The Newest Corporate Watchdog: Canada Announces an Ombudsperson for Corporate Accountability

Today, Canada’s Minister of International Trade, the Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, announced the creation of an independent ombudsperson to investigate human rights abuses linked to Canadian corporations abroad. The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) will be authorized to investigate allegations of human rights abuses arising from Canadian corporate activity abroad initially in the mining, oil and gas, and garment sectors, with the expectation to expand within a year to other industries.

While the exact details of the CORE’s operations have yet to be finalized, the Minister’s announcement and media reports indicate that the ombudsperson can receive complaints from those impacted by Canadian corporations, independently or jointly investigate the allegations, including compelling documentary evidence, make independent findings of fact, and issue non-binding recommendations for remedy. Such recommendations may include compensation, an apology, a revision of corporate policies, or the cessation of the activities at issue. The CORE will also have the authority to monitor the implementation of the recommendations made and publicly report on the progress to achieve remedy. Furthermore, where corporations do not cooperate with the CORE in good faith, the ombudsperson can recommend federal sanctions, such as the withdrawal of consular services and future support from Export Development Canada. The CORE will also be permitted to recommend changes to overall government policy.

The CORE is to be advised by a new multi-stakeholder Advisory Body on Responsible Business Conduct, which the Minister also announced today. It will be led by Professor John Ruggie and will include members from both industry and civil society groups. The Advisory Body will be responsible for developing a set of guiding principles to assist the CORE in its operations as well as advising the Canadian government more generally on responsible business conduct by Canadian companies operating abroad.

It was well past time for the Canadian government to hold Canadian corporations accountable for their impacts on human rights. While Canada is home to nearly 75 percent of the world’s mining companies, many other sectors that impact human rights make up the Canadian economy. Canadian corporations from both the extractive and apparel sectors have been linked to human rights abuses that extend from forced labor to community attacks to issues in their supply chains. Moreover, Canadian citizens have been calling on the government to implement an ombudsperson for more than ten years and in the previous federal election, all but one of Canada’s major political parties committed to creating the office.

In September, ICAR and Above Ground collaborated on a symposium in Ottawa to bring to the forefront of Canadian politics the global movement towards corporate accountability. This included discussions on embedding the respect for human rights into Canadian law and showcasing how other countries were addressing, through regulation, gaps in law and protection that leave human rights open to abuse. Dominique Potier, member of the French National Assembly, spoke about the February 2017 law he championed which requires large companies to adopt due diligence plans for their global operations and supply chains. Companies which fail to implement such plans could face civil liability. Florian Wettstein, professor of business ethics at the University of St. Gallen, described the Swiss Responsible Business Initiative, a civil society proposal that would create civil liability for companies in Switzerland for harms caused by their operations.

Canada is the first country in the world to create an ombudsperson for responsible business conduct abroad and its announcement today serves to put it on the map of jurisdictions evidencing a commitment to addressing corporate accountability. As Minister Champagne noted, responsible business conduct is both an ethical and economic imperative. What remains to be seen is whether the CORE goes beyond “bark” and has the power to “bite.” In other words, while the CORE certainly seems to be empowered to act for the protection of human rights, its effectiveness will be measured by the extent to which it employs the tools at its disposal, including revocation of trade support when sanctions are warranted. Doing so will ensure that Canada’s new watchdog is truly advancing corporate accountability where it is so desperately needed.

ICAR wishes to recognize the tireless efforts of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA) and its members in these developments.

Amol Mehra, Executive Director

Heather Cohen, Legal & Policy Associate