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Canadian Ombudsperson Sheri Meyerhoffer shares that the CORE’s power to make its reports public has encouraged some companies to respond to its queries, but not all.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada’s watchdog for corporate abuses abroad is facing challenges getting companies to fully participate in its assessments, raising questions about the effectiveness of an office that relies on businesses to volunteer information about their activities.

The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE), which the federal Liberal government established in 2019 to probe allegations of wrongdoing by Canadian companies operating abroad, is receiving limited co-operation from the businesses it is supposed to monitor, reports show.

In seven of the eight preliminary reports the CORE has released so far – all of which focus on the alleged use of forced labour in China – the assessments show the companies in question have either given incomplete answers, not responded, failed to respond to meeting requests, or stopped engaging in the process altogether.

This level of participation is part of a broader array of problems, critics say, for a watchdog that was never empowered with the legal tools the Trudeau government promised it was going to give the CORE when it announced the office in 2018.

As a Globe and Mail investigation showed earlier this year, when the CORE opened its doors in 2019, it was a scaled-down version of its initial vision – an investigative office that was supposed to be able to compel witness testimony and document production. Instead, the version of the CORE that Ottawa enacted largely relies on companies to voluntarily provide documents.

Georgina Alonso, Ottawa-based program officer at Above Ground, a human-rights and corporate-accountability project, said she’s not surprised that many companies aren’t engaging in the CORE process. “We know that voluntary regulatory mechanisms don’t really work in the pursuit of corporate compliance and accountability.”

Representatives of some groups with human-rights or environmental concerns – from South America, the Caribbean and Africa – have said they opted not to file complaints to the CORE because it doesn’t have the powers to investigate or order remedies for victims.

In a series of preliminary reports posted on its website between July and September, the CORE has detailed the level of co-operation it experienced from six garment companies and two mining firms it is assessing. These include Diesel Canada, which the CORE said did not participate in an initial assessment meeting and did not comment on CORE’s draft report.

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Representatives for Diesel did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement in August, the company said it has no evidence its products are made, in whole or in part, by factories that use forced labour.

In its report concerning the activities of Levi Strauss Canada, the CORE said the company didn’t make itself available for a meeting and had “limited participation” so far in the complaint process.

In a statement to The Globe provided Friday, Levi Strauss said the company has made it clear to all of its suppliers that it can’t accept any materials, including cotton, produced using forced labour. It noted that though there are “factual inaccuracies” in the CORE’s assessment, such as relying on older reports that the company says were inaccurate, it will continue to co-operate with the office.

In response to written questions, Sheri Meyerhoffer, the ombudsperson, said in an e-mail that the CORE’s power to make its reports public has encouraged some companies to respond to its queries. But, she said, it has not been a sufficient incentive for all companies. “As such, I remain of the opinion that the power to compel would increase the CORE’s ability to deliver on its mandate.”

Ms. Alonso, of Above Ground, although critical of the CORE’s inability to compel evidence, offered praise for the level of transparency in the office’s reports thus far. “It’s been interesting to see that the CORE has been so open about the level of engagement with companies in these reports, and that she is naming the companies and including details of the process so far.”

Above Ground and other human-rights groups are calling for the federal government to grant investigatory powers to the CORE.

Some MPs have also raised concerns over the CORE’s effectiveness. Last month, a report from the House of Commons standing committee on international trade recommended that the government explore options for expanding the mandate of the CORE. This review should ensure that the ombudsperson can examine complaints “adequately, and in a timely manner,” relating to alleged violations of human rights, said a report by the committee.

“Oversight and accountability are key to ensuring corporate social responsibility and responsible business conduct,” it said.

In her response to The Globe, Ms. Meyerhoffer said the CORE’s work is “setting precedents,” noting that Canada is currently the only country in the world that has this kind of watchdog.

On Monday, the CORE released new statistics that show it is reviewing 19 complaints, seven of which have progressed into forced-labour investigations. No investigations have been completed in its four years of operating.

The United Nations has criticized Canada, this year and in previous years, for failing to establish mechanisms for those seeking accountability from Canadian companies’ activities.

In March, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, José Francisco Calí Tzay, said he was concerned that Indigenous peoples around the world are suffering “negative, sometimes devastating consequences” from Canadian extractive industries. He has called upon Canada to grant the CORE full investigatory powers and ensure it is fully independent.

With a report from Susan Krashinsky Robertson

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