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Reality check on Canadian government policy

The Hill Times recently published two letters from Above Ground about federal government policy on extractive companies working abroad—a topic that’s seen revived media coverage in the past two months.

Our first letter responded to a report that “the Liberal government is showing no sign it plans to change the way Canadian mining companies are held accountable when acts of violence, intimidation, or environmental degradation are linked to their overseas operations.” The second letter was in reply to comments made by industry lobbyists supporting such inaction.

In the letters, we laid out some of the key points neglected in this and other media coverage, which are worth repeating:

The government isn’t holding companies to account

The government doesn’t hold companies to account on these matters. The office of the “Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor,” created by the previous Conservative government, merely promotes voluntary guidelines and facilitates dialogue. The counsellor can’t independently investigate claims of harm, determine if a company violated any standards, nor recommend, let alone order, any penalty or form of remedy.

Canada is not meeting its legal obligations

Several international bodies have criticized Canada for its failure to hold to account Canadian multinationals that work in countries where environmental and human rights protections are weak or non-existent.

Most recently, in March, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights called Canada to task for not protecting against human rights abuse by its mining, oil and gas companies—despite its obligation to do so under international law.

We need comprehensive reform

The UN committee called on Canada to pass laws “requiring corporations to conduct human rights impact assessments” before starting projects, to create “effective mechanisms to investigate complaints,” and to ensure “access to justice before domestic courts by victims of these corporations’ conduct.” These and other actions are required for Canada to fulfill its legal obligations and regain its international reputation as a leader on human rights.

The Liberals pledged last fall that, if elected, they would create an independent ombudsman to investigate accusations of Canadian extractive companies harming people abroad. That would be a good first step towards effective corporate oversight.