Mr. Speaker, I agree that these are valid and important concerns, but Bill C-331 would not make Canadian companies more accountable and would not help award damages to victims.
The Federal Court is a statutory court, which means that it has only the jurisdiction explicitly conferred upon it by statute. In lawsuits against individuals and corporations, the court can only hear claims for relief arising in the federal domain, such as patent infringement or collisions at sea, which fall under Canadian maritime law. Such cases are explicitly provided for in federal law.
That is why lawsuits such as Araya v. Nevsun Resources Ltd. and Choc v. Hudbay Minerals Inc. were heard in provincial superior courts, which have jurisdiction over matters involving Canadian companies' actions abroad and, more generally, those with a real and substantial connection to the province.
Some provinces have also recognized the forum of necessity doctrine, which allows courts to assume jurisdiction in situations where the victim cannot be forced to initiate proceedings in the jurisdiction where he or she was harmed. The doctrine was applied in Bouzari v. Bahremani, an action for damages in respect of acts of torture in Iran.
Accordingly, there is no gap in domestic jurisdiction that Bill C-331 needs to fill. The provincial Superior Courts have adequate jurisdiction to address this type of claim. When Superior Courts decline to exercise jurisdiction, it is in application of well-settled rules of private international law or based on considerations of international comity.
The common law evolves gradually, incrementally taking into account developments in other jurisdictions. Recent decisions applying the doctrine of forum of necessity show that the common law can and does evolve to address accountability concerns of the kind reflected in Bill C-331.
It is worth noting that Bill C-331 is modelled on the U.S. Alien Tort Statute, which is the only legislation of its kind in force today.
The Alien Tort Statute provides, in full, “'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.” Belgium experimented with similar legislation starting in 1993, but repealed it 10 years later, in 2003.
The Alien Tort Statute is something of an anomaly. It was enacted by the first United States Congress in 1789 and lay dormant until the 1980s. It is a controversial and much litigated legislation. Its scope has been narrowed by successive decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, most recently last year when the court decided that foreign, that is, non-American, corporations could not be sued under that law.
Bill C-331 is likewise an invitation to costly and protracted litigation. As with the Alien Tort Statute, the scope of the bill is not clear and it would not assist victims in obtaining reparation.
In particular, Bill C-331 does not create any new remedies, that is, any new right of action, under federal law that the Federal Court could enforce. Rather, it merely allows the court to exercise jurisdiction where one of those violations of international law can be framed as a type of conduct that is already actionable under federal law.
Similarly, the bill does not change the private international law requirement of a real and substantial connection between the forum and the subject matter of litigation. As such, Bill C-331 would not allow foreign victims to sue foreign companies that did not carry on business in Canada in respect of their conduct abroad. The real and substantial connection test would lead a court to decline jurisdiction in such cases. This test was developed by the Supreme Court of Canada, notably in order to prevent jurisdictional overreach by the courts.
Finally, the bill would do nothing to enable claims against foreign states, which would continue to enjoy immunity pursuant to the State Immunity Act with respect to their sovereign activities outside Canada.
The victims this bill is meant to serve would not be any better off if the Federal Court had jurisdiction over their cases. On the contrary, they are more likely to find justice through the superior courts, where the law is clearer and more predictable.
Instead of providing the same remedies that can already be sought from the superior courts, this government created the ombudsperson for responsible enterprise, a world first. In April 2019, the Minister of International Trade Diversification appointed Sheri Meyerhoffer to the position.
For the victims of human rights abuses, the ombudsperson is a real and effective alternative to litigation. More specifically, the ombudsperson's mandate is to review alleged human rights abuses arising from a Canadian company’s operations abroad and to propose corrective actions, such as victim compensation. This mechanism complements the legal remedies available to victims.
In January of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada heard the Araya v. Nevsun case. The respondents were Eritrean refugees who allege that they were forced to work in an Eritrean gold mine, 60% of which is indirectly owned by the B.C. company in question.
This case raises questions directly addressed by this bill. For example, would Eritrea be the appropriate place to initiate the proceedings? What would be the scope of the act of government, which would prevent the court from ruling on the legality of a foreign state's sovereign acts within its own territory? Furthermore, the bill addresses the application of the customary standards of international law.
The Supreme Court will rule in the coming months. It would be prudent to wait for the court's ruling in this case, since the ruling could affect the content of this bill.