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Students mining change

Rally to hold firms in Congo accountable

GIVING up her computer would be difficult, but Anna MacDonald would quickly toss her cellphone if it meant an end to years of war in Africa over the mineral that helps keep her plugged into the 21st century.

MacDonald will be one of hundreds of Winnipeg high school students taking part in a noon-hour rally at the legislature today, protesting the practices of Canadian mining companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo and calling on the province to pressure Ottawa into legislating change.

Anna MacDonald (left) and Katee Weremiuk  love their electronic devices, but say they'd get rid of them all if it would help bring an end to years of war in Africa over a mineral used to keep our wired world running.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Anna MacDonald (left) and Katee Weremiuk love their electronic devices, but say they'd get rid of them all if it would help bring an end to years of war in Africa over a mineral used to keep our wired world running. Photo Store

"The issue isn't that we have to get rid of our phones and everything will be fine, this issue is about holding these companies accountable," said MacDonald, a Grade 12 student in the Met School Justice League at Garden City Collegiate, which is organizing the rally.

"I could probably give up my cellphone, but we can fight this without giving up ourselves. We can use phones and computers to fight this conflict and use them as weapons of change." In the last decade, Congo has found itself at the epicentre of the trade in the ore coltan, as mining companies around the world sweep in to capitalize on the country's vast reserves -- estimated to be around 64 per cent of the world's supply. Coltan is mined and stripped down into tantalum, which is needed for everyday electronics, from cellphones to computers to video-game consoles.

As demand deafens for the latest technological advancements, the mining, however, has come at a violent cost.

Companies often hire private militias to clear out villages standing on top of valuable deposits, leading to more than five million people being killed since 1998, MacDonald said. Rape is widespread, child labour in mines is common, and the country's environment continues to be degraded, she said.

Canada wears much of the conflict's blood, MacDonald said, because of poor industry oversight and a lack of legislation ensuring Canadian mining companies adhere to ethical practices respecting human rights and environmental standards that would be found in Canada.

The students will be rallying with the city's Congolese community and calling on Manitoba politicians to support two private member's bills making the rounds on Parliament Hill. NDP MP Paul Dewar's Bill C-486 and Liberal MP John McKay's Bill C-474 outline practices on how companies should mine, trade and use minerals from countries in conflict and publicly report payments made to foreign governments.

For a country on the cusp of opening a museum dedicated to human rights, the time to act is now, MacDonald said.

"That would not be allowed in Canada," she said. "It's really embarrassing that the country I'm living in now is allowing all these human rights violations."

About 100 students from the Seven Oaks School Division, along with students from Gordon Bell, Churchill, Miles MacDonell and Grant Park high schools, will be taking part.

Nancy Janelle, teacher-adviser for the Met School Justice League, said the group has held Earth Day events since it formed four years ago.

Students chose to hold their protest on Earth Day to draw attention to the human cost of the conflict as mines continue to carve up the country's landscape.

"We wanted to bring awareness to other people's suffering," she said.

Students began exploring the issue after learning about it at a conference at Gordon Bell last year, Janelle said. MacDonald is filming a documentary on the issue and students will hold a benefit concert at the West End Cultural Centre May 25 to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders, which operates a hospital for rape victims in Congo.

Janelle called the students' work a "step in the right direction.

"It won't stop the war, but at least it will bring attention to it," she said.

matt.prepost@canstarnews.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 22, 2013 B1

History

Updated on Monday, April 22, 2013 at 7:01 AM CDT: replaces photo

8:31 AM: removes photo, adds new one

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