Sheri Meyerhoffer

Cloudy future facing corporate watchdog

By 
  • April 18, 2019

The decade-old battle for a truly independent watchdog over Canadian mining and other businesses with operations abroad isn’t over, according to Development and Peace advocacy and research officer Elana Wright.

But even as Wright and the NGO community soldier on, the new Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) claims she can and will launch independent investigations into human rights abuses and fight for broader powers for her office.

“I see this (office) as providing Canada with an opportunity to lead in a very important area,” Sheri Meyerhoffer told The Catholic Register. “I’m very proud of Canada for doing this.”

Meyerhoffer was appointed to her new role on April 8. The announcement from Jim Carr, Minister of International Trade Diversification, was accompanied by a declaration that there would be five weeks of further consultations to decide on the eventual powers of the new office.

Her hiring was greeted with anger and disappointment from the development and humanitarian aid community, including Development and Peace, Canada’s Caritas agency. Even the relatively small aid organization Canadian Jesuits International has said Meyerhoffer’s new office is much less than the government promised 15 months ago, when the search to hire an ombudsperson was launched.

At issue is whether Meyerhoffer and her staff of six to eight will be truly independent from the Minister of International Trade Diversification, and whether she will be able to demand documents and testimony from Canadian executives.

“CORE wants all the powers in the toolbox,” Meyerhoffer said.

“It’s wonderful that she wants those powers. That’s essential to our campaign for the ombudsperson,” said Wright. “We’re so glad that we’re on the same page.”

But Wright still doesn’t think Ottawa has fulfilled its promise to replace the former Office of the Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor with an effective and independent watchdog.

“It’s unfortunate that the government just wasn’t able to follow the legal opinions that we had collected, where it’s clear that by using the Inquiries Act, Minister (of International Trade Development Jim) Carr would have been able to create the ombudsperson and give them the powers right away. Instead we have this five-week delay,” Wright said.

“I have full confidence that he (Carr) is doing everything he can to get those powers for the office,” Meyerhoffer said.

Though she would have preferred to have her powers to compel testimony and demand documents in place before she took the job, Meyerhoffer believes she’s now in a position to advocate for broader and more effective investigatory powers.

In the eyes of NGOs, Meyerhoffer’s history as a corporate lawyer whose career began lobbying on behalf of Alberta’s oil patch also seems to tilt the new office in favour of business interests.

“We really cannot encourage our partner organizations, the Church mining networks that we are part of, to engage with this ombudsperson,” Wright said.

But Meyerhoffer doesn’t come to the ombudsperson job directly out of Canada’s corporate boardrooms. In 2001 Meyerhoffer stepped away from 17 years of consulting and lobbying in the oil patch, moved to Cuba, wrote fiction and reinvented herself as a Spanish-to-English translator. It was the beginning of a transition that saw her re-emerge as international development project manager for the Canadian Bar Association, working on legal reform professional development in Nepal, Jamaica and China. In 2012 she founded her own NGO in Nepal called Women Lawyers Joining Hands and in 2014 took on head-of-mission duties in Kathmandu, Nepal, for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Reform.

Her experience in the Caribbean and Nepal gives her confidence that she understands how complicated things can be when poor communities square off against corporate Canada. She knows the vast difference between how life is lived and how laws are written in a place like Nepal.

“When people tell me ‘it’s not possible,’ I can, with a lot of confidence, say ‘no, they are
possible,’ ” she said. “Now it may not be as quick as you want. Your profits may not be triple like you want. But, you know, yes you can.”

Meyerhoffer is clear about one thing — that she doesn’t have to wait for a complaint before she launches an investigation. And when she gets complaints, she intends to be responsive.

“It’s very open and we can take complaints from anybody anywhere in the world, as long as it’s connected to the activities of a Canadian company abroad and it’s an alleged human rights abuse,” Meyerhoffer said.

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Support The Catholic Register

Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.