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International Trade Minister Mary Ng rises during Question Period in Ottawa on Nov. 23, 2023.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The federal government has announced a review of the watchdog it created to police corporate wrongdoing linked with human-rights violations abroad, as Ottawa faces criticism for the office’s lack of completed investigations.

Starting this year, over a six-month period, the government said it will assess the Canadian Ombudesperson for Responsible Enterprise’s “effectiveness and progress to date.” The pledge, tabled last Monday, was part of a government response to a trade standing committee report on mining and its impacts on the environment and human rights, which had recommended Ottawa review options for expanding the CORE’s mandate.

The office, which opened in 2019, is tasked with probing allegations of human-rights violations related to Canadian companies’ foreign activities. But a Globe and Mail investigation found last year that the CORE had yet to complete a single probe in its four years of operating.

The government “commits to undertaking a review of the operations and effectiveness” of the CORE, said Mary Ng, the International Trade Minister, in the government response last week.

The Liberal government had originally promised to give the CORE the powers to investigate companies accused of wrongdoing, by giving it the ability to compel witnesses and testimony. It reneged on that pledge a year later, when the office opened without those powers.

Given the role the CORE plays as part of Canada’s responsible business conduct policies, the ombudsperson’s coming term expiration in April and the “public interest in the activities of its office,” Ms. Ng said, the government “believes this is an appropriate time to assess the CORE’s performance.”

The CORE’s latest quarterly statistics say the office has 21 active complaints under its review. Its budget in the most recent year was $4.6-million.

The office has begun a number of investigations, on forced-labour allegations in China and alleged ties to garment and mining companies’ activities. However, as The Globe reported last fall, many companies were not co-operating, raising questions about the effectiveness of relying on voluntary participation.

The Liberals “either have to do some serious work to fix the office that we have in place, or they should scrap it,” given its cost, said Heather McPherson, the NDP foreign-affairs critic.

In its initial announcement of the CORE’s creation in 2018, the federal government also pledged that it would begin by examining wrongdoing in three sectors – mining, oil and garments – and expand into other industries after a year of opening. This expansion never occurred.

There was also, initially, external oversight. The federal government established an advisory body in 2018 on responsible business conduct. The following year, all 14 human-rights organizations and labour union reps in the panel quit on the same day, citing concerns over the independence and lack of investigatory powers of the CORE.

Sheri Meyerhoffer, CORE’s first and current ombudsperson, has publicly said that her office would be more effective if it had the powers to compel testimony and documents.

This wasn’t the first time a committee urged the federal government to re-examine the office. In 2021, a report said the government should consider vesting the office with the power to compel witnesses and documents.

Since CORE opened its doors in 2019, a number of advocacy groups said they are warning people against filing a complaint to the CORE, partly because of its lack of teeth.

People in affected communities in countries such as the Dominican Republic, Peru, Namibia, Ecuador and Brazil have told The Globe they have serious human-rights and environmental concerns, related to Canadian extractive firms’ activities, but that they are deliberately not approaching the CORE because they don’t see it as an effective mechanism for redress.

Global Affairs Canada, on behalf of Ms. Ng, and Ms. Meyerhoffer declined The Globe’s interview requests.

GAC spokesperson Jean-Pierre Godbout said the landscape has changed since the CORE was started, with more measures to address modern slavery and supply-chain legislation.

“Given the new context, it is appropriate to review the mandate and operation of CORE,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

Emily Dwyer, policy director at the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, said the CORE needs these powers to be effective.

For now, “the evidence is clear: Not a single review has been completed, and there is not any indication that the situation on the ground has been improved for any complainants to the office,” Ms. Dwyer said in an interview.

She said the review should include consultations with those who have filed complaints, about their experiences with the office, and with affected community members who have opted not to file a case.

Industry groups, such as the Mining Association of Canada, have opposed granting the CORE investigatory powers. Geoff Smith, vice-president of government relations at the MAC, said the association “continues to support a CORE mandate focused on proven, collaborative dispute resolution and that employs joint fact finding to resolve conflicts between companies and communities.”

He said granting such an office these kinds of powers to compel would be unprecedented. Any decision, he said, to add these powers should be preceded by a discussion paper that assesses risks and opportunities, and seeks the views of Canadians, including the legal community, along with foreign governments.

Experts have for years called upon Canada to boost accountability over businesses operating abroad. Last year alone, three different United Nations special rapporteurs urged Canada to beef up its oversight of its companies’ operations.

Canada is behind its peer countries in introducing robust measures on business and human rights, of which CORE is just one part, Ms. McPherson of the NDP said.

“At a time when countries around the world are doing so much better on supply-chain legislation, forced labour, ensuring that there is environmental accountability, that Indigenous rights are protected – Canada is woefully behind,” she said.

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