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At long last, the Trudeau government has confirmed: Canada will have a brand new human rights watchdog to oversee Canadian businesses operating abroad.
International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne will announce the creation of a 'Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise' (CORE) on Wednesday, his department told National Observer through an email invitation. The announcement is expected to address a two-year-old election campaign promise of Justin Trudeau's Liberals.
Champagne's office would not reveal the scope and powers of the new watchdog ahead of the announcement, but offered a cryptic hint:
"Independence will be achieved. This is a real departure from the past," said communications director Joe Pickerill in an emailed statement sent on Tuesday.
The news comes after a decade of pressure from civil society groups to create an office in Canada that has teeth to crack down on Canadian companies whose activities overseas — including mining, oil and gas operations — are linked to human and environmental rights violations.
The position has not been filled yet, according to the ministry.
Activist cautiously optimistic
Speaking to National Observer ahead of the announcement, Karyn Keenan of Above Ground said she's cautiously optimistic that the position will include the robust investigative powers required to examine allegations of abuse from all corners of the globe. Above Ground is an Ottawa-based NGO that works to ensure Canadian transnational business respect human rights abroad.
“There has been dialogue, there has been a conversation, but there are several areas where we don’t know what the final configuration is going to be and where they’re going to land on particular issues," she explained. "It's hard to say. We’ve been really clear with government and I think we’ve made a very good case that there are certain elements that are really essential."
Above Ground is a member of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, which has been calling for Ottawa to create a human rights ombudsperson for 10 years. In order to be effective, the network argues that the office must be completely independent; have the resources and authority to conduct thorough investigations; must make public recommendations for remedy and harm prevention; and be able to monitor the implementation of those recommendations. He or she must also have the discretionary ability to summon testimony and documents from mining companies.
"We’ve seen with the existing complaint mechanisms that we have in Canada that companies are reluctant to hand over information to government offices that receive complaints," said Keenan. "We’re really hoping that this is a first step."
The Mining Association of Canada, which represents more than 40 of Canada's major mining players, declined to comment on this story ahead of the announcement. Industry lobbyists have previously suggested there's no need to expand federal government powers to crack down on their activities abroad, since most companies voluntarily subscribe to as many as 17 different international standards dealing with human rights, environmental protection, anti-corruption and community development.
Despite a history of opposition, the mining association has recently supported the creation of a human rights ombudsperson to resolve conflicts, provided that it has no judicial powers.
A new multi-stakeholder advisory group
As it stands, two mechanisms exist in Canada for conflict resolution and remediation within Canada’s mining industry — the National Contact Point (NCP) and Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor. Both rely on the voluntary participation of companies, however, and over the years have been heavily criticized for overlapping roles and alleged ineffectiveness.
Wednesday's ombudsperson announcement will also include the creation of a new multi-stakeholder advisory board, consisting of a "balanced representation from the business, academic, legal and NGO community," according to an event invitation shared with National Observer. It's unclear how the creation of the watchdog will impact the National Contact Point or role of the CSR Counsellor going forward.
The event will be attended by a variety of stakeholders and government officials, including John Ruggie, Berthold Beitz professor in human rights and international affairs at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff.
Canada is home to nearly 75 per cent of the world's mining companies, and over the years, a handful of them have been tied to allegations of abuse ranging from failing to protect activists from violent attacks to gang rape at the hands of privately-hired security. Most of the complaints surface from developing countries, where the victims struggle to obtain fair remediation through the courts, their governments or the companies.
For two years, National Observer has undertaken a number of investigations on their allegations in a special report called Canada's Extraction Secrets. Read more of these stories here:
- Raids, incarceration and decimated Indigenous land stain Canada's reputation in Guatemala
- Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold fired whistleblower. Then it spilled cyanide into five rivers.
- Canadian company leaves dust and debt after abandoning its gold mine in Panama
- Indigenous sexual assault survivors plead for UN action against Canadian mining giant
- Canadian mining firm fighting lawsuit for allegedly using slaves in Africa
Editor's Note: This piece was updated at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time on Tues. Jan. 16, 2018 to include comments from the International Trade Department's director of communications.