Toothless watchdog takes its first bites

The office of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise has launched investigations into a sporting goods giant and a mining company, but it lacks the powers it needs to do a proper job.

By Kiegan Irish, Animator for Eastern and Northern Ontario

Notre campagne de 2013 Une voix pour la justice a demandé à la mise en place d'un ombudsman pour contrôler les entreprises canadiennes.
Our 2013 A Voice of Justice campaign called for the establishment of an ombudsperson to rein in corporate Canada.

On July 11, 2023, I attended a press conference at which the office of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) announced the launch of its first investigations. Two Canadian companies, Nike Canada Corp. and Dynasty Gold Corporation are being investigated for the alleged use of the forced labour of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China.

As many Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada members know, we were advocating for a CORE-like body for years, including through our 2013 A Voice for Justice campaign, before it was implemented by the government in 2018. Shortly thereafter, to protest the CORE not being granted suitable investigatory powers and sufficient independence from the government, we, along with 13 other civil society organizations, resigned from the Multi-stakeholder Advisory Body on Business Conduct.

Until this announcement, the CORE had not completed “any investigative reports to the federal minister overseeing its operations, raising questions about whether it is fulfilling its mandate,” as reported by The Globe and Mail earlier this year. At the press conference, the CORE announced its first investigations, which, though welcome, reinforced the criticisms from civil society groups and human rights organizations that had prompted our resignation four years ago.

The ombudsperson, Sheri Meyerhoffer, took questions after her announcement, but only from registered journalists. The press conference did not offer an opportunity for the general public to question the CORE’s actions so far.

There were several questions about the scope of authority of the CORE and about whether its powers are sufficient to achieve its mandate. Despite the generally supportive tone of the questions, Meyerhoffer came off as defensive. She kept repeating the catchphrase “shine a light” in response to several variations of the question concerning her authority. She said her office would “shine a light” on the practices of Nike and Dynasty Gold, and that she would “make recommendations” to both the companies and the Canadian government. Asked what consequences there would be for companies if there were negative findings, she circled back to the same points and added that her “reports will be available for investors and government agencies.”

Eventually she was asked why she was not targeting Canadian companies in South America, where the record of abuses is extensive and well-documented. In response, she fell back on the CORE’s “rigorous process.” She said that of the 15 complaints her office has received so far, only two were in South America, and one of those concerned the garment industry in Honduras (which, of course, is in Central America, rendering the discussion somewhat incoherent).

While some journalists did question the powers of the CORE, this was the closest they came to addressing the issue of its political independence. Given the nature of the complaints being investigated, the question of the CORE’s independence is especially pertinent. There were no questions about the connection between the CORE’s announced investigations and the current government’s political priorities.

It must be noted that these investigations are taking place in a context of growing anti-Chinese rhetoric and action in Canada. It must also be recalled that this country has a long history of anti-Chinese racism going back to its founding. The violations of the Uyghur people’s human rights must justly be denounced. But Canada must not selectively single out China just because it is currently geopolitically and economically expedient to portray it as an enemy while other, more widespread, longer-entrenched human rights abuses in other countries (including our own) are left unchallenged.

The framing of the discussion of the investigations served to limit the scope of criticism. Questioning the powers of the CORE is important. But it is even more important to ensure that the CORE does not operate to serve the political interests of the Canadian state. Otherwise, it will be unable to hold companies to account for grievously harming our sisters and brothers the Global South. For the CORE to only carry out any investigation that come through its complaint mechanism is not sufficient when the abuses of Canadian companies in countries like Guatemala, Peru, the Philippines, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are on public record.

To make a true difference, however, Canada needs to adopt mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence (mHREDD) legislation, as we and our allies and partners have long been demanding.

As MiningWatch notes, Canada is “home of the largest number of mining companies and is the preeminent centre of global mining finance.” It should be no surprise that the Government of Canada seems uninterested in seriously interrogating the abuses of these companies. A functional CORE would need independence from the government and the powers to compel companies to produce documents and appear in court. The public manifestation at the press conference of the absence of these essentials has only served to vindicate our criticisms of the CORE.

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