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Barrick Gold Corp. ABX-T is being accused of using the virtual format for its annual general meeting to suppress critical questions from stakeholders.

After holding a hybrid AGM last year that allowed stakeholders to show up in person, the Toronto-based gold mining company, which is the world’s second biggest by market value, went to a virtual-only format this year.

Virtual AGMs have attracted the ire of some shareholder-rights groups. In an open letter to members of the S&P/TSX 60 Index in April, a group of 38 institutional investors, advisers, portfolio managers and non-profits argued that online meetings can undermine shareholder rights, by allowing companies to cherry-pick questions, or change the wording of them.

After concluding the administrative part of the AGM on Tuesday, Barrick chief executive Mark Bristow fielded a handful of queries from shareholders, proxy holders and guests that were submitted on a virtual chat portal.

Catherine Coumans, Asia-Pacific co-ordinator with Mining Watch Canada, attended the virtual meeting. She submitted two probing questions about alleged police brutality at Barrick’s North Mara gold mine in Tanzania, namely: “How many people have been shot and wounded or killed by police contracted to the mine this year alone, and when will you stop the killing and stop contracting police to guard this mine?” Ms. Coumans’s questions were preceded by a succinct preamble outlining her rationale.

At the virtual meeting, Mr. Bristow was not read the preamble and not read the specific questions. He was simply asked by a Barrick representative to comment on allegations of human-rights abuses at North Mara.

“They did not read my questions,” Ms. Coumans said in an interview. “She just made it up,” she added, referring to the Barrick staffer.

Mr. Bristow himself appeared puzzled at the lack of specifics from Ms. Coumans, and he immediately asked the moderator if there was more to the question.

In his reply, Mr. Bristow said he’d asked Ms. Coumans for evidence of the police brutality at North Mara, but that had not materialized. He concluded his answer by saying that he was “a bit lost” because he didn’t know what question had been asked.

Mining Watch isn’t the only party claiming it was given short shrift at Barrick’s AGM.

Jan Morrill, tailings campaign manager for environmental activist group Earthworks, wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail that a question asked by community members from Argentina that was critical of Barrick’s Veladero mine in that country was ignored by Barrick.

And another shareholder who asked a question on behalf of communities in the Dominican Republic about alleged contamination near a Barrick tailings dam claimed the question “was significantly summarized” and not answered adequately, Ms. Morrill said.

Barrick did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The Canadian gold miner also faced criticism for its conduct ahead of the virtual meeting.

One of the items that went in front of shareholders for a vote on Tuesday was a proposal for a third-party audit of the impact of Barrick’s current and proposed mines on local water systems. The proposal was championed by Ekō, a Washington-based activist group whose objective is to rein in the power of large corporations.

Ekō said that rules should have permitted the group to give a presentation at the meeting to explain the need for the measure to bring further scrutiny to Barrick’s water practices. But Ekō said that Barrick rejected the presentation it had recorded for the meeting and told it that a bare-bones reading of the proposal was all that would be permitted.

Lacey Kohlmoos, senior campaign manager with Ekō, said in a statement that she’d never heard of a company censoring a shareholder proposal presentation before. Ekō has presented proposals at shareholder meetings for Meta Platforms, Alphabet and Apple.

“Barrick Gold will do everything in its power to silence the voices of community members calling out the company for doing harm,” she added.

The lack of a physical gathering for Barrick’s AGM also meant that human-rights protesters didn’t have an obvious location in which to gather, and any aggrieved stakeholders had no avenue in which to directly confront Barrick’s board of directors.

Last year, the in-person part of Barrick’s AGM took place at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto’s financial district. It featured a heated discussion between Mr. Bristow and Lateef Johar Baloch, a Pakistani human-rights activist who raised questions about Barrick’s Reko Diq project in the country.

“It was quite a dramatic exchange,” Ms. Coumans said. “I very much think that last year’s experience made them decide, ‘Hey, we don’t want that any more.’”

Despite the lifting of most COVID-19 restrictions, virtual meetings are still extremely common in Canada.

Fifty-seven per cent of TSX 60 constituent companies held virtual-only meetings during the 2023 proxy season, up from 54 per cent in 2020, according to data supplied by Amandeep Sandhu of Sandhu ESG Law.

With a report from Jameson Berkow

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