Ottawa’s corporate-ethics watchdog is set to announce multiple investigations into whether Canadian companies are importing products made through human-rights abuses in China, a move advocates have sought for years.
The Liberals appointed Sheri Meyerhoffer as the first Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise in April 2019, and advocates and MPs have since criticized the government for not launching a single investigation.
On Tuesday afternoon, Meyerhoffer will announce investigations into “the supply chains and operations of two Canadian companies” in China based on an “initial assessment of allegations of human rights abuses,” according to a press release.
Her office also plans to publish 11 other reports “in the next few weeks” on unspecified cases.
The Liberals promised to create the ombudsperson role in the 2015 campaign, replacing a post Stephen Harper’s Conservative government created in 2009 that was restricted to advising the extractive sector and monitoring its corporate policies.
They enacted the new office in 2018, dubbing it CORE and allowing it to probe garment industries as well as the oil and gas sectors. Meyerhoffer was appointed a year later, but she only started accepting complaints in 2021 and has yet to launch any investigations.
“My team and I believe it’s more important to do our work right than to do it fast,” she told a House of Commons committee on Canada-China relations last month.
The office has long faced a debate over how much power Meyerhoffer needs.
Advocacy groups such as the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability have long called for the legal right to compel documents and witnesses from companies. But some academics have argued that a more co-operative approach with industry might be likelier to foster change.
An external legal review commissioned by Ottawa sided with advocates, arguing Meyerhoffer cannot be effective without a temporary regulatory order and/or new legislation to be able to force disclosures from corporations.
Meyerhoffer herself told media in November 2019 that she’d be asking the Liberals for such powers, and she confirmed last month that she’s still hoping they’ll be granted.
In June, Meyerhoffer testified to MPs that she was reviewing 15 complaints, the same number she had outlined in February.
Of those, 13 were related to China’s Xinjiang region, where many Uyghur people reside, and the rest were related to Canadian firms operating in Bangladesh and the right to a living wage.
Meyerhoffer told MPs in February she was aware human-rights groups were advising against filing complaints with her office and going straight to court, in part out of fear of retribution from companies that don’t have to co-operate with her team.
“Because we lack the powers to compel, civil society organizations are not recommending to those they work with to bring their situation to the CORE for dispute resolution,” she testified.
“Not all companies are going to engage. The only way we could move forward and do a true, thorough job would be to have those powers.”
Meyerhoffer is a lawyer whose career focused on both international development in human rights and Alberta’s oil sector.
Her office monitors the roles of any entity controlled by a Canadian firm directly or indirectly, which includes foreign suppliers and contractors who only work for a company based in Canada.
The office has done its own reviews of issues abroad, such as an analysis of 10 Canadian garment companies operating outside the country. It found few tracked supply chains well enough to detect child labour, since many only monitor their systems in steps that follow the production of raw materials.
Opposition parties have been critical of Ottawa for barely seizing any shipments of goods produced through forced labour. The U.S., by comparison, seized 1,530 shipments last year and ultimately prevented 208 of them from entering the country.
In mid-2022, the United Nations found China had committed “serious human rights violations” against Uyghurs and other Muslim communities, particularly arbitrary detentions that may constitute crimes against humanity.”
The UN says China needs to probe “allegations of torture, sexual violence, ill-treatment and forced medical treatment, as well as forced labour and reports of deaths in custody.”
Advocacy groups have warned that cotton and tomato goods from China may be products of Uyghur slave labour.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he’s waiting on the pending investigations before weighing in on whether China is committing a genocide.
Beijing has rejected such reports, characterizing them as attempts to smear a rising China. But the country has severely restricted media reporting and human-rights analysis in its Xinjiang province.
China insists it is implementing “re-education” camps to weed out Islamic radicalization after several deadly domestic attacks.