Executives from Teck Resources pose with former BC Finance Minister Colin Hansen at a gala celebrating their company's $12.5 million donation to the Vancouver Aquarium, The Same company recently admitted to knowlingly polluting the Columbia River for decades. (Aquablog photo)

Rafe on ‘Corporate Citizenship’ and Changing Views


Sometimes a good dose of introspection is good for the soul…and as a test of whatever principles you now espouse.

I’m always amused when someone accuses me me of “inconsistency”, which reminds me of Emerson’s aphorism, “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.

It remains, obviously, to decide if my changes in position are foolish.

I admit to being a contrarian. Seeing that, and recognizing that it might be an interesting experiment, Premier Bill Bennett made me Environment Minister in 1978. It was only a year as I was moved up to Health the next shuffle but that time gave me much pause for reflection and I became convinced that Industry would only care about the environment  if they were forced to or if, somehow, it made them money. As my associate Damien Gillis often points out, if corporations did things that prevented them from paying dividends or putting the bottom line first, it was tantamount to a breach of fiduciary duty.

This is true. The only thing a company is supposed to do is make a profit.

Companies often take pride in employing people as if that was an act of good citizenship, not for the purposes of profiting from employees’ labours.There is, of course, nothing wrong with companies employing people – what’s wrong is the notion that they do this out of some charitable gesture, motivated by altruistic philosophy.

They take pride in spending philanthropically although, as Jimmy Pattison has shown around the province, that is seldom done anonymously. Moreover donations are tax deductible.

Often the donation interferes with the plans in place – let me explain.

Say a company wants to place an MRI scanner in a certain hospital. The Health Ministry will have a schedule for placing these machines and the corporation’s choice is not at the top of the list. The donation now, in effect, deprives another hospital of the MRI it had reason to expect was theirs. Now, if the corporation were to say, “I understand that hospital X is in line for an MRI, I will build it for them,” that would be quite a different thing.

There’s another important factor – MRI’s cost a fortune to run. If the corporation stays in the lineup, the government will have made provision for the cost. When it jumps the queue, the Health budget is distorted.

I have nothing but praise for philanthropy when it is done in cooperation with the targeted donee and the donor is not seeking to gain business from the publicity and is not seeking a tax break.

My only point is that one makes a serious mistake in thinking that donations from corporations are not intended to increase profits.

Back to the environment. In Tuesday’s Sun was a headlined story of how Teck Resources has been polluting the Columbia River for decades and doesn’t deny the story but simply denies the the damages claimed. This candid admission came only after they were sued.

In all events, my short stint as Minister of Environment confirmed what I long had suspected – the real environment department of a company is its public relations budget and that there were no exceptions to that rule.

British Columbians now face serious environmental problems on many fronts – mines, rivers, farm land, fish farms, pipelines and tankers to name a few. And here’s the rub – the corporations are under no compulsion to behave appropriately and, in fact, the onus is not on them to demonstrate that their venture is environmentally sound; no, it’s private citizens and organizations they form that bear that onus!

The Precautionary Principle places to onus of proof on the developer, not the public.

In fact, the onus should not just be on the developer. Counsel for the public should be the governments, but they are, when so-called “free enterprise” parties rule, virtually always bought and paid for and wind up supporting the developer and bad-mouthing environmentalist groups. It’s interesting to note that Ministers accuse environmental groups as being bankrolled by foreign money as they help foreign companies such as Chinese government-owned corporations and companies like General Electric gobble up our resources, pollute like hell then take their money and run.

(Incidentally, The Common Sense Canadian has no foreign “sugar daddies” and would like it known that we would love some!)

Does all this mean that I’m a neo-communist – or even a socialist?

Not at all. I believe in the marketplace, if only because nothing else works as well. I say this recognizing that “socialist” countries are not that at all – they just demand that companies pay their fair share of taxes and obey social and environmental rules. I don’t want public ownership, other than natural monopolies, but strong laws and good policemen.

That is what I mean when I call myself an environmentalist.

In Canada as a whole and in British Columbia we have government of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation.

That’s what we must change if we ever wish, as Lincoln actually said, to have a government of the people, by the people and for the people.


About Rafe Mair

Rafe Mair, LL.B, LL.D (Hon) a B.C. MLA 1975 to 1981, was Minister of Environment from late 1978 through 1979. In 1981 he left politics for Talk Radio becoming recognized as one of B.C.'s pre-eminent journalists. An avid fly fisherman, he took a special interest in Atlantic salmon farms and private power projects as environmental calamities and became a powerful voice in opposition to them. Rafe is the co-founder of The Common Sense Canadian and writes a regular blog at rafeonline.com.

3 thoughts on “Rafe on ‘Corporate Citizenship’ and Changing Views

  1. Well done, Raif. For addressing head-on the issue of semantics, of labels, and how they degrade constructive discussion and the search for healthy solutions. As for your “belief” in the marketplace, well, I understand the gist of your statement, but funny that you should choose the verb “belief” since it seems to me that over the last two or three decades “the marketplace” has become another systematic mindset, another “ism”. It would be wise to abandon all the political and economic “isms” of the last 200 years when addressing the many daunting challenges of the new century ( pollution, human rights, food security, resource management, energy policy ), all of which, in my opinion, have common root in ecological awareness or lack thereof. Government of, by, and for the people, yes, but as many activists in BC and around the world demonstrate, “the people”, too, must not become a truism or an abstract reference. Cooperation must be real, pragmatic, and “of place” as so warranted. Or as I like to say: How about we all stroll down to the river together and stick our noses in it.

  2. “I believe in the marketplace, if only because nothing else works as well.”

    Nothing else works as well at doing what? Ensuring that you can continue to enjoy the lifestyle you’ve become accustomed to?

    Rafe, and most everyone else, will happily become advocates for environmental stewardship as long as they can continue to enjoy the fruits of the marketplace that allow their lifestyles to continue.
    Environmentalism has no connection to socialism or communism.

    Unfortunately controlling corporations and fostering gov’ts for the people, by the people won’t be enough.

    Here’s the rub: no one wants to sacrifice pleasure for pain. Change won’t happen until the majority experience more pain than pleasure. And even when that point is reached, there’s no guarantee we’ll have learned how to live within our environments carrying capacity.

  3. Raif I was the BC Rail person on the RDC’s when you and the rest of Cabinet traveled BC. I remember you well. I am STRONG NDP but I believe as you have stated on this page. Does that make me a “terrorist” or a “taliban” for standing against the HST? No! It makes me a responsible person who want’s corporations to be “responsible” for their actions. If you use the infrastructure, pay for it. If you want to use natural resources, pay for it. If that use causes pollution, don’t use it and if you do and pollute, pay handsomely and stop polluting. Hmmm I must be a communist!

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