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Jim Carr, Minister of International Trade Diversification speaks during a press conference in Winnipeg on Oct. 23, 2018.John Woods/The Canadian Press

The Canadian federal government has unveiled a new watchdog tasked with holding Canadian companies accountable for human-rights abuses abroad, but the extent of its powers are still unknown.

On Monday, Jim Carr, Minister of International Trade Diversification, appointed lawyer Sheri Meyerhoffer as the first Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE), with oversight of the oil and gas, mining and garment sectors.

The appointment came after an announcement in January of last year by then-trade minister François-Philippe Champagne, who vowed CORE would have powers to compel companies to release documents and force executives to testify under oath.

But Mr. Carr said on Monday that it is unclear whether Ms. Meyerhoffer will have such powers, and the government is waiting to get legal clarity on the matter from external advisers, which will take a few months.

In an interview, Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, expressed frustration at the delay.

“We’re left in a very uncertain place because one of the absolute key considerations, the nature of the powers that will be bestowed upon Sheri Meyerhoffer, as our first ombudsperson, are still up in the air,” Mr. Neve said.

Ms. Meyerhoffer intends to forge ahead despite the ambiguity over her legal capabilities.

“My hope as the new ombudsperson is that, yes, we would have [the power to compel documents and testimony from executives] in our tool box, and all the powers that would allow us to to do our job more effectively,” Ms. Meyerhoffer said in an interview.

CORE will replace the existing corporate social responsibility counsellor, a body which was criticized for being underfunded, ineffective and reactionary. CORE will have the power to initiate its own investigations instead of waiting for a complaint to be filed, and it will also have increased resources and staff.

CORE will produce reports on companies under investigation and issue recommendations to them. Companies which don’t co-operate with recommendations may in some instances face certain trade penalties, including the withdrawal of assistance from Export Development Canada.

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