mineraIn a May 10 OpEd for iPolitics, I questioned the fairness of Miningwatch’s criticisms of the Canadian Embassy in Mexico under the watch of Ambassador Guillermo Rychinski and argue that a timid foreign service is the last thing Canadian business needs when it is trying to develop a foothold in emerging markets.  Following is an excerpt:

I don’t have firsthand knowledge of Blackfire, the Canadian mining company that is alleged to have caused environmental damage in Chiapas, Mexico, bribed local officials and been implicated in the killing of a local activist.  If the allegations are true, Blackfire has made the work of other Canadian companies in foreign markets much more difficult.

I do, however, have firsthand knowledge of how Canadian diplomats represent the interests of Canadian businesses abroad.  As an international trade consultant, I have worked alongside Canada’s economic, political and trade officials in the Americas, China and the former Soviet Union.  Our diplomats are uniformly professional and thoroughly “by-the-book”.

Just because a company is accused of bad acts abroad, Canadian diplomats cannot adopt a presumption of guilt and refuse to take the company’s phone calls, anymore than they would if the case involved a private Canadian citizen accused of breaking a local law.  Such allegations are likely to become more frequent in the future as Canadians diversify their trade to emerging markets – many of which have legal systems that are at best distinct from Canada’s and, at worst, downright corrupt.

Because Jim Munson’s article is based on a lengthy report by lobby group Miningwatch, taken from redacted government documents, it is hard to know what really happened.  But, according to the iPolitics text, the only misdeed for which there is some degree of consensus is that Blackfire damaged local roads with a company truck.  Maybe Blackfire did everything else they are accused of and then some. There is recourse through criminal and commercial courts to figure this out.  But Canadian embassies have neither the staff nor the training to make legal determinations about guilt or innocence before they provide assistance to a Canadian company abroad.

It seems to me that the staff of Embassy Mexico did everything we can reasonably expect of them.  Given embassy reductions in funding, it is amazing that an officer had time and funds to travel to Chiapas, some 1000 kilometres south of Mexico City, visit the mine, talk to local officials and report to the ambassador and DFAIT in Ottawa. Ambassador Rychinski then took the prudent course of telling his staff to back off from the unfortunately named Blackfire. That’s what we send them abroad to do on behalf of our nation, our citizens, and, yes, Canadian business.

At a time when Canadian companies need DFAIT advice and expertise to help them compete successfully in complicated and distant markets, our diplomats perform their duties with confidence and professionalism and they do not retreat to the shadows at the first whiff of criticism. We should expect nothing less.