Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced Jan. 17 the Liberal government’s answer to years-long cries from human rights groups for an independent ombudsperson to investigate allegations of abuse by Canadian companies abroad. It’s a sticky topic that past governments have tried to address, but failed. The former Conservative government of Stephen Harper put in place a corporate social responsibility counsellor for the extractive sector, but critics panned the role as toothless. The CSR counsellor couldn’t compel companies to participate in her fact-finding work and was stuck with a very restrictive mandate. The counsellor also didn’t have the tools to fine or sanction a company found to have potentially done something wrong. The job was more of a mediator than a judge. The Tories tried to change the role by bringing in the possibility of taking away government support from a company found to be in the wrong, such as the aid of the trade commissioner service. The Liberals are now back with another version, but it remains to be seen how effective it will be. They’ve expanded the role to focus on more than just mining, oil and gas, but also the textile industry, and it is expected to be expanded later to all industries. That’s a good idea, but the office needs to be backed up with appropriate funding to pull this off. The Liberals have not committed to any specific dollar figure, though they’ve said the ombudsperson will have a “budget sufficient to allow him/her to conduct complex collaborative and independent investigations.” It may take a while for this person to even get started, as a candidate selection process has barely begun. On the sanctions aspect, “The ombudsperson can recommend sanctions, which include the withdrawal of certain Government services, such as trade advocacy and future Export Development Canada support, for companies found to be involved in wrongdoing.” But as Toronto Star columnist Jennifer Wells recently pointed out, “the new language sounds a great deal like the old language.” How will it work differently in practice? One positive development is a new advisory board, made up of civil society and business, to help guide the new ombudsperson. Dialogue is important, and both groups have a lot to say about how this new office should work. It will be important for the ombudsperson to hear them out. The stakes are high. About 60 per cent of the world’s mining companies are based in Canada, and while the civil society groups and companies have differing views on how the ombudsperson’s job should work, they all want Canadian companies to be good corporate citizens. For the office to work, the Liberals will need to check in regularly to ensure it’s doing what they intended. It has promise, but it must deliver, with the resources and teeth necessary to be effective.