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Ombudsperson greeted with guarded optimism

By Michael Swan

The Catholic Register


TORONTO (CCN) - Church agencies in Latin America and the Philippines are cautiously welcoming Ottawa's move to set up a Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise who will have power to investigate human rights abuses and environmental damage associated with Canadian-owned or operated mines abroad.

The key to success for the new office will be whether the Canadian ombudsperson will accept complaints directly from individuals and communities living next to the mines, said Rev. Dario Bossi, director of the ecumenical Latin American Churches and Mining Network.

"We are most hopeful that an ombudsperson in Canada will be sufficiently empowered to bring changes to Canadian companies starting from effective state oversight," Bossi told the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace in a Spanish-language email.

Global Affairs Canada told The Catholic Register a web portal will be set up to enable complaint submissions from affected parties, including allegations of human rights abuses by Canadian corporations. There will also be an option to submit complaints by mail.

The Jesuits in Honduras said they were giving Canada a second chance after the previous Office of the Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor "proved ineffective and insufficient."

The Office of the CSR Counsellor was set up in 2009 by the previous Conservative government, but it wasn't able to complete a single investigation. Companies could shut down investigations simply by refusing to participate.

Rather than the voluntary co-operation of companies, an effective office must start with "the state obligation to defend and protect human rights, given their universal nature," said Pedro Landa of the Jesuit-sponsored Reflection, Investigation and Communication Team of the Jesuits in Honduras.

The accusations against Canadian companies in Latin American have included unsafe working conditions, forcing local people from their land and violence against mining protesters.

At the Ottawa press conference announcing the new ombudsperson, International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said the days of voluntary co-operation were over.

"It is essential that all Canadian companies understand that co-operation in good faith with the (ombudsperson) is not optional," Champagne said. So far there's no deadline for hiring an ombudperson, but Champagne promised the job would be filled soon.

Canada's Catholic bishops said they "hope and pray that the appointment of an Ombudperson for Responsible Enterprise will be an important step forward."

The bishops, along with Development and Peace, have been calling for closer monitoring and regulation of Canadian mining for years.

The Catholic development agency welcomed the prospect of an ombudperson with independent investigatory powers. "When we heard Minister Champagne saying all of the key words we had been asking for, we just really, really felt like it was a victory," said Development and Peace advocacy officer Elana Wright.

Oil and gas projects and the garment industry will come under its purview in the first year, but the government expects the ombudsperson to expand its oversight of Canadian international business.

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