Champagne to announce ombudsman for corporate social responsibility

OTTAWA — The Liberal government is planning to make good on a campaign promise to create an ombudsman with teeth to oversee the conduct of Canadian companies operating abroad.

International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne is expected to announce the creation of a new position on Wednesday.

Government sources say the new position will be a substantive upgrade to the “corporate responsibility counsellor,” which has been widely criticized as a toothless entity for dealing with misconduct complaints against Canadian companies, mainly in the mining industry.

One source, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss a matter not yet made public, said the new ombudsman would have jurisdiction over more than just the mining sector, but provided no further details.

The source said the position would be “the first in the world with real independence with real powers, and more than just mining.”

It is not clear how much power the newly created position will be given, such as whether it will be able to compel specific behaviour from companies.

The Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, an organization pushing for changes, says it is encouraged by the pending announcement but needs more details on whether the new office will have real powers and independence before endorsing it.

“Will the ombudsperson be relying on ministerial discretion to exercise investigator powers? Will the ombudsperson operate autonomously from Global Affairs Canada?” asked Stephanie Gervais, the group’s spokeswoman.

The organization also wants Champagne to confirm whether the ombudsman can look at old cases retroactively or just new ones, she said.

Hundreds of mining companies operating in Latin America, Africa and Asia make Canada a leading player in the sector. But the sector is periodically the subject of human rights complaints and legal action, often by Indigenous groups.

The head of one of the largest investment firms that has consulted closely with the Trudeau government on its economic agenda distributed a letter this week telling big companies they need to step up their corporate responsibility efforts if they want to benefit from their financial largesse.

“To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society,” writes Laurence Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, in a letter that was first obtained by the New York Times this week.

If companies don’t engage better with local communities, Fink writes, they will “ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders.”

In November 2016, BlackRock was among the of the world’s most powerful institutional investors to take part in a summit hosted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

According to a draft agenda, Fink and Trudeau were to deliver the opening remarks at the gathering, which used the opportunity to promote Canada as an attractive place to invest. BlackRock was asked to invite its clients to the event.

In the lead-up to the summit, BlackRock reportedly participated in biweekly conference calls with Infrastructure Canada and the Privy Council Office to create a presentation Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi was to deliver to the investors.

Trudeau will meet more business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, next week in an attempt to continue selling Canada as a prime investment destination.

“We must have the full and equal participation of all to have economies that work for everyone and a future that is fairer, more inclusive, and more compassionate,” Trudeau said in a statement.

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