Peruvian police take part in an operation to destroy illegal gold mining camps in 2015 in a zone known as Mega 14, in the southern Amazon region of Madre de Dios, Peru. CNS photo/Janine Costa, Reuters

Editorial: Hire long overdue

By 
  • January 23, 2019

Canada’s bishops have listened for years as frustrated Church leaders in the developing world decry Canadian companies for acting as if the worker codes and human rights mandated by Canadian law become optional when operating abroad.

These voices of despair cite cases of workplace deaths, water contamination, land desecration, forest decimation, population displacement, beatings and even murders of striking workers and sympathizing protesters. Although  these injustices are not inflicted directly by Canadian hands, many of the implicated companies are Canadian-owned or registered so they must answer for the acts of their agents. 

That argument has been made frequently by bishops from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Their concerns primarily involve the mining, gas and oil industries. The bishops present a convincing case when they suggest, to be anything but hypocrites, the values Canadians extol at home must be modelled abroad.

So it was no surprise last January when Canada’s bishops endorsed Ottawa’s decision to create a new office and hire an ombudsperson to investigate human rights abuses linked to Canadian corporations operating overseas. Indeed, the announcement was applauded by more than 80,000 Canadian Catholics who signed petitions urging the government to remedy a shameful situation.

What they envisioned was an ombudsperson who reports to Parliament but operates at arm’s length from the government. The office would be well funded and empowered to conduct independent investigations. It would also have the authority to demand company documents, compel witness testimony under oath, publish its findings and recommend sanctions.

But 12 months later, the awkwardly named position of Canadian Ombudsman for Responsible Enterprise remained unfilled. Equally unsettling, concerns are spreading that, as mining advocates pull up their lobbying socks, politicians are getting cold feet about granting this new office sufficient authority and resources to be effective. 

None of this is acceptable. A year is more than enough time to identify the right person for the job. The ongoing delay is only adding fuel to growing worries that the government is leaning towards appointing a toothless watchdog without the bite to ensure that Canadian companies, wherever they operate, respect fundamental rights.

In announcing the creation of this independent office a year ago, Minister of International Trade Francois-Philippe Champagne suggested companies which fly the Maple Leaf are “associated with a set of values” Canadians admire and that representing Canada abroad “comes with responsibilities.” Those values and responsibilities include respecting and promoting worker and human rights, adhering to the rule of law, and operating in ways that minimize environmental impact. 

We take these rights for granted in Canada. It’s time we honoured them abroad.

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