Panellists quit corporate responsibility panel citing 'erosion of trust'

OTTAWA — Citing an erosion of trust, civil society and labour representatives have resigned from a panel set up to advise the federal government on ensuring Canadian firms operating abroad are accountable for how they conduct themselves.

The 14 members withdrew from the "multi-stakeholder advisory body on responsible business conduct" Thursday, complaining that a newly created adviser on corporate accountability lacks the teeth to ensure companies conducting business outside Canada do so in a responsible manner.

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The government announced in January 2018 the creation of a Canadian ombudsperson for responsible enterprise (CORE), saying the office would be given the tools to conduct credible, independent investigations.

The ombudsperson's powers were to include the ability to summon witnesses and compel documents.

But civil-society leaders say the appointment in April of this year of a special adviser to the international trade minister instead, without giving that adviser proper investigative powers, backtracked on the pledge.

And because of that, organizations operating under the umbrella Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability said they lost faith in the ability of the advisory body to function as originally envisioned.

Amnesty International Canada secretary general Alex Neve said he was pleased to be vice-chair of the advisory body when it was established.

"It was because of assurances that the CORE would have independence and real investigatory powers that we stood alongside the government in January 2018 and we promoted the announcement both nationally and internationally," Neve said.

"The government of Canada’s decision to backtrack on those promises ... has led me to lose confidence. I will no longer be able to continue in this role."

Emily Dwyer with the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability also questioned how civil-society groups can be assured that actions will be taken in changing laws and policies when the government appears to have bowed to industry pressure.

"Without independence and investigatory powers, the CORE amounts to nothing more than a broken promise," she said.

A spokesman for International Trade Diversification Minister Jim Carr expressed regret over the departures from the panel but said the government is making progress in promoting responsible business conduct and is looking forward to the ombudsperson's office being up and running by fall.

"We're grateful for the time and service of these members in advising the minister and in helping to lay the groundwork for the Canadian Ombudsperson on Responsible Enterprise," said an email from Michael Jones, Carr's director of communications.

"We're disappointed in their decision to leave the advisory body," said the statement.

"While consensus on these issues remains elusive, dialogue between civil society and industry is critical to progress and walking away from that dialogue is a step backwards and regrettable."

The mining sector has been a particular target of groups demanding greater oversight of activities of Canadian companies operating abroad.

Indigenous groups in South America and Africa have complained in recent years of violence and human-rights abuses connected to resource projects carried out by Canadian-controlled companies, which sparked calls for greater accountability.

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