Mining ‘ombudsperson’ slags China instead of policing Canadian firms

In a remarkable betrayal, the Liberals have turned internationalists’ bid for an ombudsperson to curtail Canadian mining abuses abroad into a tool to assist the US Empire’s bid to contain China’s rise.

Nike Canada faces probe into alleged use of forced Uyghur labour”, blared the front page of Wednesday’s Globe and Mail while Canadian Press headline noted, “Corporate ethics czar starting human-rights probes around Canadian imports from China.” Voice of America (“Canada Investigates Two Companies Over Alleged Forced Labor in China”), BBC (“Canada probes Nike, Dynasty Gold over alleged use of Uyghur forced labour”) and many other international media reported on a press conference organized by the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE). At the event Ombudsperson Sheri Meyerhoffer announced her office’s first two investigations since the complaint mechanism was launched more than two years ago. In a further sign of the politicization of the investigation, this was the first initial assessment report announced publicly since CORE opened in 2019.

Unsurprisingly, media reports focused on China oppressing Muslims in Xinjiang. The issue has been hyper politicized since Islamophobic US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labeled China’s treatment of Uyghurs a “genocide” two and a half years ago.

The announcement by Meyerhoffer, a former oil lobbyist, cites research from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which alleges that Nike has “relationships or supply chain links” with half a dozen firms linked to forced labour. Funded by the US State Department as well as Lockheed Martin, BAE, Raytheon and other NATO arms manufacturers, ASPI was described by an Australian senator as “hawks intent on fighting a new Cold War”.

The complaints about Nike and Dynasty Gold were promoted by self-described human rights organizations lead by the US-government-funded Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project. In a sign of how Muslim rights in China are beinginstrumentalized to serve empire, pro-apartheid, anti-Muslim, lawyers David Matas and Sarah Teich are the lead counsel for the complainants.

Teich boasted to the Globe that she believed it was the first time any government-affiliated body in the world investigated Nike’s alleged ties to forced labour in Xinjiang, which produces 20% of the world’s cotton. Stigmatizing the region’s cotton would deliver a major blow to the local economy.

Thirteen of 15 cases that have been brought to CORE have to do with forced Uyghur labour and even though it only has advisory powers, in the current climate, the trade minister will likely accept any recommendation the ombudsperson delivers regarding Xinjiang. Basically, a position promoted to curtail the epidemic of Canadian mining abuses has morphed into a tool to assist Washington in its bid to contain the rise of its only “peer competitor”. The Justin Trudeau Liberals’ betrayal is shameful.

When asked about Canada’s controversial mining industry during the 2015 election the party responded: “The Liberal Party of Canada shares Canadians’ concerns about the actions of some Canadian mining companies operating overseas and has long been fighting for transparency, accountability and sustainability in the mining sector.” The statement included explicit support for An Act Respecting Corporate Accountability for Mining, Oil and Gas Corporations in Developing Countries, which would have withheld some diplomatic and financial support from companies found responsible for significant abuses abroad. Similarly, the Liberals sent a letter to the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability about the mining sector during the 2015 election that noted, “a Liberal government will set up an independent ombudsman office to advise Canadian companies, consider complaints made against them and investigate those complaints where it is deemed warranted.”

While they dragged their feet for three years before announcing CORE, the initial proposal included an independent position with robust investigative powers and the ability to limit public assistance to firms found responsible for abuses. But, the mining industry thwarted the legislation to constrain their abuses abroad. According to a report titled “Lobbying by mining industry on the proposed Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE)”, the two main industry associations met government officials hundreds of times between when the government announced it would establish an ombudsperson and its presentation of what turned into a largely powerless position. Between January 2018 and April 2019, the Mining Association of Canada and Prospector and Developers Association of Canada lobbied the federal government on 530 occasions. They met officials in the Prime Minister’s Office 33 times. The industry lobbying campaign was likely even greater since individual mining companies also organized dozens, if not hundreds, of visits.

After the ferocious lobbying campaign, the position effectively became an advisor to the Minister of International Trade. The ombudsperson must pass its reports by the minister before publication. In another reversal from the government’s January 2018 declaration, the ombudsperson wasn’t granted the power to compel testimony from mining executives or requisition documents needed to investigate human rights complaints against companies operating abroad. Additionally, the ombudsperson’s capacity to deny or withdraw diplomatic or Export Development Canada support from a company found responsible for major rights abuses was neutered.

All 14 union and NGO representatives on the government’s “multi-stakeholder advisory body on responsible business conduct” resigned in May 2019 after their concerns about the ombudsperson were disregarded.

As part of the mining industry’s bid to thwart serious regulation, the ombudsperson’s mandate was broadened beyond the extractive sector. While this may have some superficial appeal, the demand for an ombudsperson was part of challenging a government-assisted mining industry responsible for countless misdeeds.

The Liberals cowed to the mining lobby. As a result, the civil society groups that pushed for the ombudsperson withdrew their support and have advised those victimized by Canadian firms abroad against wasting their time and potentially exposing themselves by bringing complaints to the body. Conversely groups promoting human rights that serve to strengthen the US empire, who played little or no role in promoting the initiative, have turned the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise into a forum to advance their campaign to demonize China. Liberal appointee Sheri Meyerhoffer’s recent press conference suggests she’s happy to play along.

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