Doing business the Canadian way.
What does that mean precisely?
Flying the Maple Leaf on the world stage should convey a set of core values - human rights, health and safety, labour rights, best-in-class environmental standards, etc.
International Trade Minister Franτois-Philippe Champagne appeared to take a narrower view this week, zeroing in on human rights abuses linked to Canadian corporate activity abroad.
In announcing the creation of the awkwardly named Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE), the federal government is doing away with the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility, a Harper-era sop that was all but invisible, pitifully resourced and had no powers to force Canadian companies to align with international corporate responsibility standards.
The focus of that office was restricted to Canadian mining and oil and gas companies operating internationally. In terms of powers to punish bad behaviour, the corporate responsibility office could only threaten the withdrawal of trade advocacy support, part of its updated strategy from the fall of 2016. What the office accomplished last year I can't say. Its annual report to Parliament is overdue.
For a time the corporate responsibility office was hopeful that the federal government would supplement its activities by creating a sidecar enterprise that would parallel its own and be inclusive of other sectors.
Instead the government has decided to start fresh, which is smart.
The new office will add garment manufacture as part of its first focus, with a plan to expand into other sectors within a year of the new ombudsperson taking office.
So far so good. From labour rights violations in Vietnam, to human rights abuses attendant historically to mining operations abroad, to the hell-opening-up memories of the collapse of Rana Plaza, globalized business bears an ugly rap sheet. I'm not condemning all business here. I am condemning some of them.
So beyond the congratulatory notes of appreciation that Champagne's office has received, let's look at some caveats.
"The Ombudsperson will operate with a budget sufficient to allow him/her to conduct complex collaborative and independent investigations," is the official language.
If I were king, and I really wanted to put the world on notice that Canada is going to lead the world in this, I wouldn't be announcing such an office until I was ready to declare the multi-millions I was prepared to put on the table, versus the drip-drip of a couple hundred grand to its predecessor. The pre-budget negotiations on this should get interesting. (As an aside, the title "ombudsperson" rings as powerfully in my brain as the word "bureaucrat.")
Two: Power. Much has been made of the new office's independent investigative powers. What are the sanctions? Here's the official language: "The ombudsperson can recommend sanctions, which include the withdrawal of certain Government services, such as trade advocacy and future Export Development Canada support, for companies found to be involved in wrongdoing." In other words, the new language sounds a great deal like the old language.
Three: Person power. "The Ombudsperson will retain full discretion to undertake collaborative and independent fact-finding to address allegations of human rights abuses by Canadian companies operating abroad."
Such missions are costly and time consuming. And essential. How the office will be staffed, the creation of field office operations and collaborative on-the-ground alliances in far-off regions will be key.
Four: Transparency. The Rana Plaza tragedy was yet another reminder that, to paraphrase U.S Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, sunlight is an effective disinfectant. Of course, at Rana Plaza there was none. The government's pledge on this: “To improve transparency, the ombudsperson will publicly
report at various stages … of an investigation process and when monitoring recommendations."
The words "various stages" do not spur confidence. Consistently documented, sector-specific, publicly available spreadsheets with real-time reports on infractions and remedies should be the baseline here.
If that happens, consumers can play a role - change your behaviour, or else. Ditto institutional investors.
There would appear to be plenty of time to work through these kinks. No ombudsperson has been named. In fact, the selection process has not even begun, though the government promises to open the selection process "within the coming weeks."
Jennifer Wells writes National Affairs columns which are distributed by Torstar Syndication Services.