By Elizabeth McSheffrey | National Observer | December 6, 2017

In the conference room of a handsome hotel in Guatemala City, a conversation about Canada brings five grown women to tears.

Canada is a country they associate with tear gas, rubber bullets, midnight raids on rural communities, decimated Indigenous lands, and the incarceration of friends and family.

Dabbing wet eyelashes with hotel napkins, they ask a group of international delegates for help obtaining justice. Pink roses lie flat on the table — a token to thank the women, all human rights activists, for their courage and candor.

“The Government of Canada has not taken responsibility,” says Amalia Lemus, speaking in Spanish to a roomful of two dozen North American, Guatemalan and Middle Eastern philanthropists, activists and NGO workers. They came at the tail end of the rainy season in late October to hear from women about challenges to peace, land and water rights in Guatemala.

“Internationally, it’s like we don’t exist,” says Lemus. “We are all at risk and our water is at risk… the violation of human rights is enormous.”

To many Guatemalans, she explains, Canada is a country synonymous with mining — a lucrative industry in Guatemala, which is rich in gold, silver, zinc and nickel. At last count, Canadian mining companies had a major stake in the Central American country’s extraction, with five corporations holding more than $289 million in assets.

Two of the Canadian companies, Tahoe Resources and Hudbay Minerals, are now subject to court cases in Canada for alleged breaches of tort law. The lawsuits stem from extreme acts of violence allegedly committed by mine security personnel against locals opposed to the projects. Both companies deny the allegations against them and legal proceedings against Hudbay started last week.

In Guatemala, mining companies and their subsidiaries flourish in a “state that was designed for corruption and impunity,” explains Claudia Samayoa, founder of the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala. The government — led by two successive presidents charged with corruption — has an “almost non-existent” will to enforce environmental and human rights law, adds Ursula Roldán Andrade, a co-ordinator for the migrations department at Guatemala’s Institute for Research and Political Management.

But Canadian mining companies could soon face new federal scrutiny for their activities, both in Guatemala and around the world. The Trudeau government is poised this week to deliver on a 2015 campaign promise to create a new human rights watchdog with powers to investigate Canadian corporations involved in extraction overseas.

Liberal MP John McKay — who has long championed the office’s creation — said he expects an announcement by the end of the week. A Global Affairs Canada spokesperson confirmed that news on the human rights ombudsperson is coming “shortly,” but would not provide a date.

“Will (the ombudsperson) fulfill all my dreams and aspirations and hopes and fantasies? No,” McKay told National Observer in an interview. “But certainly it’s one more step along a path of accountability, and I think it’s probably one of the most significant steps that could be taken.”

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