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A failing human rights grade could be the wake-up call we need
Remember that feeling of nervous dread you used to get right before a teacher handed back a test you knew you’d bombed? It’s an old feeling that’s rushing back as Canada prepares to come under review at the United Nations Human Rights Committee – only this time, the whole world is watching.
On July 23rd, the committee will announce the findings of its examination of Canada’s human rights record. This will be the country’s first review in ten years, which essentially makes it a report card about whether Canada has measured up to its human rights obligations.
A recent report by the Voices-Voix coalition, titled Dismantling Democracy, gives Canadians a taste of what might be to come.
This coalition of 200 concerned organizations and 5,000 individuals has documented more than 110 case studies, showing how the government has muzzled watchdogs, hung whistleblowers out to dry, cut funding to First Nations, veterans, women’s groups and social justice organizations, upped surveillance and intimidation of human rights advocates, curtailed environmental protection, and effectively slapped gag orders on scientists and public servants.
If this report and the UN’s recent visits to Canada are any indication, we can certainly expect a failing grade in all our key subjects: Environmental Science, Civics, Economics, Women’s Studies, Indigenous Issues, and International Relations.
In March 2015, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women said that the government’s failure to investigate and address the deaths of missing and murdered indigenous women was a violation of its international human rights obligations.
Last year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples found the government’s handling of problems faced by these communities to be “insufficient” and that tensions between the two were more “strained” than at the time of the rapporteur’s last visit in 2003.
In 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food raised an alarm about our food insecurity and worsening economic inequality levels. And before that, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Housing noted the heavy impact of inadequate housing and homelessness on the right to life.
When we connect the dots and look at the picture of the sum total of changes, it’s clear that this past decade has badly eroded Canada’s human rights reputation in the eyes of the world.
The institutional processes, collection and dissemination of information, assistance to marginalized communities, and respect for human rights have all been dramatically dismantled.
Nationally, these disturbing trends are becoming clearer to Canadians, many of whom could be personally affected by legislation condemned by many jurists as unconstitutional, such as C-51 (which could criminalize activism) and C-24 (which creates second-class citizens by giving the government power to revoke citizenship).
Internationally, Canada’s reputation has taken a nosedive. But UN scrutiny will shine more light on how Canada has become a human rights violator, rather than a human rights defender, underscoring the opinion of many of our peers – Canada has gone from peacebroker to petro-bully who doesn’t play nice with others.
Canada needs some tough love to get back on the right track and set a strong, inclusive foundation for the next ten years. The 18 international independent experts reviewing our human rights record this month may give us a failing grade, but if they do, it may be the wake-up call we need — one we can carry with us when summer comes to an end and election season arrives.
Mary Eberts, human rights lawyer
Margrit Eichler, Professor Emerita, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto
Pearl Eliadis, human rights lawyer
Yavar Hameed, lawyer & sessional instructor, Carleton University
Gregory Kealey, Emeritus Professor of History, University of New Brunswick
Ken Norman, Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Saskatchewan
Veronica Strong-Boag, Professor Emerita, University of British Columbia
Nancy Thede, Professor of International Relations, l’Université du Québec à Montréal
The authors are members of the editorial board of the Dissent, Democracy and the Law Network of the Voices-Voix Coalition.
Published: 10 July 2015
Image: Sally T. Buck