OTTAWA - It's taken almost a decade of loud, often unwelcome advocacy, but the federal government appears to finally recognize that Canada's international brand needs a little spit and polish.
In back-to-back addresses this week to a Mining Association of Canada luncheon, two federal cabinet ministers repeatedly stressed the critical importance of what they called the "Canada brand" — and how it is a key to grabbing new business in the mining sector.
"We as a government and Canadians broadly speaking expect our companies to do business in a way that reflects the highest ethical standards, that reflects the highest environmental standards, the highest level of corporate social responsibility, the highest level of transparency," International Trade Minister Ed Fast told the gathering at an Ottawa hotel.
Fast recited a host of laudatory statistics: about 1,200 Canadian mining companies operate more than 8,000 properties in over 100 countries, with 35 per cent of global exploration budgets coming from Canada.
"Can we do things better? Of course, there's always things we can improve," Fast finally conceded.
"But I'm absolutely confident that we have a very, very good story to tell."
Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford had already warmed up the crowd by cautioning that "there can be no compromise" on environmental stewardship and social responsibility.
"Our collective actions — government and industry — are critical to meeting our obligations (for) safety of the environment and the communities in which we operate, here and abroad," said Rickford.
Their pitch came with a lot of puffery about further government assistance for Canada's dominant mining sector — but also, notably, the hint of a stick, too.
For the first time, the federal government is threatening to withdraw financial and political support from Canadian companies that don't live up to its social responsibility ideals.
For non-governmental organizations that have been fielding mining development horror stories for years, it's a start.
A revamped, corporate social responsibility counsellor will screen foreign community complaints about mining operations and companies that refuse to co-operate with the counsellor will lose government support.
MiningWatch Canada began advocating for poor communities hurt by Canadian mining operations abroad in 1999 and spokeswoman Catherine Coumans says there used to be shocked disbelief that Canada's Boy Scout self-image could be tarnished by poor corporate behaviour.
"Of course they won't say in public there's a big problem," Coumans says of today's government.
"But to see a Conservative government like this one say, 'Look, we need to put things in place like a CSR counsellor, we need to have a penalty like withholding financial and political support' — you don't do that if you think there's no problem.
The new counsellor still has no power to independently investigate problems, recommend solutions or issue reports — but he or she will have leverage to at least get alleged offenders to come to the table to talk.