Foreign Policy, Mining & Development

I happened to catch a segment of CBC’s “The 180” radio show that included an interview with Erin O’Toole, the Canadian Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade. The segment focused on the “marriage” of foreign policy, development aid, and the extractive industry which the government has been arguing for in terms of a strategic advantage in mining (policy) on the one hand, and an integrated foreign policy that coordinates foreign policy goals with development aid.

This discussion comes in the context of this week’s meeting of the Prospectors and Development Association of Canada (PDAC). The PDAC meeting also included a Mongolia Day, of course.

Conservative Government is Engaging!

I was genuinely surprised to hear Mr. O’Toole discuss the connection between foreign policy, aid and mining quite openly with Jim Brown, the program’s host. Why surprised? Because it seems so rare that any members of this government (political or bureaucratic) engages in any discussion in the media that is anything other than a press release.

While I thought that Mr. O’Toole deflected most of the (very important) questions that Mr. Brown raised, I very much appreciated the fact that he engaged in this discussion at all. I voiced this view in a tweet last night.

To my great surprise (and further appreciation), Mr. O’Toole responded this morning.

So now, I’m on the hook, of course. I have previously made the case for the use of social media for engagement by the government with various stakeholders and experts. I surely can’t just complain, but when given this opportunity, I will offer my version of engagement, that is to try to think about Mr. O’Toole’s discussion and the broader policy he was speaking about, in light of my expertise on Mongolia. This is a narrow context that I’m thinking about, but I think that Mongolia is a reasonably good case to examine the linking of foreign policy and development aid with (private) interests of the extractive industry.

Points Discussed in the Interview

The interview can be found through links on the CBC’s The 180 website and via the CBC Audio Player. It begins with brief conversations with Frederico Guzman, a deputy justice in Colombia, and with Jennifer Moore, Latin America Program Coordinator with MiningWatch.

The segment with Mr. O’Toole begins at about 8min into the interview. A transcript of this exchange (which was condensed from a longer conversation) seems like the easiest way to comment on it, so I offer this below. I have made minor edits in good faith for the purpose of ease of understanding and have largely marked these by [square brackets].

I have send an email to in the hopes of getting some guidance whether such a transcript violates any of their rights, but have not received a reply. If I am violating any rights/laws, I apologize and will gladly be educated on that and will respond accordingly immediately.

Jim Brown’s Question1: We’ve heard […] that Canadian mining companies are exacerbating human rights abuses. How do you respond?

Erin O’Toole’s Answer1: Generally there is a lot of confusion about our resource and extractive industry around the world. Industry is in many cases the largest employer in impoverished areas of the [developing] world. Those areas have many challenges from a governance and institution-building capacity [perspective]. There’s often a mixed message from projects [meaning industry?]. I’ve heard from all sides of the[se] debates how much of an impact [these projects] make on employment, on creating a local supplier network in the country, building capacity over time. There are others that say that economic activity in these areas causes disruption. But […] it is our firm belief that [economic activity] actually allows parts of these challenged areas of [developing] countries to actually develop their own local economy. So, there is a lot of different viewpoints on this. We’re trying to work with our Corporate Social Responsibility Office to make sure that – if there are any valid issues – they are addressed.

Q2: I’m sure you’ve heard the concern, the emphasis on economic diplomacy – which has been highlighted by your government recently – makes it hard for Canada to exert the kind of pressure that perhaps should be exerted when it comes to things like human rights concerns. Let me ask you: how can diplomats push for trade and business opportunities for Canadian companies on the one hand, and then on the other hand pressure those companies to respect human rights.

A2: You’ve asked a great question. In a lot of ways our previous approach to foreign policy didn’t recognize the obvious: if there is a Canadian company operating somewhere around the world, bringing positives and some potential issues, we have to recognize that Canada is there, we have a presence, our global brand is there through one of our corporate players. So why would we not orient some of our aid work, and some of our diplomatic work, to not only address some of the issues that might arise, but to try and help develop and lead to longer-term sustainability for the countries those companies are operating in.

Q3: There’s another element to this that people point to: the fact that many of the countries that mining watch is concerned about have very young and often very unstable democracies. Corruption can be a problem, citizens don’t always get the kind of due process that we would expect here in Canada. What’s your government doing to ensure that Canadian companies aren’t exploiting those conditions?

A3: Well, that’s another great question. We work on capacity-building in some of those countries. So, DFATD with the total approach to diplomacy we have now will actually work on capacity-building so there’s countries in South and Latin America, we we’ve actually used some of our aid funding to build local capacity of the country’s judiciary. And that is a much better long-term solution than what was done in the past which was short-term aid delivered and then no capacity built within that country for a sustained prosperity or a sustained institution-building presence. What some of the groups like MiningWatch complain about is that they don’t like that there’s been a change, but they don’t seem to recognize that these changes will actually lead to better governance and better institutions in those countries in the long term.

Q4: The specific concern from Jenn Moore of MiningWatch that she expressed to us was that the government puts all of its lobbying into making rules in countries like Honduras suit Canadian companies without consulting with the affected communities.

A4:  Honduras is a case in point. We have signed a Free Trade Agreement with Honduras. [Honduras] is at a critical turning-point where there is a new government in place with elections that were monitored and fair to try and build a stable democracy in that part of the world. Canada has a choice. We can do what MiningWatch and the NDP want and not trade and engage with these countries, or we can try and trade, help them actually grow their GDP which on a per capita basis is astonishingly low and that leads to social unrest. By focusing our economic diplomacy not just on trading but bringing aid and institution-building to a country like Honduras we’re actually going to increase our direct relationship with them, promote security, and hopefully help them build their own capacity to safeguard everything from human rights to the environment.

My Observations on the Answers Offered

Perhaps it is unfair to expect answers in an interview that directly speak to the questions raised. I’m certain that the few people that may have heard me interviewed in the past could also point to answers that did not directly speak to the questions. Yet, in this interview, Jim Brown raised questions that have been behind some of the reactions to the government’s announcement regarding foreign policy and development, so the fact that Mr. O’Toole was willing to engage in this discussion raised the hope in me that he would address some of these questions directly. I don’t think he did.

Are Mining Companies Exacerbating Human Rights Violations?

On Q1, Mr. O’Toole offered no response on the question of whether mining companies may be exacerbating human rights. Instead, he argued that (private) economic activity is generally a good thing by providing employment and building economic capacity.

This strikes me as broadly true, but it doesn’t answer the question of whether human rights violations are exacerbated by the presence of foreign mining companies.

I don’t have much of a view on this question myself, as human rights concerns are rarely raised about mining activities in Mongolia where the main challenges revolve around environmental concerns, corruption, and strategies to avoid the “resource curse”.

I am a little surprised to see that Mr. O’Toole in this answer seems to suggest that the government of Canada should be involved in sending clearer messages about mining projects. The mixed messages that he refers to would seem to be the responsibility of private interests and investors, not of the government in my mind.

Economic Diplomacy and Canada’s Ability to Speak on Other Issues

I don’t think that Mr. O’Toole provides any answer to the question of “how  diplomats can push for trade and business opportunities for Canadian companies on the one hand, and then on the other hand pressure those companies to respect human rights”. I think this is one of the crucial elements in the shift in foreign/development policy that is being pursued by the government.

Perhaps we’re guilty as analysts of taking the government too much at their own word in a substantive manner, rather than in rhetorical fashion. When the Global Markets Action Plan was released in November 2013 or when Mr. O’Toole speaks of a “total diplomacy” (in A3) my impression was that this implied a primacy of economic concerns (including private Canadian interests) over other areas of diplomacy, presumably including such areas as the promotion of human rights. Maybe this hierarchy of emphasis is less strict than some of the rhetoric implies? Mr. O’Toole seems to suggest as much when he discusses capacity building and judicial reform as a target of development aid, reforms that are aiming at a general benefit to the local population, not an advantage to Canadian investments, I presume.

More specifically, this question did not ask why the government or DFATD would or would not want to developer longer-term sustainability, but whether this would be possible if diplomatic activities were driven primarily by economic interests.

The other part of the answer focuses on the presence of Canada through private investments and the need to recognize that presence. In my mind, that was a strong argument for the establishment of a Canadian embassy in Mongolia when this decision was made. At the time, it seemed like representatives of Canadian investments were arguing for an embassy to help protect their interests and that may have been part of the motivation. From my point of view, however, the presence of Canadian investments necessitated an embassy to safeguard broader public Canadian interests. Not that any Canadian investors in Mongolia were necessarily endangering the value of the Canada brand, but the potential was certainly there. It’s not entirely clear from his answer here whether Mr. O’Toole might share such a view.

Operating in New or Unstable Democracies

I think that the contrast that Mr. O’Toole draws with “what was done in the past which was short-term aid delivered and then no capacity built” is unfair not only to the decision-makers involved in those policies (presumably Mr. O’Toole means Liberal governments of the past here), but also to the professionals engaged in Canadian development work as well as the many academics who have offered contributions to these efforts in the past. To claim that the Conservatives have discovered the secret to long-term capacity building strikes me as a bit more political rhetoric than a substantive point and it doesn’t really address the question about operating in new/unstable democracies.

Excursus on Mongolia

For some, Mongolia is such a context of a new democracy. I tend to see this somewhat differently in that over 20 years of democratic institutions and several national elections that have led to peaceful changes in government more Mongolia out of the “new” category and certainly remove it from the unstable category. That is not to say, of course, that Mongolian democracy doesn’t face challenges. This is a point I’ve written about recently in the context of the Freedom in the World scoring for Mongolia. But there are no legacies of civil war, autocrats, or involvement by the military to contend with in Mongolia.

This doesn’t make the question asked less relevant, but this discussion wasn’t really the context in which Mr. O’Toole might have spoken to the role of foreign policy/development in a context like Mongolia.

In this specific context, I actually happen to agree with some of the logic of the foreign policy that the government is pursuing. Institutional capacity and corruption are areas of major challenges not just to Mongolia’s economic development, but to Mongolia’s democracy as well.

Canadian jurisdictions (the provinces more than the federal government) have wrestled with questions around the community, economic, environmental, and social impact of resource projects for some decades, and have done so in the context of well-established (though never perfect) democratic institutions. This experience is not just an economic comparative advantage to Canadian policy and investments, but is an obvious area for a focus of development work as seems to be recognized by the government as well. Such development work is not built around the straight-forward export of solutions and lessons, but can certainly revolve around a sharing of experiences (including mistakes and dead-ends) and a collaboration with an interpretation of those experiences for a different context like Mongolia.

If such development work contributes to more equitable and environmentally sound, sustainable development, Canadian private investments will be free to compete for investment opportunities and will be in a good position to do so. I don’t think that they will need any direct lobbying from the government to succeed if the rules of the game are well-constructed which is what development work would aim at.

In this context, I have to lament that the bilateral aid program focused on Mongolia appears to be in place de facto, but remains unannounced by the government.

Returning to Interview


I claim no expertise on Honduras or Canada’s involvement there.

However, Mr. O’Toole’s response on “focusing economic diplomacy not just on trading but bringing aid and institution-building” reinforces my impression that the portrayal of economic and private investment interests as a driver of foreign policy may be overstated for political rhetorical purposes (the dynamic of which I don’t claim to have any particular insights on), but not in fact as stark as these statements suggest. Mr. O’Toole seems to link development and institution-building to a trade agenda in a more equal relationship that then prioritization of the economic over all else in public announcements seems to suggest.

Bottom Line

I was genuinely surprised by hearing a Conservative parliamentary secretary actually discussing (rather than announcing) policy. The specific shifts in foreign and development policy pursued by the government need (much) more discussion not just to help the public (or at least me) understand this policy better, but also to allow the government to make their case for this shift in a more complete and complex fashion that moves away from press-release-engagement.

It appears that Mr. O’Toole is willing to engage in such a fashion and thus also follow up on Foreign Minister Baird’s announcement of a greater focus on Twiplomacy by the government some weeks ago. One of the aims of Twiplomacy may be the involvement and engagement of a broader spectrum of voices, I’ve tried to offer such a voice here.

Comments are open!

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots
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