When former NDP MP Paul Dewar died of brain cancer earlier this month, tributes poured in from around the country, praising Dewar’s advocacy for refugee and LGBTQ rights and for environmental causes. For me, they brought back many memories.
When I first arrived in Ottawa as a queer would-be immigrant from George W. Bush’s America, I settled near Carleton University, in the heart of Dewar’s Ottawa Centre riding. Over the next few years, as a student journalist, I crossed paths with Dewar several times, once while covering a rally against Canadian Blood Services’ ban on gay male donors and once as a slightly desperate student newspaper editor trying to put together a 2011 federal election supplement on a day’s notice. But my first real conversation with Dewar was about issues much further afield.
In December 2010, shortly before beginning an apprenticeship at the Montreal Gazette, I watched a Cinema Politica documentary on the crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a slow-burning, complex war, the deadliest since the Second World War, driven in part by armed groups fighting turf wars over unregulated mines — mines that produced gold, the “three T’s” (tantalum, tin and tungsten) and other minerals essential for the production of smartphones, digital cameras, game consoles, electric cars and other technology.
The proceeds from mineral sales in turn financed armed rebel groups (to the tune of $185 million U.S. in 2008, according to the U.S.-based NGO Enough Project) and provided the financial oxygen to a conflict (initially over land and politics) that has dragged on for more than two decades and killed over 5 million people. The scorched-earth tactics used by militias to consolidate control over territory, including child abduction and mass rape, made the region “the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman or a girl,” according to a film by the Enough Project.
Minerals from Congo, routed from company to company through complex supply chains, were ending up in smartphones and video game consoles on every continent. I wanted to do a piece on Canada’s response to the scandal, and a quick search revealed that my MP was the person to call.
Bill targeted Canadian companies
That fall, with a smattering of media coverage, Dewar had proposed a private member’s bill, Bill C-571, tightening the due diligence requirements on Canadian companies sourcing minerals from the DRC. I spent 45 minutes on the phone listening to Dewar make a forceful case for Canadian action.
“Why is this your fight? Why is it our fight?” I remember asking Dewar. I no longer have the tape, so I can’t quote him directly, but he responded with a passionate plea for consumers not to look away from the suffering of fellow human beings. Reading his writing on the subject and that of other activists, including those in DRC and in the Congolese diaspora, reminded me of the famous quote from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Sadly, neither Dewar’s bill nor my story went anywhere — his because it was a private member’s bill from a third-party MP, mine because I was on city desk and my ham-fisted attempts to “localize” this complex global story, with its multifaceted faraway war and intricate and opaque global supply chains, fell flat. I could not convince my editors that this crisis was our readers’ problem.
Dewar, who had visited the DRC in 2009 on a fact-finding mission about HIV drug availability, kept pushing, unsuccessfully, for Canada to legislate.
“The tragedy of the Congo is not merely a Congolese or an African problem. It is our problem — and the reason is probably in your pocket,” he wrote in a 2013 blog post, as the bill was unsuccessfully proposed for a second time.
“Although [Dewar’s] bill did not pass, it helped the Canadian government to take a much more proactive role in ending the conflict minerals trade and fostering a clean trade,” says Sasha Lezhnev, deputy director of policy at the Enough Project. “Together with [U.S. legislation], pressure from leading companies such as Apple and Intel, and consumer activism, these efforts have helped drive several major positive changes over the past decade to Congo’s minerals trade.”
Everything is interconnected
As Canada says goodbye to Dewar, whose memorial service was held Feb. 23, and the DRC looks to a new political future, Joanne Lebert reflects on more than a decade of fighting for supply chain transparency. Lebert is the executive director of IMPACT, formerly Partnership Africa Canada, an Ottawa-based NGO that worked closely with Dewar’s office on the bill.
“Paul really took this on board personally and understood that consumers have a critical role in driving demand for responsible products,” Lebert recalls. “He understood that everything was interconnected … and he was clearly very passionate about it.”
She says that since 2010, other countries with large consumer electronics markets have put pressure on electronics companies to ensure that minerals from mines controlled by armed groups don’t enter their supply chains.
“Because [Dewar’s] bill didn’t go anywhere, there was a bit of a lull [in Canada],” Lebert says. “But the international community — the U.S., the EU and even the Chinese — are moving toward greater commitments to transparency. The world is moving quickly on this.”
In Canada, Lebert is optimistic that a recent standing committee report on child labour that addressed conflict minerals will push the current government to legislate. In opposition, the Liberals supported Dewar’s bill.
Although the Trump administration has threatened to repeal a section of U.S. trade legislation that required companies to audit their supply chains for conflict minerals, Lebert says the “train has left the station” thanks to strong European legislation and to the growing consumer demand for ethical products that Dewar was counting upon.
“The EU has focused more globally, rather than specifically on the DRC” as the Dewar bill and U.S. legislation have done, she says. “This is an issue all around the world [and] a company has to be responsible for all of its sourcing, not just the sourcing from one high-risk country.”
She says that years of activism have pushed the Congolese government to put more effort into ensuring supply chain transparency, which she hopes will continue under the newly elected government, which took power Jan. 24.
“According to Congolese law, they are also supposed to be ensuring that companies trading in gold and 3Ts should be adhering to [supply chain transparency] and that’s partially happening. They realize that these companies’ disclosure of risks is essential for them to have access to international markets, and no matter who the leader is, they need access to those markets.”
The role of consumers, says Lebert, is to create demand for conflict-free products — and that is happening.
“Auto companies are already scrambling because they don’t want the cobalt in their electric cars linked to child labour,” she says. “You have some initiatives around dolphin-safe tuna where [the fish] is fully traceable. The millennials in particular are really asking questions about what is behind the label. Those kinds of things are possible [with minerals], but the demand has to be created.”
“It’s all about how we’re interconnected,” she concludes. Dewar would have agreed.