For Canada’s international human rights standing, 2012 was an annus horribilis.
This year three UN expert committees rated the country’s performance on meeting rights commitments — and returned a failing grade.
“These mandatory reviews are carried out every four or five years, and it just happened that this year Canada was the focus of three,” said Alex Neve, who heads Amnesty International Canada. “It’s a wake-up call that although we have things to be proud of, there are many fronts where we have long-standing issues that need to be addressed.”
An Amnesty report released Wednesday says that committees on racial discrimination, prevention of torture and children’s rights found “a range” of “ongoing and serious human rights challenges,” especially for indigenous peoples.
“By every measure, be it respect for treaty and land rights, levels of poverty, average life spans, violence against women and girls, dramatically disproportionate levels of arrest and incarceration or access to government services such as housing, health care, education, water and child protection, indigenous peoples across Canada continue to face a grave human rights crisis,” it said.
The Amnesty report was one of three reports this week that pointed a warning finger at the treatment of aboriginal people.
The B.C. government’s final report from its Missing Women’s inquiry charged that there was a disproportionate number of missing or murdered indigenous women and girls on Vancouver’s downtown East Side from 1997-2002, and that their cases did not receive equal treatment by police.
In addition, Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights researcher Meghan Rhoad said that “the epidemic of violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada is a national problem and it demands a national enquiry.”
The report welcomed changes to immigration and refugee laws in the past year that allowed for refugee appeals, but said they have also created two new classes of migrants and refugee claimants whose rights have been restricted.
Those designated “irregular arrivals” — such as the Sri Lankan refugee claimants who arrived in B.C. — face mandatory detention, with intermittent reviews, and if accepted as refugees are barred from travelling outside Canada for five years.
Under the new Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act, those who are accused of crimes, found guilty or labelled security threats — including permanent residents who have lived in Canada for years — will be deported without appeal. That now includes those who have committed relatively minor crimes with six-month sentences.
Meanwhile, Canadian law continues to allow deportation to countries where those rated as security threats may be tortured. And Ottawa’s refusal to bring the security certificate process in line with international fair trials standards means that people deemed security threats are denied access to key evidence and witnesses.
Amnesty said that the Harper government has “dramatically undermined and rapidly dismantled” support for public policy debate in which diverse views are aired. At the same time, whistleblowers on nuclear safety, RCMP oversight, prisoner transfers in Afghanistan and veterans’ rights have been “dismissed or publicly derided by senior members of the government.”
Human rights have also been stonewalled in international trade, the report said. There are no binding legal standards for the conduct of Canadian companies operating overseas and human rights standards are seldom written into trade deals.
“It’s time for us to grapple with the fact that we have a broken system,” said Neve in an interview earlier this week. “We don’t expect to be perfect, but it has gotten worse. How can we criticize Iran or Congo if we ourselves are failing to do what the UN is asking?”