Lawyer with local roots heads national watchdog agency

Canadian corporations are expected to act the same way in other countries as they do in Canada – no better but definitely no worse, obeying local and Canadian laws. When a question arises about a Canadian company’s actions in another country, it can be referred to the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise.

Sheri Meyerhoffer, a lawyer originally from Claresholm, has been given the task by the federal government to establish the office and be that ombudsperson. “It’s very exciting,” she said in a phone interview. “Because I get to build something.”

Canadian companies do a lot of business in other countries in mining, oil and gas, and the garment industry. In fact, about 60 per cent of mining companies are Canadian. Because of that large presence, the Canadian government felt it mattered how they did business abroad. If they did something wrong, that would come back to Canada. It was important no harm was done by Canadian companies to local populations. Consequently, round tables were held, and some agreement reached. The result was the Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor, appointed in 2009 by the Stephen Harper government, and appointed again in 2014.

However, it was felt not enough resources were devoted to that. So, the current government has created the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, the first of its kind in the world. It is more expansive than the Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor. The goal is to ensure responsible business conduct and that people are hired locally, treated well, and no pollution occurs. Meyerhoffer was appointed on April 8, but did not start until May 1, with nothing but an empty office space.

Now, she has been going through human resource processes and will have a permanent staff of eight people. The ombudsperson has several mandates including promoting United Nations guiding principles; and advising Canadian companies operating abroad on best practices and policies regarding responsible business conduct. The ombudsperson also reviews allegations of human rights abuses. Recommendations can be made for mediation or arbitration. There can be an independent fact-finding review, and remedies can be recommended if harm has occurred. That could mean an apology, land remediation if there was environmental damage, or other measures. Meyerhoffer said they are not asking Canadian companies to do more or less than they do in Canada, where responses are usually fines or penalties. Another aspect of the office is prevention.

“We don’t have to wait for a complaint,” Meyerhoffer said, or wait for harm to occur. Right now, the ombudsperson is putting processes in place to carry out its mandates. “We don’t have a global regulatory system,” Meyerhoffer said. “Canada is the first one to take a stab at this.” So much so, Meyerhoffer has been contacted by other countries to see how the work is progressing. “It’s pretty exciting,” she said. “I have nothing to copy.”

However, they have looked at other human rights ombudsoffices, such as the World Bank. But, the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise will be new. “And we’re going to try it out,” Meyerhoffer said. Originally from Claresholm, she spent 17 years as a lawyer in oil and gas then transitioned into international development where she spent 13 years, including helping draft a constitution in Nepal. She then attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. One of her professors had advised the Canadian government on this responsible enterprise office, then it was announced it was being created.

“This is my job,” Meyerhoffer recalled sayinmg at the time. She asked how to apply, and checked out the website that contained the order in council that established the office. The job was posted after she graduated, and she applied in July of 2018. The process involved three interviews and numerous checks. She was notified she got the job in March of 2019.

“I was thrilled to get it,” Meyerhoffer said. She is based in Ottawa, where a lot of other international bodies are also located.

The position is a five-year term, which is renewable for another five years. Curently, she is building the infrastructure of the office, but it is open for business. They are already consulting with industry, government and organizations, and have started research and reviews.

A complaint process is being drafted where all stakeholders will be consulted. Everyone will see that draft, provide comments, and necessary amendments will be made. They are looking at having the process in place tentatively by January of 2020.

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