Samuel Helguero | The Post Millennial | 3 August 2019
On January 17, 2018, then Minister of International Trade, Francois-Philippe Champagne, announced the establishment of a new position.
For many, it was good news. Trudeau’s promised Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise came with the “ironclad” guarantee that an independent official would have the power to compel documents and witnesses for their investigations into corporations.
The commitment to the ombudsperson was not only verbal, but was included in Trudeau’s campaign promises and was stated explicitly on the Q&A page of the government’s website once he was in office.
For many it was good news.
Critics of Canada’s mining industry were particularly hopeful. The multi-billion-dollar industry is one of the largest in Canada and has long been suspected of crude human rights abuses—abuses that would warrant an investigation.
“A cultural habit”
Among the industry’s possible violations of international law—as bodies like the UN and Amnesty International might attest—is the chemical poisoning, rape, murder, and serious beatings of hundreds of men, women, and children by people the industry directly or indirectly employed: all over the course of little more than a decade.
Taking just one example, in the mid-2000s researchers rushed to an area in Papua New Guinea, pursuing local reports of murder and abuse at a Canadian-owned mine (owned by Barrick Gold). One report was painstakingly gathered by villagers who travelled six hours to send documents in the closest area with internet.
Asides from victims of murder and beatings, researchers were surprised to find, when they arrived, that more than a hundred women and children had been raped by the mine’s security forces.
Barrick Gold Mining Company tried to cover up their security forces indiscretions, even at parliamentary hearings. Barrick’s founder, Peter Munk defended his company’s inaction complaining that human rights organizations did not understand how “gang rape is a cultural habit” in Papua New Guinea. But after dozens of human rights lawyers threateningly swarmed the island, the company gave in with a small compensation mechanism for 119 women.
Barrick made the compensated victims sign a legal waiver promising that they wouldn’t pursue legal action against the company. One lawyer working on the island found Barrick Gold to be executing a similar harm-and-sign practice in Tanzania. This is only a small glimpse into the array of telling cases.
Trudeau’s “ironclad commitment”
It is understandable why such a large and profitable industry—operating in the most remote corners of Latin America, Asia Pacific, and Africa—with a questionable history of human rights practices, would not want a powerful ombudsperson to investigate their affairs.
Yet, Trudeau had made a commitment, a sealed promise, to create an ombudsperson with the powers to compel witnesses and documents.
“We had an ironclad commitment by the government of Canada that this would be the mandate of the office,” MiningWatch Research Coordinator Catherine Coumans recalled in conversation with The Post Millennial.
“These companies are headquartered here, they’re getting tax-breaks here. They needed to be held to account here.”
But when in April 2019 the experienced and well-qualified Sheri Meyerhoffer was publicly appointed to the position of ombudsperson, she didn’t even know which tools or powers would be available to her.
“We’ll see what the toolbox ends up having at the end of the day,” Meyerhoffer said in an archived document provided to The Post Millennial.
Indeed, it was made clear in a 2019 April press conference that “at the end of the day” Meyerhoffer and the public would have to hear from an independent legal opinion that would help establish the complete extent of her investigative powers. The expert’s advice was planned for release in early May.
This legal opinion never came out.
An undisclosed source told Coumans that the experts’ report took a wrong turn in the government’s eyes upon suggesting the new ombudsperson could be legally equipped with all the powers to subpoena initially promised. Others have suggested publicly that a legal disagreement took place on the best legal mechanism for giving Meyerhoffer serious investigative tools. Either way, the legal opinion was kept behind the political curtain.
Without the once-promised ability to compel witnesses and documents, the ombudsperson became limited in her investigations. She could still carry out inquiries and supply recommendations to the government. However, her reports would lack crucial specifics and credibility.
“Three months later, the study has not been made public, [and] the [ombudsperson] remains without meaningful powers to serve impacted communities and workers,” wrote several members of the Advisory board charged with overseeing the appointment of an ombudsperson, as they resigned this month in protest.
“We are increasingly convinced that the government has no intention to fulfill its commitment to create an independent office before the next federal election.”
Now, several months after Meyerhoffer was announced as ombudsman, a recent report highlights the campaign of intensive lobbying launched by the mining industry between the pivotal time frame of January 2018 to April 2019, a campaign that may have influenced impressionable bureaucrats.
The Mining Association of Canada (MAC) and the Prospector and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC), both organizations representing a plethora of individual Canadian mining corporations, lobbied the federal government on 530 occasions. The Prime Minister’s Office opened their doors to lobbyists of the industry 33 times in this same time period.
The contents of those meetings are not known. However, the data available does indicate those most lobbied by the industry.
These names include senior policy advisor for Natural Resources Canada and former employee of the mining industry, Guillaume Julien—lobbied 38 times—and Sarah Goodman, policy advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office—lobbied 18 times.
Jim Carr, now Minister of International Trade Diversification, who announced Meyerhoffer and her limited purview at the aforementioned press conference, also met with lobbyists from the mining industry a total of four times.
Moreover, Carr’s chief of staff took part in three meetings.
In contrast, only a single civil society organization was granted a meeting. That organization, the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, was given just one meeting to discuss the mining industry despite continued and relentless attempts to arrange discussions. Adding insult to injury, the meeting was with a junior staffer, not the high-level policy advisors that entertained the mining lobbyists.
“We were being warned by staff members within the ministry that we needed to get a meeting because the industry is lobbying the heck out of the PMO. We were constantlyconcerned that the ombudsperson’s powers be removed. We were clear that if these powers were removed, they would effectively be duplicating the failures of the Harper government to put a strong ombudsperson in place,” Coumans said.
However, Coumans was not necessarily surprised by the political influence the mining industry seems to have demonstrated. The industry has long had a “revolving door” with the government, regularly handing out positions to “retired” politicians.
Take for instance, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Both worked for the mining industry after leaving office.
Chretien went around the world, at the end of his political career, lobbying for the energy sector, while Mulroney has sat on the board of corporate directors for the largest gold-mining company in the world—Barrick—based in Toronto. The former leader has also had the privilege of being Chairman of Barrick’s International Advisory Board.
For John McKay a Liberal MP who has campaigned forcefully for accountability in the mining industry, he cannot help but echo this evidence that forces within the Canadian government are not operating on totally selfless motives.
“There are elements within the bureaucracy that don’t necessarily wish to see the ombudsperson have real abilities to access real investigations that have real consequences for real offenders,” McKay told The Post Millennial.
It is worth noting that McKay speaks with experience dating back to 2009 when he initiated efforts to hold the mining industry (as well as other members of the energy sector) accountable for human rights abuses abroad. The bill he tabled under the Harper government was consequently stopped after “possibly the most intensive lobbying interest known to mankind.”
Under McKay’s 2009 Private Member’s Bill C-300, three agencies—Export Development Canada, the Canada Pension Plan, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade—would have to withdraw funding from companies acting “inconsistently” with the principles of corporate social responsibility.
“I’m generally a balanced budget guy, fiscally responsible, respect a competitive tax environment, competitive regulatory environment, but I have absolutely no time for companies that play on the edges of corruption and abuse of human rights,” Mckay explained.
Much like guarantees for a powerful ombudsperson, McKay’s plans would not come to fruition.
Despite a minority Conservative government (voting unanimously against the bill), and support from the Bloc and NDP, the 2009 motion failed by six votes.
“A few of my erstwhile liberal colleagues seemed to go south on me just at the wrong time. Apparently, they had a severe case of ‘diplomatic flu’ when the vote came up,” McKay said tellingly.
Indeed, despite possibly record attendance by Conservative MP’s, “diplomatic flu” seems to have struck 14 Liberal MP’s who did not turn out to vote. Bill C-300 would be buried.
This is the legacy of the mining industry in Ottawa, that has proceeded to perpetuate itself with continual “pressure and lobbying” observed by people like the Secretary-General of Amnesty International. Similarly, men like the Secretary-General have not failed to comment that action by the current government “doesn’t take us a step forward.”
Of course, there are options open to the disappointed members of the public that want to see an effective investigation into possible human rights abuses. As always, they can stage bold demonstrations. They might also—as some have suggested—make it an issue in the coming election.