International Trade Minister Jim Carr could have — make that should have — waited until he had the real goods before announcing on Monday the appointment of Sheri Meyerhoffer as the first Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE).
In the absence of the “external legal advice” that Carr said he is now seeking to ensure that the new ombud’s office has “sufficient tools to engage in credible and effective investigations of alleged human rights abuses,” we are left with too many questions — make that concerns.
No wonder a host of human rights organizations fears the initiative will not be the precedent-setting global gold standard for corporate social responsibility that was promised early last year.
“The government of Canada 15 months ago finally made a really robust commitment to take serious action that would have helped people who are impacted, who would have somewhere to go for help, somewhere where they could actually have recourse,” said Emily Dwyer, coordinator of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability. “What we needed was the creation of an independent ombudsperson’s office that is free of political and corporate influence that can help prevent and remedy corporate abuse. That’s not what we got.”
I too have been impatient. I long ago started running out of adjectives to describe the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility, the ombud’s predecessor organization that closed up shop in May of last year. It would appear that the office has yet to table its final annual report to Parliament, but I am not going out on a limb when I add “impotent” and “flaccid” as appropriate descriptors of the defunct government office.
In announcing what was promised as a rigorous replacement, Jim Carr’s predecessor, François-Philippe Champagne, made operational pledges that included a budget that would support complex and independent investigations. The undertaking of such fact-finding investigations would be launched at the discretion of the ombudsperson, Champagne said, without providing details on staffing, or field office operations or, as I’ve written before, collaborative on-the-ground alliances in far-off regions. Transparency was another stated goal, with vague reference to reporting to the public at “various stages.”
So, broad pledges, few details.
But the message was clear: corporate Canada was going to be the human rights exemplar on the world stage, and the new office would be able to ensure that that was so.
After this week’s announcement, we remain in the dark.
In his remarks, Carr said that only now is outside legal council being sought to “consider the legislative and policy framework surrounding Canada’s approach to responsible business conduct abroad.” That advice will include an assessment of whether CORE will be vested with the powers to compel documents and witnesses.
“For an ombudsperson to be an ombudsperson it needs to have real investigatory powers,” Dwyer said. “It needs to be able to compel the production of documents, to compel testimony under oath.”
As it stands, Meyerhoffer is moving into an advisory position heading an advisory body with undefined powers. It is Carr’s expectation that the legal review will be concluded by early June.
In the meantime we are left with a few dispiriting facts.
When Carr’s office announced that the potential corporate punishment could extend to the withdrawal of consular services to the offending company, anyone watching the progress on this file would have noted that the ombud’s predecessor had those powers.
Meyerhoffer herself becomes the focal point now. A University of Saskatchewan law graduate, she has considerable international project development experience, including her role as head of mission for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Nepal. In that role she expressed her admiration for the Liberal government’s commitment to electoral reform, so she already has some experience with reality setting in.
During Monday’s press conference she said, repeatedly, that the more tools available to her in her new role, the better. She will need them to fulfil the mandate, which extends not just to the extractive sector (mining and oil and gas), but to the garment sector and other yet-to-be-named businesses.
Mining and garment present distinct challenges. The former evokes documented cases of human rights abuses at foreign mine sites where corporate ownership is transparent, yet the remedy of human rights is elusive. The latter recalls the Rana Plaza horror, which marks its sixth anniversary later this month. As we remember, the opacity of garment supply chains, where subcontracting flourishes, requires intense oversight.
Meyerhoffer is pledging transparency and interim reporting and promises active intervention and intense collaboration with companies. Judging from her resumé, which includes a Journey nomination for short fiction, the collaboration part will come easiest.
Through the next number of weeks she will be engaged in organizing what she calls the ombud’s “toolbox,” at which point she will come before us again and announce just how muscular her group will be.
Jennifer Wells is a business columnist based in Toronto. Reach her on email: firstname.lastname@example.org