he federal government has announced establishment of a watchdog to investigate claims of human rights abuses against Canadian companies overseas. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has been one of the groups who have fought for oversight of overseas Canadian mining operations since the 1990s. Catholic News Service

Watchdog to investigate complaints about overseas Canadian mining companies

By 
  • January 17, 2018
A 20-year fight for government oversight of Canadian mining companies overseas has resulted in an watchdog who will soon have power to independently investigate human rights abuses.

Canada’s Catholic development agency is applauding the new ombudsperson as it prepares to take a seat on a new “Advisory Body on Responsible Business Conduct” which will be set up along with the ombudsperson’s office.

“Minister (of International Trade Francois-Philippe) Champagne was really talking about Canada being a global leader in progressive business. So we are really excited to hear about that,” Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace advocacy officer Elana Wright told The Catholic Register shortly after the noon, Jan. 17 announcement. “We want to know that the things we buy are not the result of child labour or slavery or environmental destruction. We are concerned about that.”

The new office will absorb the current Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor and will initially be responsible for investigating overseas human rights complaints about Canadian mining, oil and gas and garment companies. The government expects the new ombudsperson to expand its scope beyond these three areas after the first year of operations. There was no specific timetable on when the ombudsperson would be in place.

Development and Peace was part of a broad and loose coalition of civil society groups who have fought for oversight for Canadian mining since the 1990s. The former Conservative government responded in 2009 with the Office of the Extractive Sector CSR Counsellor, but civil society and labour groups have universally panned the office as useless because companies did not have to co-operate with the office’s investigations. As soon as any company announced it was not co-operating the investigation had to be abandoned.

This time, if companies refuse to play ball the government will use its power to compel compliance.

“It is essential that all Canadian companies understand that co-operation in good faith with the (ombudsperson) is not optional,” Champagne told reporters in Ottawa. “We have the authority and I’m prepared to use that authority to compel documents if need be.”

That independence and the investigatory powers of the new office are a tangible win, Wright said.

“When we heard Minister Champagne saying all of the key words we had been asking for, we just really, really felt like it was a victory,” Wright said.

Mining Association of Canada CEO Pierre Gratton told The Catholic Register his group is pleased to see a mandate that covers all sectors and not just mining. Gratton is also happy the advisory body will be broad-based, with representatives from business, labour and civil society participating.

“The rest is to be decided,” said Gratton in an email note. “We don’t really know how this office will be much different in practice from the CSR Counsellor and the NCP (National Contact Point required by the Organization for Economic Co-operation Development to encourage dialogue between industry and mining-affected communities). We don’t know how well it will be resourced and we don’t know who will lead it.”

The ombudsperson was a key 2015 campaign promise from the Liberal Party.

In a press release, Tahoe Resources CEO and President Ron Clayton welcomed the new office.

“Independent oversight will strengthen best practices, ensure transparency within the mining industry and promote safe and responsible mining operations in Canada and abroad,” he said.

The United Steelworkers union is pressing the government to open the new office quickly.

“We needed an independent ombudsperson up and running yesterday,” said USW national director Ken Neumann in a release.

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