Judges reject call for federal watchdog to probe case of slain Mexican activist

OTTAWA — The Federal Court of Appeal has rejected a plea from family and supporters of a slain Mexican activist — killed after opposing a Canadian company's mining project — to have a federal ombudsman investigate the matter.

In a newly released ruling, a three-member panel of the Court of Appeal upheld the federal public sector integrity commissioner's decision not to begin a probe.

In 2007, Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration Ltd. opened a barite mine in Chiapas, Mexico, prompting local opposition, demonstrations and a blockade of a route to the project.

After being beaten and threatened with death for leading protests over the mine's environmental and social effects, activist Mariano Abarca was fatally shot outside his home in November 2009. 

Chiapas officials shut down the mine the following month. 

Members of Abarca's family and organizations concerned with mining abuses presented information to integrity commissioner Joe Friday in 2018, asking him to probe whether there was wrongdoing by members of the Canadian Embassy in Mexico. 

They contended that federal policy required Canadian embassies to promote corporate social responsibility and assess possible human rights impacts, including violence.

They also argued the embassy never investigated the source of the tensions between the community and Blackfire and did not conduct a violence-related risk assessment.

In addition, the family members and groups noted that, while embassy officials met Mexican officials to advocate on Blackfire's behalf, there was no indication the embassy raised concerns with the Mexican government about Abarca's safety or the importance of respecting democratic values such as free speech.

In April 2018, Friday found there was no breach of a code of conduct and no wrongdoing by the embassy in its interactions with Blackfire, given its mandate to assist Canadian companies abroad. Friday also concluded the embassy had not ignored human rights concerns, noting that after Abarca was arrested by police in 2009 the embassy sought information about his detention.

Federal Court Justice Keith Boswell ruled three years ago that it was reasonable for the integrity commissioner to decide not to investigate on the basis the embassy had broken no code of conduct.

Boswell said although the applicants pointed to aspirational documents and policies that were later put in place, they had not identified anything that created a legal obligation upon the embassy to act in a certain manner.

In writing for the unanimous Court of Appeal, Justice John Laskin said he found no breach of procedural fairness by the integrity commissioner. 

Laskin added that the commissioner's decision "was not unreasonable on any of the grounds the appellants put forward, given his role and the governing statutory framework."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 10, 2022.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press