A recent episode of The Stream on Al Jazeera focused on the controversies surrounding Canadian mining corporations, especially relating to Latin America. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who isn’t familiar with the issue, as it outlines the problem very well.

To make the story very short, there’s three things you should know. First, that the Toronto Stock Exchange is the “financial capital” of the world’s mining industry, and most of the world’s big mining corporations are Canadian, whether they mine here, abroad or both. Second is our lack of laws against committing crimes in other countries. In America, for example, the USWA was able to bring a lawsuit against Coca-Cola for its use of paramilitary ‘death squads’ to murder union organizers in Columbian bottling plants. In Canada, there’s little legal recourse against an individual or corporation hiring death squads in another nation. So why would all of these companies choose to locate in such a legal environment? That brings us to the third point – that Canada (predictably) leads the world in mining-related human rights abuses.

What does all that political jargon mean? In simple terms, there’s usually people, often indigenous groups, living on the areas these companies want to mine. So they hire mercenaries to threaten, harass or even massacre anyone who doesn’t want to leave. Sometimes it’s cops or soldiers, but even when it isn’t it’s generally tolerated or even endorsed by local governments. This isn’t just one company or country, either, if you watch the news another bloody story turns up every couple weeks. On top of this, modern mining tends to be an incredibly destructive and toxic process, with huge implications for the surrounding lands and populations, who are rarely included in the political process. If they object, they may also face paramilitary pressure.

Globally speaking, this is a huge problem which goes well beyond both Canada and Mining. To put it in perspective, Shell spent $127 million between 2007-9 on “security” in Nigeria alone, essentially fighting a civil war over oilfields in the Niger Delta. Western corporations are often worth more than entire countries, and this gives them incredible leverage in local affairs. They can order massacres, raise armies or even topple and replace governments, all well-documented in the history of everything from diamonds to bananas.

The central question posed by The Stream is whether Canada or our government has an obligation to do something about this sordid state of affairs. Most First World nations prohibit such activities, and there have been (narrowly defeated) attempts to introduce laws to bring some level of legal control (the Liberal MP sponsor is interviewed on the show). While many raised the point that Bolivia, Ecuador and many others also have a responsibility to act, expecting that to happen shows a total ignorance of what a Third World Country is or how their governments tend to function. Conversely, there’s little doubt that the Canadian government could easily hold head offices accountable if they had the slightest desire to.

Does the government have a moral obligation to act? Unquestionably. Is that likely to happen any time soon? No. Our government is currently run by the resource extraction section (mostly Albertan oil), and they’ve shown themselves to be totally hostile to anything environmental or indigenous. The people of Canada, though, are another story. We may not be able to fight alongside these peasants, but those ultimately giving the orders and footing the bill are right on our doorstep. If this issue shows one thing, it’s that activists in Canada have a unique opportunity to tackle this issue at the geographic centre. We all benefit from this commerce, yet we can intervene (without facing death squads) – that leaves us with the obligation. We can fight this, and for the sake of thousands of lives around the world, we have to.