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Human rights organizations are accusing the Liberal government of bending to corporate interests after Ottawa revealed new details of its plans to create a watchdog to investigate complaints about Canadian companies operating abroad.
At a press conference, Minister of International Trade Diversification Jim Carr named Sheri Meyerhoffer, a Calgary lawyer with ties to the energy industry, to act as the country’s first Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise.
Meyerhoffer is responsible for investigating human rights complaints against Canadian mining, energy and garments companies that operate in other countries. But Carr said lawyers still need to study whether the office will be able to force companies to turn over documents or compel witnesses to testify.
Human rights advocates said it would be impossible to effectively investigate corporate misconduct allegations without such powers, and accused the Liberal government of backing off of earlier commitments to provide such powers.
“The investigations this office needs to do are critical,” said Catherine Coumans, a research co-ordinator at Mining Watch Canada. “This office needs to get to the bottom of the facts, and can’t rely on ‘he said, she said’.”
Coumans said that when the Liberals announced their intention to create the ombudsperson position, back in January 2018, she viewed it as an upgrade to the existing position of a “corporate responsibility counsellor” because she believed the new office would possess authority to compel testimony or subpoena documents.
She noted that Global Affairs Canada has posted a frequently asked questions section about the ombudsperson office on its website. In one question and answer, the government said it was committed to providing the office with such powers. But by Monday, that language had been removed.
“It’s pretty clear what happened if you look at the lobby registry,” she said. “They’ve been lobbied to death.”
Online records, for instance, show that the Mining Association of Canada lobbied extensively on “international trade” issues.
It’s pretty clear what happened if you look at the lobby registry
Ben Chalmers, acting president of MAC, said that his organization does not support the investigative powers that the Coumans and other human rights advocates want, and instead believes the ombudsman should help bring dispute resolution.
The position comes at a time when citizens of other countries have brought civil lawsuits against at least three Canadian mining companies in the country’s courts, claiming they were victims of violence, coerced into forced labor and other human rights abuses. The suits rely on novel legal theories and none have been resolved by trial yet, but suggest growing awareness about corporate conduct abroad.
Michael Jones, director of communications for the office of the Minister of International Trade Diversification, said he did not know why the question and answer section that Coumans referenced had been removed from Global Affairs Canada website.
But he said Carr, the international trade diversification minister, remains committed to providing the ombudsperson’s office with such investigative powers, pending the outcome of an external legal review to be launched in the next few days.
“We’re saying give us another few weeks, we’re hoping to have this resolved by early June,” said Jones.
During the press conference, Meyerhoffer said such tools would be helpful but emphasized the importance of taking a “collaborative approach” with businesses.
She faced a flurry of questions, including whether having an ombudsman might have saved Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin Group Ltd from its current legal woes. It faces criminal prosecution on charges it paid millions of dollars in bribes between 2001 and 2011 to Libyan government officials in exchange for contracts to build infrastructure and other work there. Meyerhoffer declined to comment.
Her Linkedin profile indicates she helped launch a mentoring program for women lawyers, and recently spent several years working in Nepal for the the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which promoted sustainable democracy.
Previously, in the 1990s, Meyerhoffer worked as a lobbyist for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and as counsel to energy companies.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019