Scarborough MP John McKay has found an ally in Development and Peace, with a shared goal of Canada doing what’s right in developing countries. Photo by Michael Swan

A backbench MP who gets things done

By 
  • May 9, 2021

Liberal MP John McKay doesn’t give a damn whether he’s in cabinet or not. But he does give a damn.

In an extraordinary 24-year career riding Parliament’s backbenches and chairing committees in government and opposition, McKay has steered legislation through Parliament to make sure Canada’s foreign aid goes to poor people, helped shape reforms to Parliament giving more voice to individual members and nearly forced a reluctant Conservative government to create a mining, oil and gas ombudsperson with real power to investigate and expose Canadian companies that violate human rights abroad.

Through many years and political battles this Evangelical Christian politician has had a Catholic co-conspirator in the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace-Caritas Canada.

As a wily veteran who has managed to have two private members’ bills passed (such bills rarely make it beyond first reading), McKay is now angling to pass a Senate bill (also rarely successful) that would force companies to investigate and publicly report on slave labour in their global supply chains. Plus, he’s still trying to get his own government to finally make good on its pledge to give the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise genuine investigatory powers, including the ability to demand documents and testimony from Canadian corporate executives.

On the CORE office, McKay frankly compares his own party’s progress to Leon McQuay’s infamous fumble in the final two minutes of the 1971 Grey Cup game in which the Toronto Argonauts lost 14-11 to Calgary.

“The ball got dropped on the 98th yard line,” said the Scarborough MP, who then cautions that “Only a few of your readers would actually remember.”

An effective ombudsperson to replace a toothless Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor was promised by the Liberals, Bloc Quebecois and New Democrats during the 2015 election campaign. It is a bitter disappointment to Development and Peace, which has campaigned on the issue for more than 15 years, that the CORE office finally opened for complaints March 15 yet still doesn’t have those key investigatory powers.

“The good news is that (Ombudsperson) Sherri Meyerhoffer is a serious, credible person. The other good news is that she’s got a serious budget, $3.5 million a year — which should enable her to do a few things,” McKay said.

McKay hasn’t given up hope that Meyerhoffer will get the powers she was promised. An April 17 meeting of the subcommittee on international human rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development hashed out the issue and commissioned a staff report. McKay predicts that the report, due in about a month, will recommend powers to compel witnesses and documents.

“The arguments to the contrary were exposed as what they are, which is pathetic,” McKay said. “There is no good argument why you would disembowel your person just as they were about to cross the goal line.”

"(Development and Peace is) trying to make a difference"

- John McKay

“An effective mechanism to hold Canadian mining, oil and gas companies to account for their human and environmental impacts around the world” ought to be possible, said Development and Peace spokesperson Minaz Kerawala.

If it finally gets done it will largely be a credit to McKay, whose 2009 private member’s bill, the Corporate Accountability of Mining, Oil and Gas Corporations in Developing Countries Act, nearly passed third reading in 2010. Throughout that political battle McKay had the support of Development and Peace campaigning in parishes across the country.

The alliance between McKay and Canada’s Catholic development agency dates back even further to the Better Aid Bill. That bill, introduced in Parliament in 2006 and finally passed in 2008, became the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act. The act puts into law the principles that Canada’s official Overseas Development Aid is for the purpose of raising people up out of poverty, that poor people in Asia, Africa and Latin America should themselves be consulted and that the aid budget should line up with international human rights standards.

It also made aid spending much more transparent by requiring the Minister of International Development to report to Parliament on ODA spending.

“The ODAAA was a major accomplishment,” said Kerawala.

Work on that bill put Development and Peace in McKay’s orbit. He praises Development and Peace as the kind of NGO that walks the talk.

“There is the NGO community that are purely advocates and do a good job at that in many instances,” he said. “Then there are the Development and Peace type of NGOs who not only are advocates, but are also on the ground doing real work and have real experience in real people’s lives. They are trying to make a difference both directly and less directly through legislation and advocacy.”

McKay’s interpretations of the art of the possible don’t always please Development and Peace or its NGO allies. On Bill-216, An Act to Enact the Modern Slavery Act and to Amend the Customs Tariff, Development and Peace and its allies at the Canadian Network on Corporate Responsibility wish McKay’s bill went further.

“It’s absolutely urgent that Canada pass effective accountability mechanisms,” said CNCR co-ordinator Emily Dwyer. “A bill that requires you to report on use of slave labour but doesn’t require you not to use it isn’t going to change much.”

McKay believes the embarrassment corporations might suffer when forced labour is revealed in mandated supply chain reports will inspire change.

“Reputational damage costs money,” he said. “If your shareholders don’t punish you, your bankers will. And if your bankers don’t punish you, your customers will. It’s not insignificant.”

McKay’s best argument for the bill is simply moral. To make consumers unwittingly complicit in any kind of forced, unfair labour is just wrong. But he isn’t necessarily relying on morality.

“If you don’t buy the moral argument, don’t buy it. If you don’t buy the human rights argument, don’t buy that either,” he said. “If you don’t buy the economic argument that it’s taking away your neighbour’s job, you’re just dumb. You might be taking away your own job. It’s in our self-interest to make sure we’re doing right. … We can’t compete with slave labour.”

McKay’s political hero is William Wilberforce, another Evangelical Christian and parliamentarian who didn’t care about being in cabinet. Wilberforce was invited to join the cabinet of William Pitt the Younger, but declined so he could carry on his 30-year campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. Sitting as an independent, Wilberforce got the Slavery Abolition Act passed in 1833, three days before his death.

“That’s probably the most significant accomplishment of any MP in a British parliamentary system,” said McKay. “We talk about faith — that was really an exercise of faith both on the level of going against all odds and also in terms of your relationship with God.”

McKay’s success in getting bills passed has more to do with attitude than strategy.

“The more partisan you are the less influence you have,” he observed. “If you want to have a career that is utterly and completely useless, line up as a partisan. You’ll have a good time. You might get yourself on the evening news, or whatever. But you’re not going to get anything done.”

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