The Corporate Citizen & COVID-19: Session 2: Human Rights and the Corporation

December 2, 2020

The Corporate Citizen & COVID-19: Session 2: Human Rights and the Corporation

Session two of The Corporate Citizen & COVID-19 focuses on the human rights impact of multinational corporations, what they are doing to address this issue, and what national governments and international institutions are doing to strengthen corporate accountability. Expert panellists discuss how human rights have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and how corporations are both contributing to and working to mitigate these effects. They consider how government and industry action in the coming months could strengthen socio-economic justice and shape a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.


  • John PackerDirector, Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa


  • Daniel Fombonne, Senior Legal Counsel, Director (Global Compliance), Kinross
  • Rebecca Johnson, Professor, University of Victoria
  • Bonnie Leonard, Legal Advisor, Assembly of First Nations
  • Jason MacLean, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, University of New Brunswick, and Adjunct Professor, School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan
  • Sheri Meyerhoffer, Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise

Written Summary of Session 2: Human Rights and the Corporation

By: Veronica Cesario, Law Student, University of Ottawa

This panel series, The Corporate Citizen in the Time of COVID-19, was co-hosted by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre (HRREC). Oonagh Fitzgerald, HRREC senior fellow, former director of international law at CIGI and editor of the new book Corporate Citizen: New Perspectives on the Globalized Rule of Law, welcomed participants, gave a land acknowledgement, thanked the co-sponsors and provided a brief overview of the book that inspired the panel series. She then introduced the moderator for this session, John Packer. Packer is the director of HRREC and the Neuberger-Jesin Professor of International Conflict Resolution in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa.

For this event, the second in the series, the topic was human rights and the corporation. The panellists were Daniel Fombonne, Rebecca Johnson, Bonnie Leonard, Jason MacLean and Sheri Meyerhoffer. Daniel Fombonne is senior legal counsel and director of global compliance at Kinross Gold. Rebecca Johnson is a professor of law and the associate director of the Indigenous Law Research Unit at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law. Bonnie Leonard is a legal adviser for the Assembly of First Nations. Johnson and Leonard co-authored the chapter “‘Coyote and the Cannibal Boy’: Secwépemc Insights on the Corporation” in Corporate Citizen. Jason MacLean is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of New Brunswick, and an adjunct professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan. He is also the co-author, with Chris Tollefson, of the chapter “Foreign Wrongs, Corporate Rights and the Arc of Transnational Law” in Corporate Citizen. Sheri Meyehoffer is the first person to be appointed to the office of Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE).

The session focused on how human rights and corporations are being affected by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and how government and industry can work together to strengthen economic justice and shape a stronger recovery from the pandemic. Meyerhoffer started the discussion by explaining the role of the CORE. The CORE receives and reviews complaints of alleged human rights abuses arising from the operations of Canadian companies operating abroad in the mining, oil and gas, and garment sectors. Using non-judicial dispute resolution mechanisms, the CORE works with parties to try and resolve the complaint. The CORE uses proactive tools to promote the United Nations Principles on Business and Human Rights, reviews alleged human rights issues, and recommends remedies to Canadian companies to address human rights abuses.

Packer then invited panellists to discuss the human rights impact of multinational corporations, what these companies are doing to address human rights issues, and what governmental organizations and institutions are doing to strengthen corporate accountability for human rights.

Fombonne discussed supply chains and how companies have developed sustainability programs. He argued that corporations should be increasing awareness among employees, conducting human rights impact assessments, conducting risk assessments, monitoring third parties and partnering with good business partners. Johnson commented that it is important to define what business and accountability mean during these times and which corporations are responsible for human rights violations. Leonard provided the Secwépemc perspective, according to which individuals owe a duty to the land and resources, to community, to nation and to self. She discussed the human rights impacts caused by decades of racist control of Indigenous lives and communities under the Indian Act. Using online company Amazon’s “Climate Pledge” as an example, MacLean focused on the pledges and commitments made by powerful corporations and how they do not always fulfill what they have promised. Meyerhoffer discussed what the government is doing to strengthen corporate accountability. The CORE was intended to improve mechanisms of accountability by adding powers to review, investigate and address systemic issues in the covered industries. Johnson discussed the J.D./Indigenous Legal Orders program at the University of Victoria, which explores questions about competing legal orders and the Canadian state’s authority to make law on unceded Indigenous territory. Johnson emphasized the need to put Indigenous and Canadian colonial legal orders into conversation with each other to create a better system of governance.

Fombonne noted that companies operating globally as guests in foreign host communities often receive their licence to operate from the state rather than the local community. While the central goal of a corporation is profit, the corporation’s stakeholders may have a variety of competing goals. It is important to facilitate dialogue to ensure that the goals of various stakeholders can be reconciled. MacLean suggested that human rights and environmental pledges by transnational corporations are mostly voluntary, rather than legally binding, such that corporations do only as much as they want and nothing more. There is a need for better transnational governance mechanisms that enlist the capacity of transnational corporations to address global issues.

Leonard discussed the issue of sovereignty, specifically for Indigenous nations who have not yet signed treaties; the impacts of colonization; assimilation; and the lack of education about Indigenous legal traditions. Leonard explained that Indigenous laws and social orderings are preserved in oral traditions and stories, and shared an example of a community in British Columbia that successfully went to court to assert sovereignty over their child welfare system. In continuing the discussion of “substantial inequality of actors” — for example, victims of human rights violations versus multinational corporations operating under a licence granted by the host government — Meyerhoffer discussed the role of the CORE to help rebalance that imbalance of power. The CORE is working with Indigenous scholars to look at Indigenous laws and practices in Canada and in other countries as knowledge sources.

The next topic of discussion was the role of corporations in experiencing and addressing the health challenges and human rights impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fombonne discussed how the pandemic had made the gaps in government services and supports more visible. This gap has created an opportunity for corporations to respond in creative ways but may have generated additional risks for government. Leonard argued that corporations have a moral obligation to adapt so that they can provide essential services to the vulnerable, offering the example of a First Nations distillery business that recently invested to change their equipment to make hand sanitizer. Leonard also noted the disproportionate effect that COVID-19 has had on Indigenous communities, an effect exacerbated by years of underfunding by the Canadian government. MacLean commented that while corporations have enormous capacity to address problems arising from COVID-19, many are failing to rise to the challenge, noting that Amazon has been slow to improve working conditions in warehouses despite the health risks to employees from COVID-19.

Johnson discussed how COVID-19 has made human rights issues related to precarity, gender and race more visible, reflecting a historical pattern about relational vulnerabilities. COVID-19 has brought to the surface the necessity of relationships of care to sustain life. The corporation can respond well if its leaders are aware of the way the corporation is nested in relations. Indigenous legal history has dealt with these sorts of issues already: looking back to the Cannibal Boy story can help us understand that there are different challenges in and ways for responding to this type of crisis. Meyerhoffer discussed the human rights aspects of corporations in the garment industry, which mostly employ women. If these businesses are forced to close due to the pandemic, women are negatively affected. Businesses need to respect the right to a livelihood and the right to health, while embracing the idea of adaptation to address conflicting issues and inequalities.

Packer closed the session by asking how the government and corporate sectors can work to shape ecological justice in the post-pandemic recovery. Leonard discussed how COVID-19 had slowed work on justice for Indigenous peoples and that the government has stalled in implementing Indigenous child welfare reform, with the result that Indigenous children in care face continued restrictions on parental visitation rights and access to justice. Indigenous peoples’ calls for pandemic recovery assistance could focus on the forestry and mining industries but, most importantly, should emphasize the idea of reciprocal relationships.

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