NDP MP's bill would give foreign victims of Canadian companies their day in court


The SNC-Lavalin bribery case has educated Canadians about a certain kind of misbehaviour by Canadian companies abroad: the corruption of foreign officials. But some Canadian corporations have committed, or been complicit in, far more serious offences in foreign countries.

Those crimes include forced labour, sexual violence and murder. All too often, the companies involved have escaped even the most minimal measure of accountability.

There is currently no effective way for foreign victims of Canadian corporate malfeasance to pursue meaningful redress in Canadian courts. Vancouver-area NDP MP Peter Julian wants to change that.

For more than a decade, Julian has been pushing legislation that would give people and groups in foreign countries who have suffered from the actions of Canadian corporations a fighting chance in Canada's Federal Court.

That legislation, private member's Bill C-331, or the International Promotion and Protection of Human Rights Act (IPPHRA), is now before the House of Commons.

Allowing foreigners to sue Canadian mining companies

C-331 is a civil, not criminal, measure. It would, as Julian puts it, "allow non-citizens to sue anyone for gross violations of basic human, environmental or labour rights when they are committed outside the country."

The bill would apply to all industries, but, in fact, is focused on mining and other forms of resource extraction. Canada is a global hub for the mining and resource extraction industries. Almost all of the many mining and resource corporations headquartered here have active operations worldwide, most especially in the poorer countries of the global South.

There are credible and persistent reports of serious human rights violations associated with Canadian corporate activities in such far-flung places as Papua New Guinea, the Horn of Africa, and South and Central America. Abusive practices include not only violence against individuals, but also violations of environmental rights through wanton destruction of soil, plants, air and water, and transboundary pollution.

Peter Julian is quick to recognize that the majority of Canadian corporations operating abroad are not necessarily bad actors.

"When it comes to mining operations in particular," he told the Commons on Monday, April 29, "many Canadian companies operate in a very effective and thoughtful manner, respecting human rights."

But he is concerned about the "bad apples."

Julian cites such examples as Nevsun Resources, based in Vancouver, which is accused of having been complicit in the use of virtual slave labour at its mining operation in Eritrea.

He also points to Toronto-based Barrick Gold, which tolerated security guards burning 18 homes in the village of Porgera in Papua New Guinea, among other violent acts.

In Guatemala, Julian told the Commons, security guards for the local subsidiary of Canada's Hudbay Minerals shot and killed schoolteacher and anti-mining activist Adolfo Ich Chamán. In El Salvador "an environmental activist who had spoken out against Canadian mining operations was found killed at the bottom of a well; his fingernails had been pulled out."

Setting an example for the world

Bill C-331 would allow broad latitude for communities that have suffered such gross violations of human rights to pursue the Canadian corporate perpetrators in our Federal Court. But it would not be a panacea. Mounting a court case in a foreign country is an expensive and daunting task. People from the South who might seek access to Canada's Federal Court will probably need well-resourced Canadian allies.

Having said that, Peter Julian argues that his bill would be an important step in the right direction, and he has expressed hope that it could attract cross-party support. So far, that support has not materialized.

Both Liberal and Conservative MPs have spoken against C-331. They have focused, for the most part, not on the measure's broad objectives, but on narrow, legalistic issues. In particular, Liberals and Conservatives alike worry about the expanded role the bill would give the Federal Court.

As Conservative Michael Cooper put it: "The court would be required to consider questions relating to foreign affairs, international human rights law and international commerce. This is far outside the jurisdiction and mandate of the Federal Court and its area of expertise."

The Liberals also argue their government has done enough in the area of corporations and human rights abroad by creating the new post of ombudsperson for responsible enterprise -- a position labour and human rights groups have characterized as virtually toothless.

Julian is not giving up, however. He hopes to convince enough MPs to come around, especially those on the government benches, where they like to talk the talk of global responsibility for the environment and human rights, even if they do not always walk the walk.

The NDP MP's closing pitch to his fellow parliamentarians is that his proposed new measure would "really create a framework for the best example of human rights policy in the world."

He caps that off with an appeal to his colleagues' sense of national pride.

"Canada can be a leader," Peter Julian says. "It can be the first country in the world to implement something that other nations will look to."

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

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