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Liberals ‘seriously’ considering mining ombudsperson, says federal corporate social responsibility adviser

By Peter Mazereeuw      

'We recognize there are always improvements to be made,' says the trade minister's office.

Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured, have so far signalled support for the office of CSR Counsellor Jeffrey Davidson and the CSR policies brought in under the Harper government. The Hill Times photograph by Steve Gerecke
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The Liberal government is “seriously reviewing” the creation of an ombudsperson to investigate Canadian companies implicated in wrongdoing abroad, says Canada’s corporate social responsibility counsellor for the extractive sector, Jeffrey Davidson.

After a year of getting its feet wet and dealing with top priorities, the government has turned its attention to Mr. Davidson’s office and the corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies of the previous Conservative government, he said in an interview with The Hill Times last week.

“[They’re] working through how they want to deal with this whole issue: the CSR issue, the conduct of Canadian companies overseas, not just in the extractives, but across sectors, and what they should do…above and beyond what exists,” he said.

The NDP and social justice organizations, including the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, have stepped up pressure recently on the government to establish an ombudsperson to investigate human rights violations connected to Canadian-owned mines in developing countries, a Liberal campaign promise.

The government could be ready to respond soon, said Mr. Davidson, who isn’t involved in the government’s decision-making process, but has been consulted on the matter.

“I can’t say with certainty what model the government will come up with, but I do understand that they are seriously reviewing this concept of an ombudsman, and trying to sort out how they could make it work in a way that makes sense for them, and for the parties that may be affected,” he said.

The office of Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.), who handles the CSR file, did not confirm or deny that the government was considering creating an ombudsperson. In an emailed statement in response to questions, spokesperson Alex Lawrence said the government was “assessing Canada’s corporate social responsibility approach and identifying ways to strengthen it, to ensure Canada continues to demonstrate real global leadership. We recognize there are always improvements to be made.”

Ms. Freeland, responding to the NDP foreign affairs critic in Question Period on Oct. 24, said she met with Mr. Davidson “to determine how we can reinforce his role,” and that she is continuing to meet with Canadian mining companies to discuss improvements.

Canada is a key part of the global mining industry, and many of the world’s mining companies have headquarters in Toronto or Vancouver. A few of those companies have been implicated when security staff or local police at mine sites in the developing world have killed, raped, or maimed people opposed to the mines, or who wouldn’t clear off their lands, or stop mining their deposits. Some companies have been taken to task for alleged harm to the environment and health of locals around mine sites, as well as labour strife.

The previous Conservative government made a couple of attempts to encourage mining companies to change the way they do business in the developing world, bringing in a Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy in 2009, and amending it in 2014.

The first strategy established the office of the CSR counsellor, and tasked it with investigating the cases of wrongdoing; that experiment is widely viewed to have failed, thanks in part by the refusal of some of the mining companies involved to co-operate with the first counsellor, Marketa Evans, and the limited authority of the office.

The updated strategy redefined the counsellor’s role, emphasizing informal co-operation with the mining sector and other stakeholders, and the importance of trying to head off potential conflicts before violence occurred. It also allowed the government to cut off support to mining companies in the form or letters of support, advocacy in foreign markets, and the provision of financing, if those companies didn’t adhere to CSR principles or engage with the counsellor or another dispute-resolution outlet, the Canadian National Contact Point for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Mr. Davidson has so far been focused entirely on emphasizing co-operation and early conflict resolution since he began his term in May 2015, building relationships in the mining industry and mediating standoffs between mining companies and local people. For example, he said he personally helped to facilitate a peaceful resolution to a dispute between Toronto-based Aura Minerals and the community of Azacualpa over the expansion of a mine in Honduras.

Mr. Davidson said he has yet to encounter a conflict that warranted withdrawing government support—for example, from the Trade Commissioner Service—from a Canadian extractive company, and added that he has not received any formal complaints or calls to investigate the withdrawal of those services.

That doesn’t mean the controversy over mining-related conflict and violence has disappeared, but rather that some critics and watchdogs don’t see Mr. Davidson’s office as the best way to hold potentially negligent businesses to account after violence has occurred.

A coalition of labour, social justice, and human rights organizations that calls itself the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability released a mock legislative framework Nov. 2 proposing the creation of an ombudsperson to investigate human rights violations tied to Canada’s extractive industries.

That release came a week after a group of researchers organized by York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School put out a report detailing murders, rapes, beatings, and other injustices perpetrated against opponents of Canadian-owned mines between 2000 and 2015 by various actors. It noted at least 44 deaths and more than 400 people injured. The report “does not come to conclusions on whether there is any wrongdoing by any company in any specific instance, but rather shows that the magnitude of the harms and the proximity of the incidents to Canadian mining companies raises overarching concerns,” said the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project press release.

Advocates for an ombudsperson have stressed that it needs more teeth than the CSR counsellor position currently has, in order to investigate and recommend sanctions, where needed.

NDP MP Cheryl Hardcastle (Windsor-Tecumseh, Ont.) used Friday’s Question Period to press the Liberal government on whether it was planning to establish on ombudsperson for the sector.

Liberal MP John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood, Ont.) has long called for the creation of an ombudsperson as well, and the Liberal Party promised to create one during its successful 2015 federal election campaign.

Back in April, Ms. Freeland and other ministers with files related to the extractive sector had either declined to respond to questions about whether change to the extractive sector CSR policies was needed, or declined to endorse a change from the status quo.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

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