Following the conclusion of a meeting of Federal, Provincial and Territorial Ministers responsible for human rights, 26 of the civil society groups that took part in a discussion session with ministers during the meeting condemned the obstructive attitude of some governments and expressed disappointment that, overall, governments continue to fall far short of advancing the collaborative agenda that is so sorely needed to ensure consistent and effective implementation of the country’s international human rights obligations.
The meeting, two consecutive half-days over the course of November 9 and 10, marks only the third time in the past 32 years that ministers from across the country have come together to discuss human rights protection in Canada. Previous meetings were held in 1988 and 2017. This sporadic political attention to an intergovernmental human rights agenda in Canada is disgraceful and has long been a source of serious concern among civil society groups, Indigenous organizations, United Nations human rights bodies and parliamentary committees.
In advance of and during this week’s meeting, groups had pressed governments to commit to nation-wide law reform that will legally require governments to adopt a collaborative, accountable, consistent, transparent, well-coordinated approach to effectively implementing international human rights obligations in Canada. People across the country require and deserve nothing less. No such commitment was made.
Only one new concrete commitment emerged from this week’s meeting, the establishment of a Forum of Ministers on Human Rights, which will meet every two years. There had been no advance engagement with civil society about the Forum, or even notification of the intention to take this step. Civil society groups cautiously welcome this development and hope that it will provide the intergovernmental political leadership and coordination that has been so sorely lacking for decades in Canada. It is essential that the Forum include meaningful engagement with Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and civil society groups. With no further information as to its mandate or working methods, what the Forum will truly offer remains uncertain at this stage.
Groups were particularly shocked that two provincial governments essentially boycotted this week’s meeting. The governments of Quebec and Alberta refused to send their responsible ministers to participate in the meeting and instead designated government officials to observe the proceedings.
- The government of Quebec declined to participate because of opposition to plans to include references to “systemic” racism in the final communiqué, a position that blatantly ignores the undeniable reality of deeply-rooted systemic racism in the province and across Canada, and thus reaffirms systemic racism as a nationwide reality.
- The government of Alberta did not participate because it considers that the province is not bound to report on or engage with international instruments or mechanisms to which it is not a Party, a position that contravenes international law which makes it clear that federalism is no excuse or justification for failing to comply with international obligations.
The politicized and groundless positions taken by these two governments, and their cavalier willingness to stay away from such an important meeting, in both instances sell human rights short, a particularly troubling stance given the serious human rights challenges in the country and how infrequently these meetings have occurred.
In 2017, meeting for the first time in 29 years, ministers made several commitments to strengthen their collaboration in protecting human rights across Canada. The lack of meaningful progress since has been staggering and remains so after this week’s meeting:
- In 2017 Ministers had taken account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call on federal, provincial and territorial governments to “fully adopt and implement” the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Three years later, only the governments of British Columbia and the Northwest Territories have done so, while the federal government promises that legislation will be introduced by the end of this year. It is a shocking and unacceptable omission to see no reference to the Declaration in the final communiqué from this week’s meeting.
- In 2017 Ministers had reaffirmed their commitment to the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights, highlighted the importance of these rights and agreed to promote human rights principles in developing social policy. However, the pandemic has cast a stark light on Canada’s failure to implement social and economic rights, and the threat to life and health which that failure creates for those who are most disadvantaged. Urgent collaborative action by governments, working together to implement social and economic rights, is necessary now. Given the mounting threats to human rights posed by climate change and other ecological crises, it is essential that environmental rights be added to the equation. But, unfortunately, during the past eight months of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, no government has applied – equitably or otherwise – an explicit economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights framework to analyze the problems laid bare, or to structure solutions.
A widely-endorsed proposal in April 2020 from 302 civil society groups, Indigenous peoples’ organizations and a broad spectrum of subject matter experts to federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments to institute meaningful human rights oversight of their COVID-19 responses has not been taken up by any government in the country.
At the current meeting, Ministers discussed the human rights implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and agreed that it is “important that human rights principles be considered in the development of plans for a strong and equitable recovery from the pandemic for all Canadians” but in no way acknowledged or even referenced social and economic rights. The proposal for human rights oversight of COVID-19 responses was not addressed.
In 2017 Ministers committed to consider moving towards acceding to three important international human rights treaties. Canada did subsequently become a party to one of those instruments, the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But there appears to be no prospect of Canada becoming party to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, which establishes crucial mechanisms for the prevention of torture, or the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances at any point in the near future. At this week’s meeting ministers went no further than to reiterate that they are considering the possibility of accession to these treaties.
Moreover, Canada has also still not ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, or any of the Organization of American States’ human rights treaties. There has been no public reporting as to why Canada has not ratified these treaties.
In 2017 Ministers also committed to institute structural reforms to improve their coordination and collaboration in complying with the country’s international human rights obligations:
- They agreed to “enhance FPT collaboration through a senior level mechanism”. A Senior Officials Committee Responsible for Human Rights has been established, but it does not report publicly, does not disclose its agenda, and does not have any regular engagement with civil society or Indigenous peoples’ organizations. This Committee will now receive direction from the soon to be established Forum of Ministers for Human Rights.
- They pledged to develop a “protocol for following up on the recommendations that Canada receives from international human rights bodies and a stakeholder engagement strategy.” To the surprise of our organizations a protocol and strategy were adopted by ministers attending this meeting, with minimal consultation over the past three years. The lack of meaningful engagement with stakeholders in the development of a stakeholder engagement strategy has been particularly glaring. While the protocol and strategy were both endorsed at the meeting they have yet to be released publicly or shared with civil society groups.
That governments remain so reluctant and seemingly unable to reliably work together in taking up the collective responsibility they share to ensure that Canada’s international human rights obligations are consistently and effectively implemented is unfathomable.
Canada’s haphazard and ineffectual approach to intergovernmental coordination in implementing human rights obligations is of twofold concern. First, it is clearly a serious problem domestically, as it undermines efforts to address grave and longstanding human rights violations. Second, it means that Canada’s global human rights diplomacy is weakened, making it impossible for our diplomats to encourage other nations to take steps that we have failed to take ourselves.
Looking ahead, there are important human rights opportunities that federal, provincial and territorial governments, working with Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and civil society groups, must seize. For instance, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the World Conference Against Racism and its Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, and the 60th anniversary of the UN’s Refugee Convention. Also in 2021, Canada’s human rights record is slated for review by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Many of our groups have made numerous presentations and recommendations at various meetings with governments over many years, laying out suggestions for improving their approach to implementing human rights. It has become clear that the solution does not lie in tweaks to what is already in place, but rather bold leadership to advance a truly transformative human rights agenda.
Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights
Amnesty International Canada (English Branch)
Amnistie Internationale Canada Francophone
BC Civil Liberties Association
The Black Coalition of Quebec
Canada Without Poverty
Canadian Civil Liberties Association
Canadian Council for Refugees
Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action
Center for Equality Rights in Accommodation
Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic
Colour of Poverty – Colour of Change
Council of Agencies Serving South Asians
Climate Action Network Canada
Independent Jewish Voices Canada
International Longevity Centre Canada
National Right to Housing Network
Rise Women’s Legal Centre
Social Rights Advocacy Centre
South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO)
Women’s Law Association of Ontario
Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)
To arrange interviews:
Lucy Scholey, Media Relations Officer, Amnesty International Canada (English branch), 613-853-2142, firstname.lastname@example.org
Camille Ducroquet, Responsable des communications, Amnistie internationale Canada francophone, 514-766-9777 poste 5236, email@example.com