Are our governments ready to get serious about human rights?
On November 10, it was Canada’s turn to face the Universal Periodic Review. This is when Canada reports to its peer nations at the United Nations on what progress it has made on human rights, and these nations make recommendations about what we should do next. Canada was chastised on a number of fronts, including on its lack of progress on ensuring that people have adequate homes, health care, workplace protections, and economic well-being.
It was a sad reminder of the empty promises that successive governments have made, and broken.
We were in Geneva in 2016, when the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights reviewed how Canada had implemented these rights. We sat in the room with other advocates, policy makers, academics and lived experts, as a panel of independent experts scolded Canada for the very same lack of progress.
Clearly, Canada’s inaction is not a one-off mistake that we can blame on being distracted by the pandemic. This inaction, at all levels of government and over a period of nearly half a century, is a systemic failure to govern. We would go as far as calling it an international embarrassment.
This time around, some countries suggested that Canada sign on to an Optional Protocol, a legal instrument that would enhance our commitment to economic and social rights. But what’s the point?
Canada voted for the UN to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and acceded to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976. Our federal government passed the National Housing Strategy Act in 2019, and provinces and cities nation-wide have their own poverty reduction strategies, and charters that affirm the human right to housing and the human right to food. We have lots of commitments, lots of words on papers.
In cities across the country, people are living in parks and ravines because they cannot afford an adequate home. In Toronto, 1 in 10 people rely on food banks to get enough to eat. After paying for rent and utilities, people using food banks are trying to live on $6.67 per day. Provincial and territorial social assistance programs routinely, and by design, force people to live in poverty, and minimum wage laws allow employers to pay workers much less than it costs to live in the city where they work.
Poverty is constructed by our public policy choices. Our systems create and keep people in poverty. Governments have chosen policies that treat housing as a product best left to the market, that prioritize the voices of exploitative employers over workers, and that keep income assistance benefits at rates that don’t let people make ends meet, much less give them a fighting chance of getting out of poverty.
The good news is that we can make different choices. We don’t have to keep walking on a treadmill and sheepishly shrugging our shoulders when someone points out we haven’t gotten anywhere. Governments at all levels can take steps towards stronger social protections of our human rights and dignity.
One step is to take these obligations, and the advice of independent experts and our peer countries, seriously. It was encouraging to see high level government officials, such as the Minister of Justice, at this recent Universal Periodic Review. This is a sign that our elected leaders understand the gravity of the problem and the need for leadership to solve it.
Another important step is to talk to people and advocates about possible solutions to poverty, and to take these conversations as seriously as the ones that take place on an international stage. This too, is beginning to happen. In the next few weeks, the federal government is consulting civil society to inform its response to the recommendations stemming from the Universal Periodic Review. A next step for the future is to expand one-time consultations into ongoing, reciprocal conversations with the people and communities who are most affected by poverty. This talk should turn into a real walk, with meaningful actions measured by the impact that they have on people’s lives.
These steps, in themselves, show a growing recognition that every person has a human right to a life without poverty. We look forward to seeing governments at all levels get down to the serious work of protecting this right.