Canada creates independent Ombudsperson & multi-stakeholder advisory body to strengthen responsible business conduct abroad

In January 2018, Canada's Minister of International Trade announced two new responsible business initiatives for Canadian companies doing business and operating abroad. The first is the creation of an independent Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) and the second is a multi-stakeholder Advisory Body to advise the Government and the CORE on responsible business conduct abroad.

On 8 April 2019, Canada's Minister of International Trade Diversification announced the appointment of Sheri Meyerhoffer as the Ombudsperson. The Ombudsperson is mandated to review allegations of human rights abuses arising from the operations of Canadian companies abroad, initially focusing on the mining, oil and gas, and garment sectors and then expanding to other sectors during the first year. Recommendations made by the Ombudsperson will be reported publicly and companies that do not cooperate could face trade measures, including the withdrawal of trade advocacy services and future Export Development Canada support. 

Numerous Canadian human rights groups have expressed serious concern that the new Ombudsperson does not have the powers she needs to hold companies accountable, including sufficient independence from the government and the power to compel companies to co-operate with her investigations and recommendations. They are calling on the Canadian government to implement its original commitment to create an independent ombudsperson with investigatory capacity.

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Article
24 April 2020

CNCA raises serious concerns about Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise's office including lack of power to independently investigate & lack of independence

Author: Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability

[T]he Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE), appointed in April 2019 is not the office that was promised. It does not have the promised mandate and powers required to effectively help communities harmed by Canadian companies defend their rights, access remedy or seek justice. The office has not been designed with the needs of impacted communities in mind. Much like the discredited, toothless corporate social responsibility offices of the past, it appears to have been designed with more concern for industry perceptions than with supporting the human rights of impacted communities... [T]he CORE [has] only with the power to offer mediation or undertake “reviews”. Both must rely entirely on the good will of transnational corporations to voluntarily share vital information that might implicate them in wrongdoing.

... The CORE is not independent from government. The CORE and her staff are civil servants. The CORE offices are situated within Global Affairs Canada... To date there are no adequate safeguards to protect people who bring complaints to the CORE... Given the blatant about-face of the Canadian government on its commitments regarding the establishment of the CORE, there is currently no reason for communities to believe it will prove to be more effective than the offices that have preceded it.

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Article
24 April 2020

Impacted communities are advised to “Approach with Caution” – Canadian civil society groups raise alarm about Canada’s Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise

Author: Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability

[M]embers of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA) learned that the office of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) was planning to travel to Colombia and Brazil without having consulted with local communities or human rights defenders prior to booking the trip... CNCA members were particularly concerned because the CORE’s itinerary included a visit to a controversial project site, at the request of the company, with no evidence of prior consultation or input from affected communities about how such a visit might impact their safety, security and respect for their rights...

... Note: As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the CORE postponed its planned trip to South America. The CORE office is not yet open to receive complaints, no date has been set for its opening. The CNCA has requested the CORE take this opportunity:

  • to advocate for the robust powers it requires to undertake effective and fair investigations of community complaints, and 
  • to establish rights-based protocols to guide decision-making for its future international missions. 

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Article
27 January 2020

Commentary: Canada's New Corporate Responsibility Ombudsperson falls far short of its promise

Author: Karyn Keenan, Cambridge University Press

In 2013 the CNCA launched its Open for Justice campaign to demand an extractive sector ombudsperson... The ombudsperson is intended to support Canada in the fulfilment of its international human rights obligations, including... remedy when... abuse occurs. The office is also meant to support companies in meeting their responsibility to respect human rights... In January 2018, the government announced that it would establish the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE). The office would be multisectoral, focusing initially on mining, oil, gas and garment companies, eventually broadening... to include all economic sectors... [T]he government announced the appointment of Sheri Meyerhoffer... and released the office’s long-awaited order-in-council in April 2019. Civil society expressed profound disappointment... From the CNCA’s perspective, the office... lacked several defining features of an ombudsperson, including investigatory powers and independence... In September 2019, the government responded to this criticism and issued a new order-in council for the office. The provision on corporate complaints was removed... the revised document remains silent on the issue of investigatory powers... Communities and individuals impacted by Canadian companies look to... the Canadian Ombudsperson... to impartially determine and report the truth. Without independence and the power to get at the facts, the new ombudsperson has little to offer these constituencies.

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Article
17 October 2019

Commentary: Canada's next govt. should require corporate human rights due diligence & engage in process to develop a binding treaty on business & human rights

Author: Ian Thomson, Oxfam Canada

"5 things Canada's next government should do to curb corporate abuses of human rights," 16 Oct 2019

The Canadian government has said repeatedly that it expects companies to obey local laws and respect international human rights wherever they operate in the world. However, when it comes to human rights, it continues to rely on voluntary measures... Following the October 2019 federal election, here are five actions that Canada’s next government should take to move the country forward on the corporate accountability file:

  • The new Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise should become more independent and be granted real powers of investigation...
  • Canadian companies should be required to conduct due diligence around human rights and demonstrate how they are minimizing the risks of adverse human rights impacts...
  • Export Development Canada’s legislation should be reformed to include explicit requirements on international human rights and gender equality...
  • The next government should ditch the 2014 Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy, which was rooted in a mantra of trade promotion, and adopt a Business and Human Rights Strategy that integrates Canada’s political, trade and development mandates...
  • Canada should join the community of nations who are working to develop and adopt a binding treaty on business and human rights at the United Nations.

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Article
15 July 2019

Civil society members of Canadian govt. advisory body on responsible business conduct resign due to delay in granting Ombudsperson investigatory powers

Author: Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability

"Government of Canada turns back on communities harmed by Canadian mining overseas, loses trust of Canadian civil society," 11 July 2019

Today all fourteen civil society and labour union representatives of the government’s Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Body on Responsible Business Conduct Abroad (Advisory Body) tendered their resignations. The unanimous decision to resign is due the erosion of civil society and labour unions’ trust and confidence in the government’s commitment to international corporate accountability. 

In January 2018, the government publicly announced the creation of a Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) and committed to entrusting the office with the necessary tools to conduct credible independent investigations, including the power to compel documents and summon witnesses... The government’s decision to backtrack on its promise in April 2019, and instead appoint a special advisor to the Minister of International Trade Diversification without needed investigatory powers, has amounted to a betrayal of civil society and labour unions’ trust, erosion of our confidence and concerns that the government has not acted in good faith during consultations... Organizations have continued to wait for further developments over the past three months, since the April 8, 2019 announcement of an independent legal review on the CORE’s investigatory powers. Minister Carr indicated on that day that the review would be completed within 4 to 5 weeks... Three months later, the study has not been made public, the CORE remains without meaningful powers to serve impacted communities and workers... Civil society and labour members of the Advisory Body note that the only way that the government can restore trust is by replacing the CORE’s mandate by an order pursuant to the Inquiries Act, as a bridge towards legislation in the next government. 

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Article
15 July 2019

Fourteen civil society groups & labour unions quit advisory panel to protest government inaction on corporate accountability

Author: Development and Peace - Caritas Canada

"Development and Peace quits important advisory panel to protest government inaction on corporate accountability," 15 July 2019

On July 11, 2019, Development and Peace — Caritas Canada, along with 13 civil society and labour union partners, resigned from the Multi-stakeholder Advisory Body on Responsible Business Conduct. The body was created in January 2018 to advise the federal government on “laws, policies and practices addressing business and human rights and responsible business conduct for Canadian companies operating abroad” and on “the mandate of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise.”... Hopes of helping create an influential public watchdog were dashed in April 2019, when the government appointed... a largely toothless special advisor to the Minister of International Trade Diversification with few investigatory powers...This retreat was another of the years-long delays in the creation of the ombudsperson.

Advocacy and Research Program Officer, Elana Wright, who represented Development and Peace on the advisory body, said, “The government created high expectations for communities around the world that are affected by Canadian mining companies. But they have let us down by defanging the ombudsperson’s office ...even with this setback, there is a way for the government to restore its credibility and signal that it is serious about holding Canadian corporations to account. It can grant investigatory powers to the ombudsperson via the Inquiries Act, as a bridge towards legislation by the next government."

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Article
11 July 2019

Advisors quit corporate accountability panel due to lack of investigatory powers of Ombudsperson

Author: Alastair Sharp, National Observer

"Advisors quit, accusing Trudeau government of dithering on corporate watchdog," 11 July 2019

All the civil society and labour union representatives on a panel appointed by the Trudeau government to provide advice about corporate accountability have resigned, leaving only industry representatives and the government at the table with a lone academic... The seven members and their alternatives, representing labour unions and other civil society groups, publicly quit their advisory roles on Thursday, complaining that the government had failed to fulfill a promise to create an independent watchdog to investigate allegations of overseas human rights abuses against Canadian companies... The office of Jim Carr, the minister for international trade diversification and chair of the panel... [said] “While consensus on these issues remains elusive, dialogue between civil society and industry is critical to progress and walking away from that dialogue is a step backwards and regrettable."

John Ruggie, a human rights and international affairs professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, who was honorary chair of the body, told National Observer that “betrayed” might be too strong a word for what had occurred... [He said that] the mandate of the CORE ombudsperson, a role Sheri Meyerhoffer was named to fill in April and which should become operational in the coming months, is an improvement on the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Counsellor, since appointments are for a five-year period “with a reasonable budget” that includes staff.He said the initial idea that the ombudsperson would have the authority to investigate under the Inquiries Act would have been a major step forward, but “somehow didn’t work out, for reasons that government lawyers will have to explain.”

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Article
7 May 2019

Commentary: Canada still needs an Ombudsperson to investigate mining cases - not an advisor or another CSR Counsellor

Author: Catherine Coumans, MiningWatch Canada

"Canada Still Needs an Ombudsperson to Investigate Mining Cases – Not an Advisor to the Minister of International Trade or another CSR Counsellor," 4 May 2019

The Government of Canada has fundamentally broken its electoral promise of 2015 and its commitment of January 17, 2018 to create an Ombudsperson with: independence from both government and industry; strong investigatory powers to compel documents and witnesses, when necessary, in the course of investigating complaints brought against Canadian mining companies for human rights abuses perpetrated overseas; and the ability to make determinations of fact about whether a Canadian company had caused or contributed to human rights harm. Fifteen months after the commitment to create a strong ombudsperson was made in 2018, the government has created an advisory position to the Minister with a deeply flawed and inadequate mandate. 

As the Government of Canada has not managed to ensure an Ombudsperson with the powers to compel documents and witnesses in the 15 months since announcing the creation of an Ombudsperson MiningWatch is highly sceptical of the government’s commitment to keep this promise... On April 29, 2019, Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, Surya Deva, is reported to have said: "Businesses—not just in Canada, all over the world—they do not share documents easily […] “I would be very surprised if Canadian companies are going to deviate from this assumption. And that’s why you need this power, otherwise you are going to be like the [National Contact Point], and what is the point of having another NCP?”

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Article
5 May 2019

Commentary: Why does Justin Trudeau succumb to corporate pressure?

Author: Charis Kamphuis, The Conversation

[T]he Liberals have once again yielded to industry pressureand seriously weakened their commitment to corporate accountability for Canadian companies operating abroad... [T]he prime minister has declined to use the Public Inquiries Act to guarantee that the new ombudsperson will be independent from government. Instead, Meyerhoffer will be a public servant and “special advisor” to the minister. This means that the new ombudsperson does not have the job security necessary to withstand the inevitable political pressure that difficult cases attract... The new ombudsperson also lacks the fundamental power to fully investigate and order remedies on the basis of findings of abuses... While she can “review” a complaint and recommend compensation, she cannot enforce remedies for victims or impose a sanction for violations. The ombudsperson’s meagre power is limited to recommending that government withdraw economic and political support for companies that refuse to participate in the process in good faith. The UN and civil society groups have repeatedly told Canada that this approach... is entirely ineffective.

... [C]ompanies are allowed to use the ombudsperson to file complaints for “unfounded human rights abuse allegations.” And there’s nothing in place to prevent companies from seeking compensation from human rights organizations or individuals on this basis... Not only is there is no evidence that Canadian companies need such remedies, it is widely observed that powerful companies will abuse existing defamation laws in an effort to intimidate their critics by taking them to court. This problem is so well-established that a number of Canadian provinces have enacted legislation to address it.

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Article
2 May 2019

UN Working Group Chair critical of government delays with new corporate ethics ombudsperson

Author: MiningWatch Canada

"UN watchdog critical of government delays with new corporate ethics ombud," 2 May 2019

Canada's international reputation will be damaged if it doesn't give real power to its new watchdog on responsible corporate conduct, warns a United Nations rights watchdog. Surya Deva, the chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights... said he was disappointed that International Trade Minister Jim Carr commissioned a further legal review, due in June, to assess what the ombudsperson's powers should be when Carr finally filled the new job three weeks ago... "Let me say very candidly, things are moving quite fast and if the Canadian government wants to maintain the leadership in this particular field, or in the field of human rights generally, they need to really act now and do certain things," Deva said in an interview on Monday. Deva said Canada is falling behind other countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland and Australia in enacting laws to improve the conduct of their companies operating abroad, especially in less developed countries.

... Deva said if the government settles on anything short of full power to compel companies to supply witnesses and documents in Meyerhoffer's investigations, it will hurt Canada's reputation as a human-rights leader... Chris Moran, the director general for trade-portfolio strategy at Global Affairs Canada, said the current system gives her department's 1,200 trade commissioners the necessary leverage to ensure companies act responsibly on foreign soil.

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