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What this week's Canadian mining company court case means for the future

Last Updated Oct 8, 2016 at 8:46 pm PDT

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VANCOUVER (NEWS1130) – Canadian courts appear to be more willing to hear accusations levelled against Canadian mining companies operating on foreign soil.

That’s the conclusion being made, following this week’s BC Supreme Court decision involving a Vancouver-based mine.

Three Eritrean men who claim they were forced to work at Nevsun Resources‘ Bisha copper-zinc mine have won the right to have their accusations heard in a Canadian court.

In their notice of civil claim, the employees say they “were subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as well as harsh working conditions including long hours, malnutrition and forced confinement for little pay. They worked under the constant threat of physical punishment, torture and imprisonment.”

University of Ottawa law professor Penelope Simons says the judge was convinced Canada was the better venue than Eritrea to hear the case, and this opens the doors to more lawsuits heard here.

“This is one of a growing number of cases. There is one other case in Ontario that is going forward. The Nevsun case is a very significant because it is the first case where the judge ruled a Canadian court has jurisdiction over the foreign activities of a Canadian company and alleged human rights abuses.”

A lawsuit against Hudbay Minerals is also wending its way through the courts in Ontario. Hudbay and its Guatamala subsidiary being sued by the Maya Q’eqchi people in Guatemala, over the murder and gang rapes of villagers. That case has yet to be heard.

Simons says the number of allegations levelled against Canadian mining companies demonstrates a need for clearer government policy.

“I think we need to have good regulations in place and mechanisms of accountability – the ability for these plaintiffs to have court cases and possibly some sort of other non-judicial mechanism where complaints can be brought.”

Nevsun says it abides by international standards for workplace conditions and may appeal the ruling. It says the case raises complex legal questions which have never before been considered in Canada.

Nevsun owns 60 per cent of the Bisha mine. The Eritrean government owns the other 40 per cent.