11/03/2010 05:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

World Needs to Get Tough on Mining Standards

There's nothing better than a happy ending. Last month, the world got one.

You could almost feel the global sigh of relief when Luis Urzua, the last Chilean miner to be rescued, emerged from the collapsed copper mine.

After 69 days, the news that all 33 trapped miners were safe was met by a mix of tears and celebration -- a beautiful moment capturing the hearts and minds of people worldwide.

For a brief moment, supporters of Bill C-300 thought they might get a happy ending for the Canadian mining industry, as well.

A private member's bill rarely goes anywhere in the House of Commons. But Liberal MP John McKay's Responsible Mining Act managed to cause a stir. It miraculously passed two rounds of voting. It drummed up some international attention. Before it was narrowly defeated in final reading last Wednesday by only six votes, it became the buzz of Parliament Hill.

It was a tough defeat for a landmark piece of legislation. But, we shouldn't lament a failed mission. Instead, supporters should use this as a jumping off point for polishing a tarnished industry.

There is no Canadian connection to the trapped miners in Chile, but their saga paints the picture of a problematic industry where Canada acts as global leader.

As of 2008, 75 percent of the world's exploration and mining companies were headquartered in Canada. They derive revenue from some 7,809 properties in over 100 countries. Around the world are allegations of abuse ranging from health hazards to local populations to sexual assaults to assassinations of protesters.

Enacting legislation dealing with cross-border human rights issues is difficult. But, C-300 took a swing by giving the federal government power to withhold grants from companies proven not to adhere to Canadian human rights and environmental standards abroad.

"It is laudable. We all support corporate social responsibility," said Minister of Labour Lisa Raitt in Parliament, although she voted against the bill. "Every Canadian wants to see our companies follow the highest standards when it comes to the environment and human rights, especially if the company is representing Canada abroad."

Unfortunately, a number of serious and embarrassing accusations have stained Canada's reputation.

To name a few, the Norwegian government pulled its investment out of Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation when it emerged that a mercury build-up at a mine in Papua New Guinea was threatening the health of local populations. Meanwhile, earlier this year, a group of protesters in Ecuador tried to sue the TSX and Copper Mesa claiming the company's security guards sprayed locals with pepper spray before firing guns to disperse them.

If the Minister is correct (and we believe she is), this isn't the reputation Canadians want. C-300 might not be the bill to remedy these injustices, but it has launched an important discussion and forced Parliamentarians to face Canada's blemished record.

Rather than letting the issue die, supporters can use this momentum to continue to press for accountability while making the industry more competitive.

Boycotting minerals mined under abusive conditions is near impossible as many turn up in cell phones, computers, even medical equipment. But, unlike other industries, there is no tracking system telling consumers where the cobalt in their cell phone was mined.

By knowing where minerals come from, consumers could call out bad companies while increasing the profile of those who adhere to ethical practices. When a Canadian company can publicly distinguish itself from another that funnels funds into rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, they create an added selling point.

As a global leader, Canada has the influence to better the mining industry. Even if Bill C-300 has failed, consumers need to demand more ethical standards around the world to ensure proper human rights and environmental standards everywhere.

The Chilean miners are not the only people trapped by the industry. We need to work towards a world where everyone gets benefit from a happy ending.