This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
On April 8, 2019, Jim Carr appointed Sheri Meyerhoffer – a former lobbyist for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers – to fill Canada’s newest position: Canada’s Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE). Meyerhoffer assumed this position 15 months after the role was promised and 11 months after the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Counsellor reached the end of its mandate on May 18, 2018.
CORE is not simply an advisory and review office like Canada’s former CSR counsellor. Instead, CORE is able to conduct investigations into “alleged human rights abuses” arising from the extractive sectors – mining, oil, and gas – as well as the garment sector and their respective business practices abroad. Additionally, when newly appointed, former-lobbyist Meyerhoffer sees fit, CORE is designed to be able to make recommendations for remedy and compensation towards harmed communities and individuals. If a Canadian company refuses to comply with these remedial recommendations, CORE is able to make further suggestions against the company itself. That is, CORE can “recommend” that the corporations committing human rights violations be denied trade advocacy and Export Development Canada support.
But what power for remedy will CORE really offer with their recommendations and suggestions?
CORE is a reactive position, designed only to respond to disaster and trauma – not to prevent these things in the first place. This is not to say that remedy-work is not necessary; it is very much needed considering the current deregulated structures that allow corporations to privilege profit over everything else. But for CORE to be effective with its disciplinary limitations, there needs to be something more revolutionary at play as well.
Here are three clues that suggest CORE – alone – is not necessarily a step in the right direction, but, rather, a measure in anchoring the current violence-inducing, pro-corporate structures.
1. The word “responsibility”
The use of the word “responsibility” in both CSR and CORE reveals some organizational overlap in the two roles. And because of the failure of CSR, people have already lost trust with the word “responsibility.”
For decades, this word and the concept of CSR were of concern for the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman because he believed social responsibility would hinder corporate freedoms. Friedman’s upset was rooted in the ways CSR actually begins to unravel the lack of moral neutrality that he constantly worked to equate with corporations – a conclusion he formed by arguing that a corporation’s singular allegiance to shareholders made them entirely and generally “neutral.” (Friedman, of course, expected everyone to join him in overlooking how his market-focused logic included the corporation’s bias to the shareholders.) In fact, for Friedman, a corporation being “responsible” to anything or anyone – the environment or humans – was injurious to corporations.
But the word is more than just injurious to corporations; the use of “responsibility” in CSR, and now CORE, creates a problem in that the word suggests that something can be done without limiting – or regulating – corporate “freedoms.” Tacking on “corporate social responsibility” or “responsible enterprise” to the already-existing structures actually proves to be more harmful than not.
OceanaGold (OCANF) – listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) – is a great example of the dangers that a strong CSR team can create since, on the surface, this company appears to be “outstanding” with its several mining-related awards. At the Philippine Mine Safety and Environment Association’s 63rd Annual National Mine Safety and Environment Association Ceremony held on November 18, 2016, in Baguio City, Luzon, in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte awarded OCANF the Presidential Mineral Industry Environment Award. At the same event, OCANF was also awarded first place in Overall Safest Surface Mining Operation, Safest Mining Operation for the Metallic Category, and Safest Mineral Processing for the Concentrator Category. OCANF came in third place for Best Mining Forest in the Metallic Category. Each of these awards was given for OCANF’s Didipio Mine. This same mining operation is at the center of significant controversy. According to Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research’s latest briefing, OCANF has failed to meet obligations around reforestation (violating the Revised Forestry Code of the Philippines) and has also caused the depletion and contamination of water supply with copper levels at eight times the maximum level for the survival of organisms (violating the Philippine Clean Water Act of 2004).
Looking at CSR as a corporate failure is not the right way to look at this younger branch of corporate culture. CSR has done, and continues to do, exactly what it was intended to do. That is, CSR was intended to make companies more lovable and manage liability by making their human rights and environmental violations easier to digest and seemingly less offensive.
2. Questionable leadership choice
In 2018 Forbes published two articles – about four months apart – arguing that change starts at the top. And considering that the exportation of poor corporate ethics to various parts of the world create tragedies ranging from sexual violence to environmental devastation, a more experienced person in the business of systemic oppression needs to be appointed to the CORE office to manage these problems properly and bring change to these horrific tendencies that are well-established in Canada’s corporate practice abroad. And this type of experience does not necessarily come from Harvard University – Sheri Meyerhoffer’s alma mater. To say the least, Meyerhoffer is accustomed to the privileges of whiteness, and not the systemic racism that impacts access to everything between education and everyday dignity. It goes without saying that her experiences have little in common with the people she was appointed to represent and gift justice.
But it is important to speak about this leadership disparity, especially considering Canada is replete with individuals who have been directly harmed by irresponsible corporate practices within the borders of Canada. Across the globe – in both the global north and global south – the communities and individuals who are injured by Canada’s mining industry, for example, are indigenous people and almost always not-white. A person from one of Canada’s locally harmed and indigenous communities would make an ideal candidate for the CORE office as they would be able to identify with impacted communities abroad due to the fact that they are already well-versed with identifying and mediating Canadian corporate-related violations. Appointing a person from an affected community could actually introduce some expediency to the much-needed justice abroad.
Appointing a person who has more firsthand experience, rather than an abstract understanding, and direct knowledge of poor corporate practices could also increase the effectiveness of this role. According to New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, a lack of diversity in leadership roles suggests a broader issue of a non-inclusive culture. And, moreover, NYU Wagner finds that without diverse leadership, there is actually an opportunity loss for organizations focused on “pressing social issues – from education to health, environment and justice.” The Boston Consulting Group, citing anecdotal evidence, adds that innovation is another plus for diverse leadership as it leads to “unconventional solutions” that are also exceptionally promising. That is, rather than implementing upstreams tailings dams or employing cyanide poisoning to mine, local communities have alternative and sustainable solutions to mining operations that would not lead to their direct endangerment, but would impact the profit margins for the companies. For CORE to have long-term effectiveness, it will need to not only address past grievances, but it will also need to ensure that future grievances wane dramatically – which will require collaborative thinking practices and, therefore, empathy.
3. Can the complaints be heard – and in time?
The third hint that CORE is just another gift to assuage liberal guilt is how this office is designed to receive complaints – this requires the victims’ voices to get to the right place and to be heard accurately, a practice that is easier said than done. Moreover, this system is very much reactive. For instance, at this very moment in Brazil, Yamana Gold is threatening the lives of over 14,000 people with an upstream tailings dam. The potential damage would be similar to the Vale disaster that occurred earlier this year. People drowned in toxic mud and homes were washed away by the same radioactive spillage. But CORE is not designed to be proactive for situations like these. Timing is often crucial in many of the complaints against corporate violence. And without a proactive approach to these situations, the narrative that indigenous communities are uneducated and helpless remains intact. The truth of the matter is that impacted communities know long before disaster strikes how much their livelihood is threatened by these corporations.
That said, even if it is the case that complaints can be made from anywhere in the world – and CORE will soon have a digital portal for such complaints – it goes without saying that people at the Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea or downstream from a mine in Minas Gerais, for example, may also have a hard time being heard. There is no doubt that indigenous communities across the world are entirely capable of speaking their truth and translating their suffering into any language. There is doubt, however, that their voices and their stories will be taken into account.