OTTAWA — The federal government's long-awaited announcement Monday of a watchdog to enforce responsible conduct by Canadian companies operating abroad was greeted with disappointment by human-rights advocates.
The condemnation was sparked by a decision from International Trade Minister Jim Carr to consult further on the powers of the new "Canadian ombudsperson for responsible enterprise" — a legal review that he said could extend into early June.
That means the fate of the new office will be left to the waning days of the final sitting of Parliament prior to the October federal election. The Liberals promised to create this position as part of their 2015 campaign platform.
At issue is whether the new ombudsperson Sheri Meyerhoffer, a lawyer with a long record in business and international development, can compel reluctant companies to co-operate with her investigations into whether their conduct violated the human rights of local populations and to follow recommendations she makes.
Carr said he wants independent legal advice on how best to give Meyerhoffer the power to make companies disclose documents and answer questions.
The review will include an assessment of "the appropriateness of the Inquiries Act as a tool" to give Meyerhoffer the power to "compel witnesses and documents."
Her appointment as the new ombudsperson is intended to be a substantive upgrade to the current "corporate responsibility counsellor," an office widely criticized as a toothless entity for dealing with misconduct complaints against Canadian companies, mainly in the mining industry.
Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty international Canada, welcomed Meyerhoffer's appointment but said it's disappointing the government still hasn't defined her powers some 15 months after announcing the creation the position.
"We do not yet have clarity that she's going to have the power that will truly make her office stronger and different from what we have had in the past," Neve said in an interview. "It's disappointing this has not all come together at the same time."
The Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability said the government failed Monday to appoint an ombudsperson with real powers.
"Fifteen months into this process, news of a review is outrageous. We don't need more studies. We need action," said Emily Dwyer of the network.
Carr said Meyerhoffer's new office will focus on the mining, oil-and-gas and garment sectors, but that her mandate will quickly expand.
Meyerhoffer wouldn't speculate on how her office would've handled the current SNC-Lavalin controversy, which involves criminal charges against the Montreal engineering company for allegedly using bribery to win work in Libya.
However, her broad view is that bribery as a business tool is simply not acceptable, regardless of the context.
"I've worked in jurisdictions where it's difficult. I understand that culture. But just because everyone else is doing it doesn't mean we also need to do it, and Canada's brand is ... we follow international norms," said Meyerhoffer.
Liberal MP John McKay welcomed the forward momentum on an issue he has championed in Parliament for a decade. McKay described how his past attempt to pass his private member's bill on corporate social responsibility for Canadian resource and energy firms was thwarted by fellow Liberals who voted against Bill C-300 in 2010.
"We fought it all the way through various stages of Parliament, and ultimately lost on the floor of the House by six votes," McKay recalled. "Apparently there was a outbreak of diplomatic flu at the time, or a urgent call to the washroom, not yet quite determined which."
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press