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What did Canadian mining executives know about possible human rights violations in Eritrea?

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For years, Vancouver-based mining firm Nevsun Resources has dismissed allegations that forced labour was used to build its mine in the repressive east African country of Eritrea.

Nevsun executives have denied direct knowledge of human rights violations at their Bisha mine site in a CBC interview and during an appearance before a parliamentary committee.

But company documents filed in the Supreme Court of British Columbia last November and reviewed by CBC’s The Fifth Estate show executives at the highest level appear to have been informed of issues of forced labour at their mine site a decade ago.

Former Bisha mine workers are suing Nevsun in B.C. for alleged human rights violations — including forced labour, slavery and torture.

The company denies the allegations and has appealed the matter of whether the case can be heard in B.C. to the Supreme Court of Canada. Nevsun argues that the case should be adjudicated in Eritrea. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the matter on Wednesday.

The court’s decision could have a far-reaching impact on Canadian corporations operating abroad.

“The Supreme Court of Canada will be asked to rule on whether in fact it is possible in our legal system to hold a corporate citizen of Canada to account for decisions made in Canada, by a Canadian corporation, in how it will engage in business in Eritrea,” said law professor Audrey Macklin, counsel for the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program, which has intervener status in the Supreme Court matter.    

Mass exodus

In recent years, there has been a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from Eritrea, a small country of six million in the Horn of Africa. They have fled in part because of the country’s controversial national service program, which the United Nations and human rights groups have charged involves lengthy military conscription and forced labour.

“Eritrea is a human rights pariah and the use of indeterminate conscription and forced labour has been widely reported,” said Macklin. “The question would be what kind of due diligence did Nevsun do prior to its foray into Eritrea?”

Nevsun is partners with the government of Eritrea through the Bisha Mining Share Company (BMSC). The mine is 40 per cent owned by the Eritrean National Mining Corporation (ENAMCO).

The Bisha mine opened in 2011 and has produced hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of gold, copper and zinc. For years, the mine was the only major source of revenue for the regime of President Isaias Afwerki.  

But back in 2009, Nevsun was seeking financing during the construction phase of the mine when the issue of forced labour in Eritrea was raised by potential lenders.

One email filed in court, dated March 4, 2009, and written by then Nevsun CEO Cliff Davis, is headlined “Private and Confidential due to Sensitivity.”

Workers and visitors walk within the processing plant at the Bisha Mining Share Company in Eritrea on Feb. 18, 2016. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

Davis writes that the lenders “have placed another obstacle in the road to finance. They assert that the country practises involuntary labour (forced labour) and before they can lend to the project, BMSC must demonstrate that the Bisha mine will not be a benefactor in any way of such labour, either directly or via any of its contractors.”

In the same email, Davis notes “we understand there are currently some National Service people working for a key contractor working at site” and that “we are in the process of determining whether the terms of employment would constitute forced labour.” Davis suggests BMSC could hire the workers directly or offer them contracts “where they could leave on their own free will.”

But Davis goes on to say “None of these solutions are palatable to the Eritreans because: 1. another Westerner telling the Eritreans how to run their country; 2. potential disruption to the national development campaign. Politically a very sensitive topic.”

‘Permeates the whole region’

As part of its due diligence, according to the documents filed in court, Nevsun and the lenders brought in U.S. social development expert Kerry Connor to review the operation. Connor is based in Washington, D.C., and has done risk reviews for mining operations around the world.

In a March 25, 2009, email from Connor to then Nevsun vice-president Trevor Moss, she refers to a conversation she had with Stan Rogers, the manager of the mine at the time.

“Just spoke with Stan,” she writes. “He recognizes it’s forced labour and says it permeates the whole country with nearly everyone in some way associated with the “program.”

“Also says no one understands the scope of the issue viz a viz project employment of program people — so we need to concentrate on this before we can determine what can be done.”

Connor later concluded in an April 2009 report, also part of the court filing, that “the project is at risk for contravention of the prohibition on the use of forced labour, as represented by the use of NS workers.”

A truck arrives to ferry excavated gold, copper and zinc ore from the main mining pit at the Bisha Mining Share Company on Feb. 17, 2016. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

The workers in question were provided by an Eritrean state-owned subcontractor called Segen.

Connor also reported that “Segen, the only project sub-contractor, indicates that its project workforce is composed primarily of longtime Segen employees, complemented by some expatriates with special skills, and that no NS workers have been employed on the project.  A rapid assessment by BMSC social staff, however, found evidence of approximately 23 NS workers employed by Segen at various times on the project.”

“[Nevsun] were not avoiding it. They were very much aware of it,” Connor said in a recent interview. “They were somewhat aware of it in the beginning and the initial question was: ‘Well, is it even possible to employ a contractor who isn’t government?’ “

‘No corroborating claims’

While the company documents filed in court would suggest Nevsun had been informed of possible forced labour at their mine site in 2009, company officials have not disclosed this information in the past.

In a 2016 documentary about the Bisha mine by The Fifth Estate, host Mark Kelley asked Todd Romaine, then Nevsun’s vice-president of corporate social responsibility: “You don’t believe there was any conscripted labour that was ever used in the development or operation of your mine?”

“We’ve done extensive investigations to date inside Eritrea and at the Bisha mine,” Romaine said. “There’s no corroborating claims to support any of the allegations being made.”

Todd Romaine, who was vice-president of corporate social responsibility at Nevsun Resources in 2016, told The Fifth Estate at the time that the company had done extensive investigations in Eritrea and at its Bisha mine. (CBC)

Romaine, who is no longer an official at the company since China’s Zijin Mining Group made a successful bid for it in December, declined to comment for this story.

In 2012, testifying in front of the parliamentary subcommittee on international human rights in Ottawa, Davis, then the company’s CEO, was asked by Liberal MP Irwin Cotler: “So you are not aware yourself of any human rights violations in Eritrea?”

Davis responded: “I’m certainly not directly aware at all. All I have is the same access that you have with respect to the internet, and postings on the internet, and articles.”

When Cotler asked again: “So you have received no reports of any human rights violations while you have been in Eritrea?” Davis replied: “No.”

Now retired from Nevsun, Davis did not return calls for comment.

Longstanding skepticism

The Eritrean plaintiffs have made an application to the B.C. Supreme Court to join Davis personally as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Davis’s lawyer, David Schacter, said “the matter is before the court and Mr. Davis will simply advise you that that’s the case. He’s not going to be commenting on a matter before the court.”

In 2013, Human Rights Watch published a report on alleged human rights violations at the Bisha mine.

In a meeting with Human Rights Watch, “Nevsun did not acknowledge that Segen had used conscript labourers at Bisha, but neither did it rule out the possibility,” the report said.

In a January 2013 media release, Nevsun said that the company “expresses regret if certain employees of Segen were conscripts four years ago, in the early part of the Bisha Mine’s construction phase.”

But Human Rights Watch has always been skeptical of Nevsun’s position.

“It defies belief that Nevsun did not know that a state contractor would be using national service labour,” Felix Horne, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a recent interview.

“The Nevsun experience is an important lesson for the other international mining companies that are operating in Eritrea, that unless proper procedures are put in place from the beginning, you will likely be using national service labour for the development of your mine.”

More investigation

Nevsun has maintained that it screens for military conscripts — requiring proof that their workers are no longer in the national service program.

In response to concerns raised by the United Nations, Nevsun also conducted further investigation by another social responsibility expert.

“I am very confident that there’s no forced labour, there’s no national service used either in the direct workforce or in the Eritrean contractors that provide labour or transportation or security guards to the Bisha mine,” Montreal human rights lawyer Lloyd Lipsett told The Fifth Estate in 2016.

But according to the company documents filed in court last November, forced labour at its mine site was not the only possible human rights violation Nevsun executives became aware of early on. Eritrean officials were also arresting workers off their mine site without clear cause.

In a June 28, 2010, email under the subject line “Staff Arrests,” mine manager Stan Rogers writes to Davis: “Cliff, I think that brings the number to seven or eight!! We of course have no idea why they have been taken away.” Rogers signs off on the email: “Great Country…:-)”

A general view shows the sag mill and ball mill within the processing plant at the Bisha Mining Share Company. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

An Aug. 5, 2010, memorandum from a company executive to Nevsun’s audit committee reviewed “allegations of fraud” that the Eritreans apparently provided as the reason for the arrests.

“Over the past three months, five BMSC staff have been arrested by Eritrean authorities,” the memo said. “According to BMSC senior management, the Eritrean state has alleged the employees were involved in various frauds including the theft of food and fuel inventories and kickbacks on purchasing.”

But the memo goes on to report that it “should be emphasized that no evidence of fraud has been uncovered by BMSC management or received from the Eritrean state. However, ENAMCO personnel have confirmed to BMSC management that the employees have confessed to having a role in the frauds.”

At the time of publication, Nevsun had not officially responded to a request for comment.

  • You can reach Scott Anderson at scott.anderson@cbc.ca

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Real Estate

5 ways to reduce your mortgage amortization

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Since the pandemic hit, a lot of Canadians have been affected financially and if you’re on a mortgage, reducing your amortization period can be of great help.

A mortgage amortization period is the amount of time it would take a homeowner to completely pay off their mortgage. The amortization is typically an estimate based on what the interest rate for your current term is. Calculating your amortization is done easily using a loan amortization calculator which shows you the different payment schedules within your amortization period.

 In Canada, if you made a down payment that is less than the recommended 20 per cent of the total cost of your home, then the longest amortization period you’re allowed to have is 25 years. The mortgage amortization period not only affects the length of time it would take to completely repay the loan, but also the amount of interest paid over the lifecycle of the mortgage.

Typically, longer amortization periods involve making smaller monthly payments and having a much higher total interest cost over the duration of the mortgage. While on the other hand, shorter amortization periods entails making larger monthly payments and having lower total interest costs.

It’s the dream of every homeowner to become mortgage-free. A general rule of thumb would be to try and keep your monthly mortgage costs as low as possible—preferably below 30 per cent of your monthly income. Over time, you may become more financially stable by either getting a tax return, a bonus or an additional source of income and want to channel that towards your principal.

There are several ways to keep your monthly mortgage payments low and reduce your amortization. Here are a few ways to achieve that goal:

1. Make a larger down payment

Once you’ve decided to buy a home, always consider putting asides some significant amount of money that would act as a down payment to reduce your monthly mortgage. While the recommended amount to put aside as a down payment is 20 per cent,  if you aren’t in a hurry to purchase the property or are more financial buoyant, you can even pay more.

Essentially, the larger your down payment, the lower your mortgage would be as it means you’re borrowing less money from your lender. However, if you pay at least 20 per cent upfront, there would be no need for you to cover the additional cost of private mortgage insurance which would save you some money.

2. Make bi-weekly payments

Most homeowners make monthly payments which amount to 12 payments every year. But if your bank or lender offers the option of accelerated bi-weekly payment, you will be making an equivalent of one more payment annually. Doing this will further reduce your amortization period by allowing you to pay off your mortgage much faster.

3. Have a fixed renewal payment

It is normal for lenders to offer discounts on interest rate during your amortization period. However, as you continuously renew your mortgage at a lower rate, always keep a fixed repayment sum.

Rather than just making lower payments, you can keep your payments static, since the more money applied to your principal, the faster you can clear your mortgage.

4. Increase your payment amount

Many mortgages give homeowners the option to increase their payment amount at least once a year. Now, this is very ideal for those who have the financial capacity to do so because the extra money would be added to your principal.

Irrespective of how small the increase might be, in the long run, it would make a huge difference. For example, if your monthly mortgage payment is about $2,752 per month. It would be in your best interest to round it up to $2,800 every month. That way, you are much closer to reducing your mortgage amortization period.

5. Leverage on prepayment privileges

The ability for homeowners to make any form of prepayment solely depends on what mortgage features are provided by their lender.

With an open mortgage, you can easily make additional payments at any given time. However, if you have a closed mortgage—which makes up the larger percentage of existing mortgages—you will need to check if you have the option of prepayments which would allow you to make extra lump sum payments.

Additionally, there may also be the option to make extra lump sum payments at the end of your existing mortgage term before its time for renewal.

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Mortgage insurance vs. life insurance: What you need to know

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Your home is likely the biggest asset you’ll ever own. So how can you protect it in case something were to happen to you? To start, homeowners have a few options to choose from. You can either:

  • ensure you have mortgage protection with a life insurance policy from an insurance company or
  • get mortgage insurance from a bank or mortgage lender.

Mortgage insurance vs. life insurance: How do they each work?  

The first thing to know is that life insurance can be a great way to make sure you and your family have mortgage protection.

The money from a life insurance policy usually goes right into the hands of your beneficiaries – not the bank or mortgage lender. Your beneficiaries are whoever you choose to receive the benefit or money from your policy after you die.

Life insurance policies, like term life insurance, come with a death benefit. A death benefit is the amount of money given to your beneficiaries after you die. The exact amount they’ll receive depends on the policy you buy.

With term life insurance, you’re covered for a set period, such as 10, 15, 20 or 30 years. The premium – that’s the monthly or annual fee you pay for insurance – is usually low for the first term.

If you die while you’re coved by your life insurance policy, your beneficiaries will receive a tax-free death benefit. They can then use this money to help pay off the mortgage or for any other reason. So not only is your mortgage protected, but your family will also have funds to cover other expenses that they relied on you to pay.

Mortgage insurance works by paying off the outstanding principal balance of your mortgage, up to a certain amount, if you die.

With mortgage insurance, the money goes directly to the bank or lender to pay off the mortgage – and that’s it. There’s no extra money to cover other expenses, and you don’t get to leave any cash behind to your beneficiaries.

What’s the difference between mortgage insurance and life insurance?

The main difference is that mortgage insurance covers only your outstanding mortgage balance. And, that money goes directly to the bank or mortgage lender, not your beneficiary. This means that there’s no cash, payout or benefit given to your beneficiary. 

With life insurance, however, you get mortgage protection and more. Here’s how it works: every life insurance policy provides a tax-free amount of money (the death benefit) to the beneficiary. The payment can cover more than just the mortgage. The beneficiary may then use the money for any purpose. For example, apart from paying off the mortgage, they can also use the funds from the death benefit to cover:

  • any of your remaining debts,
  • the cost of child care,
  • funeral costs,
  • the cost of child care, and
  • any other living expenses. 

But before you decide between life insurance and mortgage insurance, here are some other important differences to keep in mind:

Who gets the money?

With life insurance, the money goes to whomever you name as your beneficiary.

With mortgage insurance, the money goes entirely to the bank.

Can you move your policy?

With life insurance, your policy stays with you even if you transfer your mortgage to another company. There’s no need to re-apply or prove your health is good enough to be insured.

With mortgage insurance, however, your policy doesn’t automatically move with you if you change mortgage providers. If you move your mortgage to another bank, you’ll have to prove that your health is still good.

Which offers more flexibility, life insurance or mortgage insurance?

With life insurance, your beneficiaries have the flexibility to cover the mortgage balance and more after you die. As the policy owner, you can choose how much insurance coverage you want and how long you need it. And, the coverage doesn’t decline unless you want it to.

With mortgage insurance through a bank, you don’t have the flexibility to change your coverage. In this case, you’re only protecting the outstanding balance on your mortgage.

Do you need a medical exam to qualify? 

With a term life insurance policy from Sun Life, you may have to answer some medical questions or take a medical exam before you’re approved for coverage. Once you’re approved, Sun Life won’t ask for any additional medical information later on.

With mortgage insurance, a bank or mortgage lender may ask some medical questions when you apply. However, if you make a claim after you’re approved, your bank may ask for additional medical information.* At that point, they may discover some conditions that disqualify you from receiving payment on a claim.

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5 common mistakes Canadians make with their mortgages

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This article was created by MoneyWise. Postmedia and MoneyWise may earn an affiliate commission through links on this page.

Since COVID-19 dragged interest rates to historic lows last year, Canadians have been diving into the real estate market with unprecedented verve.

During a time of extraordinary financial disruption, more than 551,000 properties sold last year — a new annual record, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association. Those sales provided a desperately needed dose of oxygen for the country’s gasping economy.

Given the slew of new mortgages taken out in 2020, there were bound to be slip-ups. So, MoneyWise asked four of the country’s sharpest mortgage minds to share what they feel are the mistakes Canadians most frequently make when securing a home loan.

Mistake 1: Not having your documents ready

One of your mortgage broker’s primary functions is to provide lenders with paperwork confirming your income, assets, source of down payment and overall reliability as a borrower. Without complete and accurate documentation, no reputable lender will be able to process your loan.

But “borrowers often don’t have these documents on hand,” says John Vo of Spicer Vo Mortgages in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “And even when they do provide these documents, they may not be the correct documentation required.”

Some of the most frequent mistakes Vo sees when borrowers send in their paperwork include:

  • Not including a name or other relevant details on key pieces of information.
  • Providing old bank or pay statements instead of those dated within the last 30 days.
  • Sending only a partial document package. If a lender asks for six pages to support your loan, don’t send two. If you’re asked for four months’ worth of bank statements, don’t provide only one.
  • Thinking low-quality or blurry files sent by email or text will be good enough. Lenders need to be able to read what you send them.

If you send your broker an incomplete documents package, the result is inevitable: Your mortgage application will be delayed as long as it takes for you to find the required materials, and your house shopping could be sidetracked for months.

Mistake 2: Blinded by the rate

Ask any mortgage broker and they’ll tell you that the question they’re asked most frequently is: “What’s your lowest rate?”

The interest rate you’ll pay on your mortgage is a massive consideration, so comparing the rates lenders are offering is a good habit once you’ve slipped on your house-hunter hat.

Rates have been on the rise lately given government actions to stimulate the Canadian economy. You may want to lock a low rate now, so you can hold onto it for up to 120 days.

But Chris Kolinski, broker at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based iSask Mortgages, says too many borrowers get obsessed with finding the lowest rate and ignore the other aspects of a mortgage that can greatly impact its overall cost.

“I always ask my clients ‘Do you want to get the best rate, or do you want to save the most money?’ because those two things are not always synonymous,” Kolinski says. “That opens a conversation about needs and wants.”

Many of the rock-bottom interest rates on offer from Canadian lenders can be hard to qualify for, come with limited features, or cost borrowers “a ton” of money if they break their terms, Kolinski points out.

Mistake 3: Not reading the fine print

Dalia Barsoum of Streetwise Mortgages in Woodbridge, Ontario, shares a universal message: “Read the fine print. Understand what you’re signing up for.”

Most borrowers don’t expect they’ll ever break their mortgages, but data collected by TD Bank shows that 7 in 10 homeowners move on from their properties earlier than they expect.

It’s critical to understand your loan’s prepayment privileges and the rules around an early departure. “If you exit the mortgage, how much are you going to pay? It’s really, really important,” Barsoum says.

She has seen too borrowers come to her hoping to refinance a mortgage they received from a private or specialty lender, only to find that what they were attempting was impossible.

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