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Liberal government to announce new ‘responsible enterprise’ watchdog

International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne will make the announcement Wednesday at the Global Affairs department’s headquarters in Ottawa.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The Liberal government is increasing pressure on Canadian companies to respect human rights abroad with the launch of a new ombudsperson focused on corporate social responsibility.

The office will also be given investigative powers and can recommend federal sanctions, such as the withdrawal of consular services and future support from Export Development Canada. It can also make public, non-binding recommendations to companies such as whether to pay compensation, deliver an apology or cease specific activities that triggered the initial concerns.

International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne will make the announcement Wednesday at the Global Affairs department's headquarters in Ottawa.

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The position will be called the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise and Ottawa is billing it as the first of its kind in the world.

The new position is expected to represent a significant expansion of the current counsellor position at Global Affairs, which has played a mediator role in relation to complaints involving Canadian mining, oil and gas companies operating abroad.

According to a senior government official, the new office will have expanded authority to review the operations of Canadian companies in the textiles and garment sector, with the potential for adding other sectors in the future.

In 2013, Loblaw-owned apparel company Joe Fresh faced intense scrutiny of its overseas operations after a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 workers and injuring 2,500 others.

Various Canadian mining companies have also faced controversy in recent years over alleged human rights allegations abroad.

The new position will have stronger enforcement powers and greater independence from government, the official said, although further details will be unveiled by the minister.

Liberal MP John McKay, who has worked with advocates for over a decade to improve government oversight of alleged human rights abuses by Canadian companies abroad, said he's pleased the new office is going ahead.

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"This is a big step up," he said. "Canadians have felt that something had to be done, that this was unacceptable behaviour on the part of Canadian companies, affecting our international brand but also affecting how Canadians perceive themselves. So it's really a testimony to a lot of hard work by a lot of activists."

The new ombudsperson will work with a committee of multisector advisers, led by human rights professor John Ruggie, that will help the office decide which allegations should be investigated.

Pierre Gratton, president and chief executive officer of the Mining Association of Canada, said the association is supportive of the government's efforts and the fact that the focus will be expanded to other sectors.

Mr. Gratton said the role of a special advisory committee is based on recommendations from his association. He questioned, though, how an investigation by a Canadian ombudsperson might work in practice. The new office will likely face difficult situations abroad that may also involve investigations under way by local police or even allegations that involve local authorities.

"We have always had reservations about how, in practical terms, any kind of extraterritorial investigatory function would work, and we'll continue to have those concerns," he said. "If that's the direction they're going in, we'll have to see how it works, and if it works."

Mr. McKay, who will be attending the government announcement, acknowledged that this will be a challenge for the new office.

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"I don't think that this will be entirely easy," he said. "You're operating in countries where the rule of law might be casual. You're also operating in environments where maybe more than one person wants the facts to be buried and it will create its own challenges, I don't doubt that."

Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff said the investigative role of the ombudsperson shows the office will have "real teeth," in contrast to the existing position.

Mr. Yussuff said he expects Canadian unions and non-government organizations will take worker complaints to the ombudsperson for investigations.

"We welcome this decision enthusiastically," he said. "We're hoping it will give some meaning to the human rights commitments we make about how Canadian companies should behave abroad."

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