OTTAWA — Canada's international reputation will be damaged if it doesn't give real power to its new watchdog on responsible corporate conduct, warns a United Nations rights watchdog.
Surya Deva, the chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, is in Ottawa this week and will be seeking answers from the government on why it took 15 months to appoint its new "ombudsperson for responsible enterprise."
Deva said he was disappointed that International Trade Minister Jim Carr commissioned a further legal review, due in June, to assess what the ombudsperson's powers should be when Carr finally filled the new job three weeks ago.
"Let me say very candidly, things are moving quite fast and if the Canadian government wants to maintain the leadership in this particular field, or in the field of human rights generally, they need to really act now and do certain things," Deva said in an interview on Monday.
Deva said Canada is falling behind other countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland and Australia in enacting laws to improve the conduct of their companies operating abroad, especially in less developed countries.
"The Canadian government can't just sit back and think, 'Oh, we are the leader,' " he said. "This is a critical time and initiative and they should completely go ahead and do it."
Carr's decision to announce a further legal review also drew condemnation from rights groups when he announced the appointment of Sheri Meyerhoffer, a lawyer with a long record in business and international development.
Deva said if the government settles on anything short of full power to compel companies to supply witnesses and documents in Meyerhoffer's investigations, it will hurt Canada's reputation as a human-rights leader.
"If they're going to go back on that promise, it won't really send a good signal to the international community."
The government took too long to choose Meyerhoffer, having left the appointment on its agenda for years, he added.
"This should not have taken this long, and things are not really that complicated if they really wanted to do this," said Deva. "The Canadian government has been engaging with this issue for a while. It is a not a new topic for them."
Deva delivered that message again Tuesday at a conference in Ottawa on corporate responsibility that included numerous civil-society groups, government officials, business representatives and lawyers.
Chris Moran, the director general for trade-portfolio strategy at Global Affairs Canada, said the current system gives her department's 1,200 trade commissioners the necessary leverage to ensure companies act responsibly on foreign soil.
Her branch requires companies to sign an "integrity declaration" that promises good corporate behaviour in exchange for receiving the enhanced services that Canada's trade commissioners can provide to help them find new business opportunities, she said.
"These are not rights that companies have to those services. Those are enhanced services. These are things that are nice to receive," Moran told a panel.
If companies don't live up to their human-rights obligations, those services can be withdrawn, she said.
"It is both a carrot and a stick. So we use it as an incentive to ensure that companies are engaging in good faith with us."
Catherine Coumans, the research co-ordinator for MiningWatch Canada, dismissed that as "all not binding in any way" on resource companies, some of which she said have violated the rights of local populations in developing countries.
"Those things don't actually obligate the embassy to act in a particular way or take particular actions. That's where we're still stuck."
The Liberals promised to enhance corporate responsibility as part of their 2015 campaign platform and announced the details of the new ombudsperson's office in January 2018.
The new ombudsperson was intended to improve on the current "corporate responsibility counsellor," which has faced widespread criticism as a toothless entity in addressing misconduct complaints against Canadian companies, mainly in the mining industry.
The reform effort has been spearheaded by Liberal MP John McKay, who introduced a private member's bill on corporate social responsibility for Canadian resource and energy firms in 2010. It was thwarted by fellow Liberals, who joined with Conservatives in voting against Bill C-300 then.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press