Intervenor: Vol 23. No 3 July - September 1998

UN Doubts Canada's Commitment to Human & Environmental Rights

In early September 1998, the UN's human development report once again ranked Canada first out of 174 countries in overall human development. But the widely publicized report also drew attention to Canada's comparatively poor ranking on the UN's human poverty index-10th out of 17 developed countries.

Now, as part of a lesser-known exercise, a UN committee is assessing Canada for its compliance with the 1976 Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Human Rights. Article 11 of the Covenant, which Canada signed, recognizes "the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living ... including adequate food, clothing and housing". Yet in all these areas, Canadians have recently experienced cuts, reduced access, deregulation, privatization or, as in the case of employment equity, complete elimination of policies and programs.

Last year, the federal and provincial governments submitted a report to the UN committee covering the period from 1989 to 1994, with a few limited updates on policy changes. This May, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provided more recent statistics and evidence of current conditions.

In June 1998, the UN committee presented Canadian governments with 81 specific questions about apparent human rights violations, and requested more up-to-date data on conditions facing Canadians. The due date was September 15th. At the time of this writing, we're still waiting. Clearly, the circumstances of Canadians are changing since the signing of the Covenant. The depth of poverty and insecurity is causing more serious harm for both working and unemployed families. The frequency and duration of unemployment is increasing, yet only 37% of workers are eligible for Employment Insurance. In Ontario alone, child poverty has increased 99% since 1989. Since 1995, homelessness has increased 68% and food bank usage has doubled in Ontario.

For the first time since the depression, homeless families are remaining on the streets, unable to access the overloaded shelter system. Indeed, the conditions facing many poor people can truly be called absolute poverty-defined by lack of access to the basic necessities of life. How has this happened in the "best country to live in"? For one thing, the Canada Health and Social Transfer Act (CHST), pushed through by the federal budget in 1995, was a significant factor in undermining the rights and living conditions of the poor. (The impact of this change was not reflected in Canada's report to the UN.) The 1995 budget laid out $7 billion in cuts, bringing transfers down to 1951 levels. As politicians debate what to do with the Employment Insurance "surplus", we should remember our signature on the UN Covenant obliges Canada to use its maximum available resources to progressively achieve the rights of the Covenant for all Canadians.

The CHST also gave the provinces jurisdiction over social services and freed them from federal standards that provided some protection for the rights of people in need. In the wake of the CHST, there has also been a radical shift towards a United States style of social devolution. This raises serious questions about the honesty of government commitments to human rights and all other international treaties and agreements they have signed. The committee also wants to know if, or how, Canada is planning to uphold human rights under free trade agreements like NAFTA which allow foreign corporations to compete for privatized services and to effectively prevent governments from passing legislation to protect its most vulnerable citizens, see related information below. As the federal government continues to cede control to provinces and corporations, Ontario has taken the opportunity to cut environmental protections and programs. We can no longer exercise the right to protect our environment even though a healthy environment is the foundation of all human rights. 

Canadian organizations concerned about economic justice and human rights took the initiative to report to the United Nations Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights as a means of raising these important issues and pushing for accountability to basic human rights in Canada. It is due to their efforts that Canadian governments now have to defend their record to a UN committee. The UN committee has asked some hard questions. As our governments celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this November, we should all be interested in the answers.

Josephine Grey was the Canadian observer for domestic issues to the World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen 1995. She is currently the Executive Director of LIFT (Low Income Families Together). CELA is working with LIFT to help write the Ontario People's Report to the United Nations, aimed at countering the rhetoric from the government about how well it respects human rights and the terms of the 1976 Covenant.