Radio: Forcing Canadian companies to respect human rights

Emily Dwyer is the policy director at the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), and Aidan Gilchirst-Blackwood is its network coordinator. The CNCA is a broad network of Canadian civil society organizations that are working to ensure that Canadian companies respect human rights and the environment when working abroad. Scott Neigh interviews them about the network’s origins and about its past and present campaigns, including current efforts to get the federal government to pass human rights and environmental due diligence legislation.

According to Dwyer, examples of environmental and human rights abuses around the world committed by corporations based in Canada are “widespread and longstanding.” This is at least sometimes most visible among Canadian mining and other resource extraction companies, given Canada’s disproportionately large role in the global mining sector. But it is true of lots of other kinds of corporations too – Dwyer pointed to examples in the garment industry, manufacturing, seafood processing, and agriculture, just to name a few. Kinds of abuses include killings, gang rape, serious bodily harm, forced labour, and lots of other things.

Around 2005, there were parliamentary hearings in Canada related to certain abuses by Canadian mining companies, which resulted in some quite strong recommendations for change. Then the federal government held a series of roundtables across the country involving academics, civil society, industry, and government, to discuss these recommendations.

While the recommendations have largely not, to this point, been enacted, the roundtables did prompt the related civil society organizations to begin coordinating more extensively among themselves. Not every group was able to participate in every meeting, so they set up an informal network as a way to make sure that the right voices were present to speak at the right events, and to share information with each other about what had happened. The groups that were involved decided that they liked being able to work together in this way, so they formalized the network into the CNCA.

Membership of the network has increased over the years to its current total of 40 organizations, and it includes groups across a wide range of sectors, kinds, and sizes. Members include Amnesty International Canada, the United Church of Canada, Unifor, MiningWatch, the Canadian Labour Congress, Cooperation Canada, Development and Peace, Friends of the Earth, Kairos, Peace Brigades International, the Public Service Alliance, and lots of others.

Coordinating and sharing information among all of these organizations has remained an important role for the CNCA over the years. But the network has also engaged in campaigning.

One early initiative was their mobilization in 2009 in support of Bill C-300. That was, Dwyer said, “a private member’s bill that would have conditioned Canadian government support on companies’ adherence to human rights norms. It came quite close to becoming a law – it lost by six votes at third reading in the House of Commons.”

In 2013, they launched a campaign that they called Open for Justice, which Dwyer said “called for an independent ombudsperson empowered to investigate allegations of abuse linked to Canadian mining companies.” Organizations in the CNCA network and the members of those organizations were very active on this issue. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians called or sent postcards to their MPs, signed petitions, or took part in delegations. Dwyer said, “We got reports back that sometimes, for some MPs, this was the issue that they were hearing the most about. Which is unusual, for issues that are outside of Canada and involving human rights to be the top issue that an MP would be hearing about.”

In 2018, the federal government announced the creation of an office that they originally said would have many of the powers that the CNCA was demanding, including the ability to compel documents and testimony from companies in the course of investigating human rights abuses. Dwyer said, “That was an important win for this movement. Unfortunately, after that announcement, there was a pretty significant push-back and mobilization campaign, lobbying campaign, by the mining industry, and the [federal Liberal] government ended up watering down its approach [and] gutting the office’s powers before it was open. So that campaign continues to be active. We did shift the narrative, but are still waiting for that office to be effective.”

The group’s main campaign at the moment is called Non-Negotiable. It is demanding that Canada catch up with certain other countries and pass a law that, Dwyer said, “would actually require companies to stop profiting off of abuses, to take action to prevent and remedy human rights violations throughout their supply chains and global operations, that would help impacted communities and workers access Canadian courts to be able to enforce those obligations and access remedy, and that would apply to all human rights.”

The network sees such legislation as a winnable goal. Last year, they held a media conference in support of the idea that involved participation of MPs from all of the parties in Parliament other than the Conservatives. The CNCA has produced model legislation, and two different bills based on that work – Bills C-262 and C-263 – have been introduced in Parliament. They have been mobilizing people in support of those bills in ways similar to their earlier campaign.

Currently, their emphasis is on making clear to MPs how these two pieces of legislation would be substantive and effective in implementing corporate accountability, in contrast with another proposal currently receiving attention in Parliament.

Dwyer described this other proposal – “a modern slavery reporting bill that’s already gone through the Senate and that is currently being studied by the Foreign Affairs Committee” – as “really weak” and something that the CNCA is “really concerned about.” She said that bill is “quite meaningless. It would just require companies to publish an annual report on if they’ve taken any steps to identify and address forced labour and child labour in their supply chains. It wouldn’t actually require them to take any of those steps. And it wouldn’t actually require companies to stop using forced labour. So we think that that approach is really problematic. And we’re worried that that kind of bill – that makes it look like the government’s doing something, that makes it look like there’s a response to the serious problem of forced labour in Canadian supply chains – will kind of quash the real momentum we think is building in Canada towards a more effective response.”

In passing human rights and environmental due diligence legislation, Canada would be playing catch-up with a number of other countries, particularly in Europe, that either have already passed such legislation or are working towards doing so. Dwyer clarified that none of the existing laws are perfect, “so there’s lots of room for Canada to go beyond what the examples are in Europe.”

“But,” she said, “without a doubt, we’re far behind those examples.”

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Kevin Walsh / Wikimedia.

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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