By Michael Swan | The Catholic Register | September 3, 2017

Earlier this year protesters in a small Guatemala village blockaded a giant silver mine operated by a Canadian company and for a month stood their ground despite being regularly tear-gassed by paramilitary police.

Their action culminated July 5 in a Guatemalan Supreme Court of Justice decision that suspended two mining licenses held by Tahoe Resources Inc. of Vancouver until complaints by the Xinka Indigenous people who live near the mine can be heard.

The Xinka, who say the mine was opened on their land before they were properly consulted, allege the ground is now shifting in the nearby town of Casillas, damaging homes because of heavy equipment and explosions at the mine, and they complain water has become scarce since the mine opened. They have the support of their archbishop, a local bishop, the Loretto Sisters and many clergy.

It is stories like the Xinka’s struggle that have prompted Canada’s bishops to join the fight, in solidarity with Latin American bishops, to end what they call “unethical, unjust and irresponsible” practices by some Canadian mining companies operating in Latin America.

In an Aug. 9 letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Bishop Douglas Crosby, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged the government to honour a 2015 campaign promise to hire an ombudsperson to field international complaints about Canadian mining. The letter talked about “threats, violence, extortion and even murder” in the mining industry and said the bishops “cannot accept the unethical way Canadian mining companies have been operating in Latin America.”

But Crosby’s claims are refuted by Pierre Gratton, president and chief executive officer of the Mining Association of Canada.

“I don’t accept the argument that Canadians are as bad as he says they are,” he told The Catholic Register. “In fact, what the evidence is now showing is that we’re better than our competition. And that actually what’s good for Latin America is probably more Canadian mining, not less.”

The one point on which the two sides do agree is that it’s time for an ombudsperson, although stark differences remain about how that person should operate. NGOs and church groups want an ombudsperson with power to investigate and sanction companies implicated in overseas human rights violations and environmental disasters. The mining industry wants the ombud limited to mediation, conciliation and joint fact finding, and wants penalties for bad behaviour left to the courts, preferably courts where the mine is located, not in Canada where the company’s stocks are listed and its executives make the deals.

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