New Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy: Making Progress, but We Can Do Better

November 21, 2014

Last November 14, the Government of Canada released its new Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy. Several civil society organizations—including Development and Peace and its members—had been waiting for this new strategy in the hope that their calls for greater justice for communities in the Global South affected by the operations of certain mining companies would be heard. Although there are some notable advances in this new strategy, these changes nonetheless seem insufficient to guarantee that all communities have access to justice.

For several years now, Development and Peace has been campaigning for the creation of an independent ombudsman who would be able to receive complaints from communities adversely affected by the operations of Canadian mining companies abroad and conduct investigations into the actions of those companies.

Great strides have been made since we began to campaign on this issue in 2006. An increased number of MPs and citizens are now aware of the need to establish such a mechanism. The A Voice for Justice campaign carried out last year greatly contributed to this collective consciousness. More than 85,000 signed cards with the call for an ombudsman were sent to elected officials. Today, we are able to see that the revised strategy put forth by the government is meant to be, in part, a response to our requests. This is a first recognition of the extraordinary work accomplished by all those who were involved in our campaigns to date. They can be justly proud of their hard work!

For example, Development and Peace is pleased to note the inclusion of the UN's Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights among the guidelines on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). These guiding principles were added to the other international standards on social responsibility—covering labour, the environment and human rights—already included in CSR guidelines. That was one of the demands of the A Voice for Justice campaign.

We are also pleased to note that companies will be encouraged to participate in the process of dialogue with communities ("dispute resolution mechanism") and that the commercial support of the Government of Canada in international markets will be withdrawn from companies that refuse to take part in this process. This point was also among the demands of the A Voice for Justice campaign; it demonstrates that the government now recognizes that the operations of certain Canadian mining companies do not respect the rights of local communities and that these violations should have consequences. It goes without saying, however, that other important steps need to be taken before affected communities in the Global South have access to all the necessary elements for their rights to be fully respected, including mechanisms to guarantee those rights.

Among other things, the government's new strategy does not create an independent ombudsman mechanism, but maintains instead the Office of the Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor for the Canadian extractive sector. This new strategy states that the mandate of the counsellor's office will be strengthened, without giving any details on that subject. In particular, we do know that this office will not have the power to investigate complaints, which an ombudsman would, and that consequently no independent and thorough investigation can be conducted or be made public.

Moreover, as we mentioned earlier, the government recognizes that it holds the power to withhold its commercial support ("economic diplomacy") from companies that do not comply with the CSR strategy. But it seems that the only circumstance in which an automatic withdrawal of aid will apply is when a company refuses to participate in the dispute resolution mechanism process led by the CSR Counsellor or that of the Canadian National Contact Point (NCP) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This leaves a certain ambiguity about how other cases of non-compliance with CSR principles will be handled. Furthermore, there is no mention of applying any corrective measures or compensation to redress wrongs suffered by those communities affected by Canadian mining communities.

Finally, when reviewing its strategy, the Canadian government names two mechanisms for facilitating dialogue: the "enhanced" CSR Counsellor's Office and the OECD's NCP for Canada. However, the OECD's NCP does not have any more investigative authority than the Office of the CSR Counsellor does.

In conclusion, the Canadian government's "enhanced" strategy recognizes that companies have a responsibility to respect the rights of local communities on the basis of international standards of corporate social responsibility in terms of labour, the environment and human rights. With the exception of losing economic diplomacy support if companies do not participate in a process of dialogue with communities, we regret the fact that this new strategy does not put in place mechanisms capable of ensuring compliance with these international standards.

In light of these various considerations, we know that our work is not finished. We will remain in close contact with our partners in the Global South who are working alongside communities that have been affected by the operations of certain Canadian mining companies. With them, we will observe with vigilance the application of the new CSR strategy promoted by the government and we will continue to bring to the fore the voices of communities that still do not find justice through this new corporate social responsibility strategy for extractive companies.