OTTAWA – Canada has announced a new responsible business strategy to ensure businesses prevent or mitigate adverse human rights and environmental impacts in their operations abroad.
Proponents, however, criticize the strategy as largely a repeat of the previous one put in place by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2014.
Canada’s Minister for International Trade said the new strategy will help Canadian companies operating abroad build on the “Canadian brand” and stand out from their competitors.
Minister Mary Ng said the strategy is a set of tools and supports to help businesses adopt high ethical standards, including upholding human rights and protecting the environment.
“Companies are shooting themselves in the foot, to their own success, by not having strong responsible business conduct, because we know having it will only make them more successful,” Ng said in an interview.
Emily Dwyer, who heads the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, said the strategy failed to focus on the rights of people and communities affected by corporate wrongdoing.
Catherine Coumans, research coordinator at MiningWatch Canada, said there was basically “nothing new” in the strategy.
“I just started thinking, ‘Oh my god. All I see is just a repetition of things that already exist.’ Just the smallest adjustments.
The previous strategy focused on the extractive sector, while the new strategy is not industry specific.
Ng said the strategy and the work of Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan will be “complementary”.
O’Regan said last week he was preparing legislation to require Canadian companies to ensure they do not use slave labor or exploit child laborers overseas. .
The five-year strategy announced by Ng aims to encourage Canadian companies to implement responsible business practices.
The government has said it will include provisions in bilateral and multilateral trade agreements to promote responsible conduct globally.
Dwyer noted that the strategy says the government has been doing this since 2009, meaning it hasn’t had an effect because the companies are still implicated in abuses.
The strategy also doesn’t say what those provisions will specifically contain, she said.
“We certainly think it’s important to have a human rights focus…built into trade deals. But there’s not enough detail in the strategy to see what that actually means,” said Dwyer.
Companies that use the Trade Commissioner Service, which helps sell their products and services abroad, will have to certify that they will engage in responsible business conduct.
Service benefits may be withdrawn if a business fails to comply with Canada’s “laws, policies and standards” on responsible business conduct.
Ng did not say how constraining the strategy is, but said “countless” companies that want to grow and work internationally rely on the Trade Commissioner Service.
Cumans said attestations are not new, as the 2014 strategy had “integrity agreements” that performed the same function. These agreements are problematic because they are not made public, she said.
“If people don’t know which companies signed them and which companies didn’t, we can’t hold the company or the government to account,” Coumans said.
Anyone wishing to report grievances against companies for alleged wrongdoing can contact the National Contact Point, a government body responsible for handling human rights and environmental complaints, or the Canadian Ombudsman for Responsible Business, an organization that monitors human rights abuses by Canadian companies abroad.
Ng praised the ombudsman, calling the office a great tool to ensure that Canadian businesses respect human rights.
“They have the tools and the resources to do the job they were mandated to do,” Ng said.
Dwyer said the strategy fails to take into account that these two dispute resolution mechanisms “are totally ineffective.”
A 2015 report by OECD Watch looked at National Contact Points in several countries, including Canada, over a 15-year period. It found that the “overwhelming majority” of complaints do not prevent corporate misconduct or provide remedies for injured parties in the event of abuse.
The ombudsman has no real powers to investigate or to compel documents and testimony, Dwyer said. “So expect the result to be the same.”
The Liberal government appointed the first ombudsman in 2019, replacing the “corporate responsibility adviser”, who had been widely criticized as a toothless entity.
At issue is whether new ombudsman Sheri Meyerhoffer, a lawyer with a long history in international business and development, can compel reluctant companies to cooperate with her investigations and follow her recommendations.
Ng said she is “very confident” in the work Meyerhoffer is doing.
Last month, two federal New Democrats, Peter Julian and Heather McPherson, introduced two private member’s bills that would make Canadian companies more accountable for human rights abuses and environmental foreign.
Julian said Bill C-262 would create legal tools, giving victims of human rights abuses by Canadian companies overseas recourse in Canadian courts.
McPherson said Bill C-263 would give the corporate accountability watchdog the power and the teeth to investigate wrongdoing by Canadian companies.
Dwyer said both bills meet the criteria she is looking for.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 28, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.