Canada's foreign-aid agency is moving ahead on plans to work alongside the extractive industry, and International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino will take the message directly to mining executives at a conference in Toronto this weekend.
In a sign that the Canadian International Development Agency views the industry as a key element of its push to deliver foreign aid in tandem with private sector activities abroad, Mr. Fantino will address a group on Saturday morning that is expected to include foreign ministers, non-governmental organizations and representatives of some of the biggest mining companies in Canada.
Speaking with The Globe and Mail on Friday, Mr. Fantino called the extractive industry "another area of strategic opportunity for us to key in on." And he suggested Canada's expertise in mining can help countries with mineral resources develop them in a more socially and economically responsible manner.
CIDA's approach to mining has been controversial since Mr. Fantino's predecessor, Bev Oda, announced in 2011 that the agency would finance three NGOs to run aid projects alongside Canadian mining companies in Burkina Faso, Peru and Ghana. The current projects focus on areas such as skills training and encouraging small-business development.
The companies are expected to contribute to the paid projects. Opponents of the arrangement say Canadian mining companies generally make poor partners because some have been accused of environmental and human rights abuses. And they suggest that focusing on regions where Canadian companies do business detracts from CIDA's core mandate of poverty alleviation.
Mr. Fantino said CIDA's top priority is to address poverty.
"Yes, there is a business component to this, obviously we can't ignore that," Mr. Fantino said. "But I want to highlight that there's an altruistic reason, certainly for Canada to be doing what we're doing, and that the purpose, [the] intent, is to help the industry succeed in an ethical way."
The minister will address a joint conference put on by CIDA and the World Economic Forum arranged to coincide with a convention of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada in Toronto.
"We're here to support [mining companies], we're here to enable them to succeed – obviously, provided all of the checks and balances are in place," he said. "But at the very same time, I think what we want to do is seek their assistance, their help and support, to lift these countries out of poverty."
Jamie Kneen, a spokesman for MiningWatch Canada, said the idea that resource extraction will address poverty is "mostly wishful thinking," in part because of the lasting environmental damage mines can create. In addition, many countries export raw minerals, rather than processing them domestically, limiting the opportunities for longer-term development.
"There's no evidence that it works," he said. "If you look at the success stories … wealth is being created, but poverty is also being created at the same time."
A 2009 report by the Canadian Centre for the Study of Resource Conflict identified more than 50 incidents over a 10-year period in which Canadian mining companies were allegedly involved in conflicts with local communities, human-rights abuses, environmental damage or unethical practices.
Peru's ambassador to Canada, Jose Bellina, said he has "nothing to say against Canadian companies" that work in his country. He said Peru is particularly interested in a new Canadian extractive institute established last fall at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. The institute is funded by the federal government and is expected to provide policy advice to developing countries with mining industries.
Canada has a free-trade agreement with Peru, and recently signed a memorandum of understanding on defence co-operation.
Mr. Fantino said he can't guarantee that all companies act ethically, but he believes many are committed to following best practices. "I'm not in a position to give an absolute housekeeping seal of approval on everything that happens in the industry," he said.
"But the folks with whom I have been in contact and networking with, and folks who are contributing greatly to ethical extractive sector investments, they're committed."