Our work on human rights is far from over
This year is like the year before a big birthday – the one that makes you reflect on how you live and what you’ve done with your life so far, before you hit that milestone.
Next year in 2023, Canada will reach one such milestone: 75 years as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted in 1948. It was the product of nations coming together and asking, What are we for?
In answer, the UDHR laid out a suite of human rights that inhere in every person: civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. By signing the declaration, and the Covenants that flowed from it, Canada promised to work to make these rights a reality for every person in their everyday life.
Two generations later, we need to ask, Are we living up to our promise?
It’s easy to believe that we’ve done it. In Canada, we pride ourselves on our human rights.
But the truth is that we have much work to do. When emergency shelters turn people away each night, when employers are allowed to pay workers poverty wages, when food bank usage has tripled over the course of the pandemic, when segregation is still used in our prisons, when people are held on bail for months or years without trial, when governments reach for the notwithstanding clause at the drop of a hat and legislate that mayors may rule with only a one-third minority – we cannot say that human rights are “done” by any stretch of the imagination.
The good news is, we have shown that we can make progress when we try. We have, as a nation, as provinces and cities, put significant work into building human rights into the foundations of our systems.
Beginning in the 1950s, Canada made substantial progress on economic and social rights. We laid solid foundations in our income security system (which today includes targeted benefits for children, seniors, and people with disabilities, as well as social assistance programs), in public health care and education, and in the development of social housing.
Then we took a turn in the 1980s and 90s. Many of the gains we made eroded under the ethos of “personal responsibility” and letting the market rule. Today, income benefits are inadequate. Social housing is crumbling and falls absurdly short of the need. Our public health care system is a hair away from collapse.
We need to come back to the values we articulated in the UDHR and to our commitment to protect the dignity inherent in every human being. We need to return to focusing on and investing in our foundational systems, and on the roles and obligations of all orders of government to ensure these systems are working for everyone. We cannot content ourselves with looking back at what we once accomplished.
We have solid foundations to build on. We need to care for them. We cannot take them for granted.
Social protections cannot be left to the market, to individuals, or to politics. By nurturing and improving fundamental social protections, our governments can live up to their duty to respect, protect, and fulfill our human rights. Human rights need to be enshrined in laws, institutionalized in our systems, and measured by their realization in the daily life of each and every person in Canada.
December 10 is International Human Rights Day. This year, it reminds us to reflect on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on the progress we’ve made, and how much further we have to go. It reminds us to ask, What are we for?, and to renew our commitment to live up to its promise.