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Champagne to announce new ombudsman for corporate responsibility Wednesday, after years-long campaign by human rights groups

By Peter Mazereeuw      

The new ombudsperson will cover more than just the extractive sector, which has long been the focus of calls for the office.

Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, left, is expected to announce the creation of a new ombudsperson for corporate responsibility in Ottawa Wednesday, a move aimed at addressing controversies tied to Canadian companies in the mining and apparel industries dating back years. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to create the new ombudsperson's office during the 2015 election campaign.
The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade, The Hill Times file photograph

The federal government is planning to announce the creation of an ombudsperson for “responsible enterprise” on Wednesday, finally checking the box on a 2015 Liberal campaign promise, and satisfying a request from Canada’s mining industry that the ombudsman cover more than just the extractive sector.

The new ombudsperson is expected to cover more than just the mining and oil and gas sectors, which have typically been at the centre of proposals for an ombudsperson’s office for years. The government’s ombudsperson is also expected to take and investigate complaints related to the apparel industry, and possibly expand to other sectors in the future, said John Ruggie, a human rights policy specialist who helped the federal government create the new office and is scheduled to join Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne (Saint-Maurice-Champlain, Que.) in announcing the ombudsperson in Ottawa Wednesday.

The two men will also be joined by Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress. The government will also announce the creation of a stakeholder advisory board on the subject, including representatives from the business, academic, legal and non-profit worlds.

Canada’s government has been under pressure for years to hold accountable Canadian companies implicated in human rights violations and environmental degradation in other countries. Often, the cases have revolved around violence allegedly perpetrated by locally-employed security forces at mine sites owned by Canadian companies or their subsidiaries in the developing world, or police or military working to the benefit of the company.

Canadian apparel company Joe Fresh and retailer Loblaw also received criticism and were sued, unsuccessfully, in a class action lawsuit over their connection to the Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013. More than 1,000 people died after a large building housing garment manufacturers collapsed, raising questions about sub-standard worker protections and western companies, including Joe Fresh and Loblaw, that contracted work to the locally-based manufacturers there.

Canada’s mining industry has publicly touted corporate social responsibility policies and efforts to prevent such incidents in recent years, and Canada’s government has made multiple attempts over the past decade to address the problem. Some human rights advocates have dismissed those efforts as insufficient, and the government’s solutions—including a corporate social responsibility counsellor—as lacking teeth sharp enough to deter human rights abuses. The Extractive Sector CSR Counsellor has been assigned in recent years to try to informally resolve or prevent disputes between extractive companies and people affected by their projects, not investigate and punish cases of corporate wrong-doing.

The Liberals took up calls for an independent ombudsman for the extractive sector in their 2015 electoral campaign, a cause that has also been championed by Liberal MP John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood, Ont.) for years.

Canada’s mining industry lobby group, the Mining Association of Canada, has also endorsed proposals for a corporate social responsibility ombudsperson, though it has been at odds with some human rights advocates over how such an office should be structured.

The Mining Association of Canada told the federal government it wanted an ombudsperson that didn’t single out the mining sector, but rather covered all Canadian businesses.

Human rights advocates, including the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, have called for an ombudsperson’s office that is independent of the federal government, and Mr. Ruggie said he believed they will get their wish as well.

The ombudsperson will likely have the authority to respond to requests to investigate an incident involving a Canadian company, start up his or her own investigations, try to mediate disputes, and make recommendations to the trade minister for further action where warranted, said Mr. Ruggie. The penalties for failing to cooperate with the ombudsperson remain the same as they have under Canada’s alternative CSR problem-solver, the office of the Extractive Sector CSR Counsellor: the withdrawal of diplomatic support, government funding, and other government help for the company’s overseas efforts. Any criminal matters would be referred to the RCMP, said Mr. Ruggie.

However, unlike the CSR counsellor, the new ombudsperson will likely have the authority to compel evidence, and possibly testimony, from Canadian companies involved in investigations, said Mr. Ruggie, another request from human rights advocates tracking the issue.

That authority is what separates, if necessary, the new ombudsperson’s role from the “joint fact-finding” model requested by Canada’s mining industry, through which the ombudsperson would take a cooperative approach to resolving disputes between Canadian companies and people in other countries who claim to have been victimized by them, said Mr. Ruggie.

“It goes beyond joint fact finding, because there is an authority, under the Inquiries Act in Canada, for the minister to delegate authority, in this case to the ombudsperson, to actually require a business to submit documentation that they might not want to be public,” he said.

Mr. Champagne’s office declined to confirm any details about the ombudsperson’s office before Wednesday’s announcement.

The government’s announcement is a “fantastic” sign that it recognizes the severity of the problem, said Shin Imai, a law professor at York University and director of the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project, who has been advocating for a tougher approach to the behaviour of Canadian extractive companies overseas.

Mr. Imai applauded the decision to make the ombudsperson independent of government and give it the power to compel documents, but said he would have to see more detail before commenting further.

Barrick Gold lobbied on ombudsperson

Prof. Ruggie served as the UN Secretary-General’s special representative for business and human rights from 2005 to 2011, where his job was to was to “propose measures to strengthen the human rights performance of the business sector around the world,” according to an online profile.

He told The Hill Times that Canada’s government asked him to come help to break an impasse between industry representatives, human rights groups, and the government over the ombudsperson’s office in September.

Prof. Ruggie currently works as a professor of human rights and international affairs in Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and also serves as a special adviser to a corporate social responsibility board for Barrick Gold Corp., a prominent Canadian mining company with operations around the world.

Barrick Gold retained a consultant to lobby on its behalf regarding the longstanding campaign for Canada to create a corporate social responsibility ombudsman for the extractive sector. Hugh McFadyen of Drysdale Forstner Hamilton Public Affairs Ltd. registered to lobby for Barrick on the issue Dec. 5, and reported a communication with David Angell, the PCO’s assistant secretary to cabinet on foreign and defence policy, the next day.

Barrick also has several consultants for Crestview Public Affairs lobbying on its behalf on “potential government policy initiatives with regards to mining and international trade.”

Barrick Gold and its subsidiaries have paid compensation to scores of women over the past decade who said they were victims of sexual assault by security staff at mine sites in Tanzania and Papua New Guinea owned by the company.  Barrick created a human rights program in 2010, its website says, with a goal of “having human rights recognized as a core value throughout the company.”

Mr. Ruggie said his affiliation with Barrick was no secret to the government or those involved in the talks around the ombudsperson’s office. He said Barrick supported the creation of the ombudsperson’s office.

Andy Lloyd, a spokesperson for Barrick Gold, told The Hill Times in an emailed statement that “responsibility and accountability are central to our values as a company and we have engaged in the discussion on this issue in a constructive manner.” He declined to comment further prior to the announcement being made.

The Mining Association of Canada declined to comment before the government’s announcement Wednesday.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

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