Thursday, May 26, 2016
Last updated: 8 months ago

International mining institute opens at UBC, critics question its independence

From left: École Polytechnique de Montréal CEO Christophe Guy, Simon Fraser University President Andrew Petter, UBC Vice-President Research and International John Hepburn and institute interim executive director Bern Klein at the CIIEID launch. Photo Don Erhardt/UBC

From left: École Polytechnique de Montréal CEO Christophe Guy, Simon Fraser University President Andrew Petter, UBC Vice-President Research and International John Hepburn and institute interim executive director Bern Klein at the CIIEID launch. Photo Don Erhardt/UBC

A UBC-based mining institute officially launched Wednesday at a ceremony in downtown Vancouver. While university officials have touted its potential to help the developing world, critics are questioning its independence from industry and government.

The institute, based on campus at the Technology Enterprise Facility, is a partnership between UBC, SFU and École Polytechnique de Montréal. It is funded by a five-year $25 million grant from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

Known as the Canadian International Institute for Extractive Industries and Development (CIIEID), the stated goal of the institute is to help developing countries draft regulations and policies governing natural resource extraction.

“UBC has a strong track record in the field of sustainable, socially responsible mining and we are delighted to join hands with our colleagues at Simon Fraser University and École Polytechnique de Montréal to effect lasting change,” John Hepburn, UBC VP research and international, said in a UBC press release.

The institute will work with governments of developing countries in order to alleviate poverty in those regions, said Malcolm Scoble, director of advisory services as CIIEID and former head of UBC’s mining engineering department.

“A major emphasis is the need to ensure that there’s economic well-being and health and safety and poverty alleviation as a consequence,” Scoble said.

CIIEID will conduct research on foreign government’s policies toward the mining industry, coordinate dialogue between local populations in affected areas and governments or mining companies and assist vulnerable groups, identified as women and aboriginal peoples, to benefit from mining operations in their countries.

The funding from CIDA will allow the institute to operate for five years, and UBC and SFU have committed to running the institute for at least five years. While UBC has already contributed $6.69 million to CIIEID, it is not clear who will fund the institute in the future.

A UBC report pointed to three potential sources of funding: donations from mining, oil and gas companies, donations and grants from other sources, and tuition or fees for CIIEID-provided services. Among the CIIEID’s 60 “institutional partners” are several mining corporations, including Vancouver-based Goldcorp.

Critics of the institute say its funding from the federal government compromises its independence and that it may seek to aid industry over the interests of local populations in the areas it works. A group of UBC and SFU students have organized under the name “Not From My Campus” to raise awareness about what they see as potential issues with the institute.

The group met with UBC President Stephen Toope to express its concerns, and he responded to the group in a letter.

“I want to affirm that the CIIEID was created to generate new knowledge through research, to share that knowledge through education and training and to provide technical assistance,” Toope wrote. “It is an independent academic centre and is not an instrument of the government of Canada.”

But Jennifer Moore of the Canadian-based NGO Mining Watch believes the institute will in fact promote Canadian trade interests.

“We see this … very much as part of trying to promote the interests of Canadian mining companies overseas,” said Moore.

We see this very much as part of trying to promote the interests of Canadian mining companies overseas.”

Moore also questioned the institute’s independence from Ottawa.

“The government has ensured that it has considerable influence over both what the institute can say publicly about its work and also in terms of the direction of the institute,” Moore said.

That CIDA is funding the institute has also provoked criticism.

Nipa Banerjee, a professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in international development, said that following CIDA’s integration with Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade over the summer, government development funds are now more focused on helping Canadian companies.

“The main critique I have is that it’s really not humanitarian assistance anymore,” said Banerjee, who worked for CIDA for 35 years. “It is directly linked with Canada’s economic interests.”

Documents show the university recognized that it might receive criticism over the institute.

“Work of institute perceived to primarily respond to Canadian industry needs vs. developing countries,” was listed under potential “reputational” risks to the university if it approved the CIIEID, according to an April 2013 report, written by Hepburn, given to UBC’s Board of Governors.

The university declined to make Hepburn available to answer questions about the institute.

CIIEID director Bern Klein was also unavailable to comment, as he was on institute business in South Africa, but Scoble defended CIIEID’s independence.

“We’re all quite confident that we can maintain this fully independent situation,” Scoble said, while admitting it might be difficult to do so at times.

Scoble said the institute is a wonderful opportunity for Canadian universities to contribute to the developing world and that it had the potential to be more effective than past efforts by CIDA and the Canadian government.

“We’ve got an inherent belief in the nature of this kind of assistance to the developing world and we want to try and make it succeed,” Scoble said.

Critics like Moore remain unswayed on the potential for the institute to do positive work.

“I think that there’s not a lot of potential given how it’s been conceived and established,” Moore said.

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