A human rights bill put forward by New Westminster-Burnaby MP Peter Julian could have far-reaching implications for Canadian companies that allow abuses to take place under their watch.
But only if it moves forward – not a given since it’s a private member’s bill.
Julian calls his riding of New Westminster-Burnaby one of the “most multicultural parts of Canada” and, with 150 languages spoken, it’s a “microcosm of the planet.”
But many of his constituents have come from countries where the rule of law isn’t as strong as it is in Canada. This has motivated Julian to push for new legislation.
“We have Canadians from a wide variety of backgrounds who have come to live together in our community and many of them bring, especially the refugees, sometimes horrific tales of abuse and human rights violations taking place,” Julian said. “And I think that’s really the inspiration behind this landmark legislation.”
He knows there are people in his riding who never got justice for things that happened to them, nor were they compensated in any way and the perpetrators have gone free.
Bill C-331, created by human rights legal experts and endorsed by a group of Canadian labour lawyers, could have legal implications for those committing human rights, labour and environmental violations outside of Canada.
It is entitled the International Promotion and Protection of Human Rights Act, first introduced in Parliament in 2016 by Julian. Bill C-331 is scheduled to come for second reading either before or just after the Christmas break.
The bill would give Canadian federal courts the ability to hear civil claims for allegations of wrong-doings that took place in foreign countries by any company or employees of a company that has assets in Canada. A non-Canadian could sue for violations of human, environmental and labour rights committed outside of Canada with no time limitation period.
Julian said there’s concern about the “increasing impunity” of human rights violations around the world – people being tortured and sexually assaulted, as well as environmental activists being killed.
“They’re taking place with impunity because the judicial system is paid off, the police, unlike in Canada, are corrupt, there’s no system of checks and balances,” Julian said, adding that Canada could play a “major role” in reversing human rights violations.
The legislation also covers environmental rights and human rights violations against environmental activists, something Julian says is important for younger people in particular.
“Creating a better planet also means respecting the environment, and right now in many parts of the world, environmental activists are killed for their beliefs, and so that brings an end to that impunity on the environment as well,” he said.
This bill was crafted already in 2006 by Nick Milanovic, an adjunct professor with the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University, and Mark Rowlinson, assistant to the director of United Steelworkers – both of them working with Julian to write it.
Milanovic said this legislation would fill a gap to address human rights, labour and environmental abuses in countries that aren’t well regulated by the law.
“If you’re a local who has been harmed by that activity, you might not turn to your courts because you know your courts are corrupt or there isn’t any regulation because the government isn’t that concerned with how its people get treated,” he said.
The legislation allows these people to get a fair process in law and a determination in Canada, and if they win the civil claim, there would be some form of sanction.
“That is light years ahead of many areas of the world that just don’t have sophisticated or modern or fair legal systems,” Milanovic said.
If passed, Bill C-331 would provide “legally enforceable rights” for people to come to Canada and sue those they are accusing of abusing their human rights, Milanovic explained, adding that a Canadian court would provide a hearing and make a decision that could render liability and damages, that is, money.
“When a company faces a loss to their bottom line, they tend to correct their behaviour,” he said.
This would be a “very powerful” piece of legislation, Milanovic explained.
“If this law were to pass, it would be the leading model in the world for other countries, other jurisdictions to consider because, all of a sudden, Canadian corporations around the world would be subject to a real enforceable court procedure if they were to go astray of these very basic human rights,” he said.
Both Milanovic and Rowlinson had experience with a very old piece of American legislation called the Alien Tort Claims Act, written by the founding fathers.
This act was pulled out and used for about 20 years fairly successfully to sue American companies that committed acts outside the U.S. It is a short statute, Milanovic explained. (“The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”) And, therefore, judges needed to interpret it. However, after a couple decades of success, it was curtailed by “conservative judicial activism,” he said.
“The Americans have a law, it took a long time to discover the law and they spent about 20 years developing it into something powerful,” Milanovic said. “Then the American courts began to rule in ways that many in the human rights community would argue is contrary to the intention of the law in the first place.”
The bill being put forward by Julian is much more detailed than the American statute, Milanovic explained, so as not to have the same outcome.
Bill C-331 has been endorsed by the Canadian Association of Labour Lawyers and other civil society groups and experts.
Because there is no funding attached to the bill, private organizations, like non-profits, would have to pay the legal costs. But there are many civil organizations, like MiningWatch, that keep an eye how Canadian corporations are behaving outside of Canada, and they have levelled claims against mining companies and oil and gas companies, Milanovic explained.
If this kind of bill were passed, a human rights lawyer anywhere in the world would see there’s a real venue to come to because it’s a much more detailed statute than the American one, he said, and it would be beneficial to human rights activists around the world.