The PSAC’s Social Justice Fund: Supporting workers and citizens where solidarity is quite literally a life or death battle!

By Andrew Wiersema
Youth delegate 2018
Customs and Immigration Union, local 00026, ON

I was lucky enough to have been selected as a Young Worker Delegate to the PSAC Social Justice Fund’s Education in Action trip to Guatemala for 2018.  I have to admit that despite my efforts to keep informed on Human Rights issues, global inequality, and the corporate greed fuelling our everyday lives, I was completely unprepared. I was ignorant to the grave situation faced by the citizens of Guatemala; oftentimes to the direct benefit of Canadian economic interests.

During our Orientation sessions prior to the trip, it was mentioned that delegates should refrain from wearing Canadian branded clothing or wearing flags on their luggage.  I was left feeling disappointed, as this practice was a source of pride for Canadians by allowing us all to take stock in Canada’s positive reputation around the world - as it turns out, this is not always the case. I’ve come to learn that in Guatemala, the violent, forced evictions of indigenous peoples from their land and the political corruption found here (often to benefit Canadian mining interests) have contributed to a wholly negative impression of Canadians. It was also explained that impunity is rampant in Guatemala, meaning that crimes are rarely properly investigated or prosecuted.  This has lead to a number of groups in Guatemala attempting to seek justice through the Canadian court system.

Early in the trip, we met with Yuri Melini who is the leader of CALAS (an organization providing critical legal representation to indigenous communities in Guatemala and current beneficiary of the PSAC’s social Justice Fund).  In 2009 Yuri was shot 7 times by an unidentified assassin because of his advocacy work, which sadly is an occurrence that is all too common in Guatemala.  The message to the people being if you stand up for your rights and call out the corruption you get shot for your efforts! Yuri went on to explain that Guatemala is ripe with corruption and poverty with only twelve percent of the population owning eighty percent of the land, and international corporations (seeking to exploit Guatemala’s natural resources) have become increasingly hostile in the extractive, hydroelectric, and agricultural mono-cropping industries.  These companies use the terrible poverty to exploit the need for jobs and income in order to drive a wedge between communities and even family members as they are forced to choose between the work they need to survive and provide for their families, or suffer the consequences of the country’s extreme poverty and inequality. 

Yuri proudly detailed that indigenous communities in Guatemala, with the assistance of CALAS, have been successful in the Guatemalan court system using the United Nations declaration ILO 169 (which includes Guatemala as a signatory) to halt a number of mining and other major development projects.  Where the Guatemalan government and corporations have intentionally disregarded their internationally recognized requirement to consult with indigenous populations before proceeding with any development on indigenous land, CALAS has assisted in taking the government and benefiting corporations before the court and insist that they fulfill their obligations. 

Following our meeting with Yuri we had an impromptu visit with a group of indigenous Xinca members in front of the constitutional court of Guatemala. Later that afternoon we arrived at an encampment where a group of large tents just feet from a major road in the downtown area. Here, the people protest, and have done so for four and a half months, twenty-four hours a day since November 2017. I was immediately impressed and thought to myself, could I ever be so determined?  The fortitude shown by these protesters,  and the way we were welcomed with smiles and handshakes from a group of men who were excited that allies had come to hear of their fight against corruption, it was simply incredible. They explained that their wish was to prove that the Xinca people were, in fact, an indigenous people who are alive and thriving in Guatemala, and that they were not consulted during the development of the Canadian company Tahoe Resources’s Escobal Mine as is required.  The group has been successful in halting the development of this mine temporarily, using ILO 169, but they were seeking to permanently halt the mining operation as their nearby water source had become contaminated from mining pollution, leading to their children to developing skin sores and rashes from swimming in the water and an inability to fish in a once safe watershed. 

Tahoe resources and the Guatemalan government, are attempting to make the argument that the Xinca people are extinct, and therefore, there was no one to who needed to be consulted under ILO 169 on the development of the Escobal mining project.  The argument is based on a lack of people who declared on the last government census that they identified as Xinca.  The census, like many other government processes in Guatemala, have been described as wildly inaccurate and disorganized, and, in the opinion of the Xinca people, should not be relied upon to validate their existence.  In further response to the government’s argument, the people have been organizing and collaborating amongst themselves in order to ensure that the upcoming census has their people, the Xinca, accurately and appropriately represented.  A young Xinca protester proudly reached into his wallet and produced a national ID card, which had allowed him to document his Xinca heritage on an official government document.  They explained, with huge smiles on their faces, that all the government had to do to confirm their existence, was come outside to the encampment to meet the Xinca people, face to face!  The protestors were adamant that they will continue to do the right thing for their children and all future generations of their people.  I was proud to find many messages of hope around the site from Canadians who had visited the Xinca protesters in the past number of months. Recently, the constitutional court of Guatemala has ordered that an opinion be rendered by a group of anthropologists from both private and public universities in order to confirm the Xinca people are, in fact, currently in existence.

In addition to the confirmation that the existence and concerns of the Xinca people are valid, further claims against the mining company Tahoe Resources have been made before the Canadian courts. It is alleged that in 2013, during a protest against the Tahoe Resources’ development, that several Xinca protesters were shot outside the entrance to the Escobal mine by Tahoe’s security personnel.  In 2014, seven of these protestors filed a lawsuit in British Columbia, alleging that the security personnel’s actions were intentional and premeditated in an attempt to suppress opposition to the mine.  They accuse Tahoe resources for authorizing the security personnel’s actions in the event.  In January 2017, the BC court of appeal overturned a lower court decision that claimed the case could not be heard in Canada because of a lack of jurisdiction.  The higher court stated that because of impunity, the plaintiffs could not be guaranteed a fair trial in Guatemala.  The Supreme Court of Canada later denied to hear Tahoe’s appeal of this decision, so the case will move forward in the Canadian courts.

We later met with Angelica Choc and Rosa Coc, two Mayan-Q’eqchi women that are part of several lawsuits against Hudbay Minerals.  Hudbay is also a Canadian Mining company, who is alleged to have responsibility, through their subsidiary company Skye Resources, in the murder, assaults, and gang rapes carried out by their hired security officials during the development of it’s Fenix nickel mine (while completing forced evictions of indigenous populations in the area).  The allegations accuse Hudbay of not taking proper due diligence in its’ continued employment of the Fenix security personnel, as they had a reputation of using violence and threats as tactics in the past.  They claim that Hudbay ought to have known that the events that occurred around this time could have been avoided and did not take the proper steps to avoid these violent encounters.  During this period, it is also alleged that Angelica Choc’s husband, Adolfo Ich, was shot and killed by the head of the Fenix mine’s security personnel.  Adolfo was a part of the indigenous resistance to the mining development. The same day, German Chub was shot and left paralyzed; a disability not easily overcome in rural Guatemala which is an area without many accessibility options.  As part of these evictions, it is further alleged that eleven women, including Rosa Coc, were gang raped by the Fenix security personnel.  The Ontario court has also ruled, much like in the Tahoe case, that the Canadian company’s alleged actions in a foreign land will be dealt with by the Canadian courts.

This video tells the plaintiff’s story and outlines the allegations against Hudbay Minerals:

https://vimeo.com/75725049?from=outro-embed

This article outlines the allegations against, and arguments of defense made by Hudbay Minerals:

https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/06/20/the-mayans-vs-the-mine.html

Because of these and other lawsuits against Canadian companies and the resulting negative image the allegations project, the Canadian government announced the creation of an independent ombudsman to investigate claims made against Canadian companies functioning abroad.  The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) will be tasked with investigating the foreign business activities and practices of Canadian companies.  Unlike its predecessor, the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor (created over a decade ago by the conservative government) the new position will not require the permission of a company to investigate. Nor will the ombudsman need a complaint, as they will have the power to launch their own investigations and publicly report their findings.  Unfortunately, the CORE will not be able to impose penalties or sanctions, but hopefully the risk of damage to one’s reputation will force Canadian companies to comply with the publicly released recommendations.  Time will tell if this ombudsperson will be successful and we can only hope that that they will also be investigating some of the ongoing alleged activities in Guatemala as well.

The CCDA (Comité Campesino del Altiplano) is the organization we stayed with during the majority of our visit to Guatemala and they are constantly advocating on behalf of the indigenous populations to protect their land rights, as well as striving to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. Because of this the CCDA have had countless activists killed by unidentified assassins who seek to silence these people dedicated to making a difference, which also results in intimidating any future leaders who might try to rise in their place.  When we arrived for our first dinner with the CCDA, I noticed a wall of framed photos that were proudly displayed and it was later explained that these photos were in memoriam of fallen leaders who had been killed for their activism with the CCDA.  Our group was fortunate enough not have experienced this type of senseless violence while we were in Guatemala but, unfortunately, in a few short months since we returned home, 3 additional photos will be added to that wall.  The CCDA will continue its fight for Indigenous land rights, its empowerment of women through business and advocacy training, partnering with communities to fund the building of schools and community centers, growing their coffee business, paying local farmers fair wages for their crops, as well as many other impactful activities meant to better the collective existence for their fellow Guatemalans.  I am glad to have been able to see firsthand how the CCDA is a deserving beneficiary of the PSAC’s Social Justice Fund.

I was incredibly honoured to represent my Union on such a delegation.  I am proud to be part of the PSAC, a Union who supports workers and citizens globally where solidarity is quite literally a life or death battle!