at one’s mine surely ranks among the most outrageous. But if DFAIT’s response seems somehow inadequate, in reality Lamonde and his colleagues were simply doing their jobs. For years, the federal government has encouraged Canadian companies to subscribe to voluntary measures collectively known as “corporate social responsibility,” or CSR. Like other nations, however, Canada has steadfastly resisted pressure to directly regulate companies’ behaviour abroad, even when they’re operating in jurisdictions with abysmal human rights records. The controversy surrounding what happened at Bisha reveals, however, that Canada’s laissez-faire approach comes with unexpected consequences that affect every taxpaying Canadian citizen.
Canadian officials knew, earlier than most, about allegations of forced labour at Bisha.
This much is revealed in the more than 700 pages of government records Canadian Business obtained, covering 2008 through early 2013, using the federal government’s Access to Information Act. In an e-mail to colleagues in January 2012, Ethiopia consul Christopher Hull wrote that reports about mining firms in Eritrea “being forced to use conscripts and prison labour matches what we are being told here.” The documents demonstrate that DFAIT officials kept in close contact with Nevsun, meeting with executives at least several times and exchanging regular e-mails. Dozens of officials were involved in monitoring the company’s activities and co-ordinating the department’s response. During the back and forth, Nevsun likely expressed to DFAIT (as it did to Canadian Business) its faith in its Eritrean partners. And it certainly detailed and expressed pride in its own CSR practices. Even so, one internal DFAIT briefing about Nevsun noted that while the allegations could not be substantiated, “the low level of respect for human rights in Eritrea means that the allegations should not be dismissed lightly.”
A Canadian mining company may have used slaves. How could this happen?