Mining petition to be aired, should government stand

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

If the Liberal government stands past the Sept. 23 throne speech, Martin Blanchet’s seven-year battle to get somebody with authority to look into how Canadian mining companies and others treat workers, communities and the environment in poor countries will finally get an airing in the House of Commons.

More than 6,000 people have signed a petition Blanchet launched over the summer through the Parliamentary online petition system. The petition calls for stronger investigatory powers for the Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise. Blanchet’s Member of Parliament, Edmonton-Strathcona MP and NDP deputy house leader Heather McPherson, is anxious to present it in the House of Commons.

In addition to the petition launched by Blanchet, MP McPherson is preparing her own private members’ bill to strengthen the new system for monitoring overseas operations of Canadian companies.

“This is something that really does resonate with so many Canadians,” McPherson said.

Though he was aiming for a modest 5,000 signatures, Blanchet garnered 6,130 signatures between May 4 and Sept. 1 to a petition that asks for the ombudsperson to be given “independence and the power to investigate human rights abuse allegations.”

The petition also calls on Parliament to pass “a comprehensive human rights due diligence law” that would force companies to adhere to the same labour and human rights standards in overseas operations that would apply in Canada.

Those measures aren’t just naive, do-gooder priorities, said McPherson.

“Our trade relationships, our international standing in the world, our diplomatic relationships in the world are at risk if we don’t actually have a corporate social responsibility ombudsperson who can do the job that she needs to do,” she said.

Blanchet is a 30-year veteran of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace – Caritas Canada, who once served on the organization’s national council. He wants the Liberal government to finally live up to its 2015 campaign promise of a real ombudsperson to replace the previous Conservative government’s Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor.

Over the five years it was in existence, the CSR Counsellor never completed an investigation and was derided by Development and Peace and other NGOs as a “paper tiger”.

When the new Liberal government announced the Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, Blanchet thought Development and Peace activism had finally won the day. The new ombudsperson would have real power to make corporate executives answer questions and provide documents about their companies’ activities abroad, the Liberals promised.

They also set up a “Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Board” of industry and NGO representatives who would advise the Minister of International Trade Diversification and Global Affairs Canada on industry and human rights issues related to overseas mining, oil and gas and textiles. By 2018 Development and Peace had a seat on the new advisory board and was looking forward to the appointment of an ombudsperson.

But it took more than a year for the government to fill the vacant post with former oil and gas industry lawyer and lobbyist Sheri Meyerhoffer. As Meyerhoffer set up shop in 2019, the promised investigatory powers still weren’t there.

“We have an ombudsperson in name only,” explained Osgoode Hall law professor and founder of the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project Shin Imai. “Technically, she has the power to investigate. The previous CSR Counsellor did not even have that power. However, she has been given no investigation tools.”

Under the current rules, companies don’t have to answer ombudsperson questions or provide documents.

The Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Board hasn’t met since January of 2019 and Development and Peace, along with all the other NGO members of the board, has walked away.
In the face of powerful lobbies and high-priced lawyers, Blanchet is putting his faith in the democratic process.

“We need to have about 150 MPs that say, ‘Hey, this is important,’ ” said the 77-year-old parishioner at Edmonton’s St. Thomas d’Aquin Parish.