At Its CORE: Canada’s Inefficient Response to Corporate Abuses Abroad

Opinion by Anna Robinson.

A female employee, surrounded by stacks of clothes in a textile factory, stitches a garment together.

Introduction

In 2019, the Canadian government refreshed their commitment to corporate responsibility by implementing the CORE (Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise). But does the establishment of the CORE really target corporate misconduct, or is it just another symbolic gesture from the government? The first few years of the CORE indicate the latter, demonstrating its lack of power and structural inefficiencies.

The CORE’s Complaint Process

The CORE’s purpose is to review complaints and inquiries regarding overseas operations in the garment, mining, oil, and gas sectors [1]. The complaint process begins at the intake stage when the CORE assesses the admissibility of complaints. If a complaint can be accepted, the Ombud contacts the corporation for more information and seeks out solutions. The CORE’s website emphasizes mediation between the company, complainant, and a third-party mediator as the optimal solution. If mediation is inconclusive, then the Ombud will move to begin a full investigative report. Their reports are crafted through joint or independent fact-finding and may contain recommendations for further actions. These recommendations are directed to the corporation (ex: paying for damages), the Minister of International Trade, or the Canadian government. Reports can also be published publicly [2].

Lack of Power

The biggest pitfall of the CORE is that it has no power to enforce anything. The entire complaint process rests on the hope that both the complainant and corporation will be willing to abide by the CORE’s actions. The CORE has no ability to compel corporations, or the Canadian government, to act and end human rights violations. This renders the Ombud largely ineffective, and only capable of raising awareness towards specific issues. However, this is not enough to make real changes for the communities and individuals impacted. Considering the office was instituted by the government itself, there should have been mechanisms implemented to give the CORE a form of authority over corporations. Implementing a punitive power for corporate misconduct would not only give the CORE’s work more meaning in the long run, but it could genuinely force corporations to improve their operations.

Lack of Progress

The annual and quarterly reports from the CORE also indicate a lack of success within the existing complaint process. The inaugural report from 2019 to 2021 revealed the CORE spent most of its time on internal structure [3]. A necessary focus, but it begs the question: how much of the CORE’s time and budget was actually allocated to individuals requiring aid abroad? Their latest quarterly report from March 15 to December 31, 2021, marked 46 inquiries and five complaints. Of the five, only one proceeded, and the CORE referred the complainant to a different organization. The other four did not go ahead on grounds concerning time frame, admissibility, and a lack of information [4].

Barriers to Accessibility for Victims

There are several considerations on the CORE’s complaint process that could be addressed. First, the accessibility of the CORE can pose a challenge. The CORE’s information is posted online, and complaints can be sent via the online form, fax, email, mail, or telephone [5]. However, many of the most damaging corporate violations occur in areas that are rural and/or face a lack of infrastructure or digital access. The Ombud doesn’t accept complaints about misconduct from before May 2019 (unless the misconduct is still occurring). While the misconduct may have ended before the implementation of the CORE, it does not negate the impacts of corporate abuse that can harm people or communities for decades [6].

Pressure and Risk for Complainants

Furthermore, the complaint process has the potential to put a lot of pressure on the complainant. They must be able to prove the misconduct, their relation, and the validity of their complaint. They must be accessible to provide additional information and must be open to solutions that involve mediation or compromise. The suitability of such approaches is questionable when considering the destruction, violence, danger, and harassment that many communities face at the hands of much more powerful corporations. The complaint process is lengthy, with the initial assessment taking up to 90 days or longer. In that time, the CORE can lose connection with the complainant and the Ombud offers no protection beyond anonymity to the complainant [7]. If retaliation occurs, the Ombud can notify appropriate bodies but is powerless to help. These considerations all make the complaint process risky and unappealing to victims of corporate abuse, particularly if there is no guarantee of a resolution.

Conclusion

Once the mechanics of the CORE are examined, it is clear that the CORE serves as little more than a symbolic gesture from the Canadian government. Political parties [8] and organizations [9] have criticized the creation of an office with no teeth, because it offers little aid to those suffering. The CORE continues to perpetuate the present dynamic of unregulated corporate behaviour, where corporations receive only bad press or a warning if they are caught. And they rarely are, because of the barriers and risks for victims - which the government is not minimizing. Individuals, environments, and communities have died at the hands of corporations [10]. It is a simple, tragic reality of multinationals that must be prevented. The standard of conduct must be raised, and this will only happen with decisive action and punitive measures. The CORE must be refitted to play an active, not passive, role. They must take initiative to investigate, charge, and remedy misconduct abroad. The CORE recently announced the launch of their self-driven investigation into child rights abuses in the garment sector, which might signal the start of a better future for the CORE [11]. But so long as the victims of corporations are unsupported, the CORE will always fail to address human rights abuses.

 

Bibliography

[1] “The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise,” Government of Canada, March 7, 2022, https://core-ombuds.canada.ca/core_ombuds-ocre_ombuds/index.aspx?lang=eng#shr-pg0.

[2] “What You Need to Know About Filing A Complaint,” The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, December 23, 2021, https://core-ombuds.canada.ca/core_ombuds-ocre_ombuds/filing_a_complaint-deposer_une_plainte.aspx?lang=eng#what-is-complaint-process.

[3] “Annual Report 2019-2020,” The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, October 2021, https://core-ombuds.canada.ca/core_ombuds-ocre_ombuds/annual-report-2019-2021-rapport-annuel.aspx?lang=eng#a1.

[4] “CORE quarterly report on inquiries and complaints,” The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, January 17, 2022, https://core-ombuds.canada.ca/core_ombuds-ocre_ombuds/quarterly-report-rapport-trimestriel.aspx?lang=eng.

[5] “What You Need to Know About Filing A Complaint,” The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, December 23, 2021, https://core-ombuds.canada.ca/core_ombuds-ocre_ombuds/filing_a_complaint-deposer_une_plainte.aspx?lang=eng#what-is-complaint-process.

[6] “Frequently Asked Questions,” The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, August 4, 2021, https://core-ombuds.canada.ca/core_ombuds-ocre_ombuds/frequently_asked_questions-foire_aux_questions.aspx?lang=eng.

[7] “CORE’s approach to retaliation,” The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, August 4, 2021, https://core-ombuds.canada.ca/core_ombuds-ocre_ombuds/COREs_approach_retaliation-approche_OCRE_represailles.aspx?lang=eng.

[8] “NDP responds to establishment of Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise,” New Democratic Party, January 17, 2018, https://www.ndp.ca/news/ndp-responds-establishment-ombudsperson-responsible-enterprise.

[9] “News Release: Government of Canada Caves to Industry Pressure, Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise Remains Powerless to Uphold Human Rights,” Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, February 26, 2021, https://cnca-rcrce.ca/2021/02/26/news-release-government-of-canada-caves-to-industry-pressure-ombudsperson-for-responsible-enterprise-remains-powerless-to-uphold-human-rights/.

[10] Brian Stauffer, “Holding Companies to Account: Momentum Builds for Corporate Human Rights Duties,” Human Rights Watch, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/global-2.

[11] Sheri Meyerhoffe, “Letter to Minister Ng regarding launch of CORE study on possible use of child labour in supply chains of Canadian garment companies,” The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, December 14, 2021, https://core-ombuds.canada.ca/core_ombuds-ocre_ombuds/letter-minister-ng-ministro-lettre.aspx?lang=eng.