Inequality, in our own backyard: Canada’s human rights record

I finished facilitating a workshop yesterday for the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights in Edmonton. On the last day, participants split themselves into small groups to address current human rights issues in Canada. The topics? Discrimination (in the form of hate crimes), poor quality of services to First Nations families having a detrimental effect on their children, disappearances of Aboriginal women, and disability rights (mental and physical). Participants read through the case studies and tried to identify what a rights-based response would be. In other words, who the rights-holders are (typically the victims), who the duty-bearers are (typically state actors like police officers or government officials), what rights are in question, and how the situations can be improved by creating solutions that empower those whose rights are violated and hold accountable those who have obligations to realize those rights. 

I was impressed by the energy with which the participants tackled the issues and made reference to an abundance of international human rights standards. What was apparent by the end of each group’s presentation was that the government – Oh Canada! – wasn’t doing its job, or at least not doing enough. This was particularly apparent when examining the access, quality, quantity, and affordability of services to First Nations communities. In one of the cases examined, we find out that the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The Commission agreed that First Nations children were being discriminated against and referred the case to the Human Rights Tribunal. (The full ruling can be found here.)

The federal government strongly opposed the hearing. And the federal government lawyers also argued that the Tribunal should not make any use of international human rights standards such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Canada is legally bound, in ruling on the underfunding of First Nations children’s services.

It’s no wonder a country like Canada, once justifiably proud of its human rights record on the world stage, is losing a lot of respect internationally on this front. I’m getting tired of travelling outside the country and having people come up to me and say, “What happened in Canada? You used to support human rights more than other countries.”

I’m glad I got the chance to facilitate this course. After years of facilitating overseas, dealing with other peoples’ human rights issues, it was about time I took a look at what’s happening in my own backyard. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

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