Upcoming review by UN anti-racism committee crucial test of Trudeau government’s commitments

Craig Benjamin, Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Amnesty International Canada


Gloria Nafziger, Refugee Campaigner for Amnesty International Canada

A federal government that has branded itself as internationally engaged and committed to human rights is expected to face tough questions this week when its record is reviewed by the United Nations top anti-racism body. How the Trudeau government responds will be a crucial test of its willingness to match lofty rhetoric with real and meaningful action.

This week’s hearing before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is one of a series of periodic reviews where independent, expert committees examine how well states are living up to their commitments under the various international human rights treaties that they’ve ratified. There were similar reviews of Canada in 2016 before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The review under the anti-racism convention is particularly significant, however, because it is centrally concerned with issues such as Indigenous rights and the treatment of migrants and refugees where the Trudeau government has staked its claim to be a “compassionate and constructive voice in the world.” Furthermore, falling almost two years into the Trudeau government’s mandate, this review will be the first where it is really this government’s record that is at stake, rather than that of its predecessor.

Unfortunately, however, the Trudeau government’s record on these matters has been decidedly mixed.

When the anti-racism committee last reviewed Canada in 2012, it expressed concern over the licensing of destructive development projects without Indigenous peoples’ consent, the failure to respect and uphold Treaties with Indigenous peoples, and the many barriers to justice for such human rights violations.

In light of these concerns, consider the support that the Trudeau government has given the Kinder Morgan Pipeline and the Site C dam despite clear rejection by First Nations. In the case of Site C, federal lawyers actually stood up in court to defend the ability of government to make such important decisions without even considering whether Treaty rights might be violated. According the federal government, if the First Nations impacted by Site C want justice, they need to launch an even longer, costlier court process – one that would almost certainly not be completed before their lands are flooded.

The anti-racism committee also encouraged Canada to adopt a concrete national action plan for implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Despite welcome pledges to fully implement the Declaration – a dramatic reversal from the Harper government’s hostility toward the Declaration –  Canada under the Trudeau government does not appear significantly closer to having such a plan.

In 2012, the anti-racism committee raised concerns about the large numbers of First Nations children who continue to be taken away from their families, communities and cultures and placed into state care. Since then, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has ruled that systemic underfunding and other inequities have denied First Nations families the supports they need to ensure that children’s needs can be met at home.  The federal government’s ongoing failure to comply with the Tribunal’s ruling continues to perpetuate this same injustice.

In respect to migrants and refugees, the Trudeau government can point to important steps forward, including a significant Syrian refugee resettlement program, restoration of health care funding for refugees, and the repeal of a discriminatory citizenship-stripping law. Despite these substantial accomplishments, however, there are a number of very serious ongoing concerns, including significant problems in the approach taken to immigration detention and a failure to comply with UN recommendations that essential health care be accessible to anyone present in Canada, regardless of immigration status. 

Of particularly urgent concern is the unconscionable refusal to suspend the Canada/US Safe Third Country Agreement which denies most refugees, passing through the United States, access to Canada on the assumption that the United States is a ‘safe’ country in which to launch an asylum claim. Keeping the Canadian border closed to these asylum seekers blatantly violates international legal standards and risks denying refuge to deserving claimants who have every reason to fear that they will not find safety in the US.

UN treaty body reviews like next week’s hearing before the anti-racism committee are intended as catalysts for bringing state practices in line with their international commitments. When concerns over Indigenous land rights, the treatment of migrants and refugees, and other issues are raised before the anti-racism committee next week, it’s an opportunity for the federal government to make concrete commitments to do better.

Previous federal governments had an unfortunate track record of ignoring inconvenient criticism from UN human rights bodies. The Trudeau government can demonstrate that its pledge to stand up for human rights is sincere and meaningful by listening – and acting.