What should the right to education look like in Canada?
Published on 26/11/2018
Too often, the right to education — a fundamental human right as laid out in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — is understood as an issue facing individuals and communities outside of Canada. We think about a lack of schools, teachers or textbooks, or unequal access to schools for girls and young women in the developing world, but not about the state of the right to education at home.
But much like the realization of other social and economic rights — such as the right to housing — the realization of the right to education in advanced economies such as Canada has lagged behind political and civil rights. A recent UNICEF report, for instance, highlights the merits of Canada’s public education system, while also drawing attention to systemic inequities that are leaving some students behind. In many cases, the report shows that these gaps are directly linked to the attainment of other social and economic rights, like the right to health and the right to income security.
To get a better understanding of what the right to education looks like in Canada — in particular, Ontario — Maytree is partnering with People for Education, an independent, non-partisan, charitable organization working to support and advance public education through research, policy analysis, and public engagement.
The goal is to develop a framework for understanding education as a human right, including a set of key indicators by which to measure our progress on providing education to young people that is in accordance with Canada’s human rights obligations and prepares them for long-term success in the 21st century.
The project will be guided by a working table of experts from across a number of sectors, to provide direction, advice, and expertise as the project moves forward. Experts include representatives from the TDSB, UNICEF Canada, Equitas, Ontario’s Education Equity Secretariat, the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Six Nations Polytechnique , the Social Rights Advocacy Centre, and York University. We expect to bring more participants on board as we move forward.
We begin with three main questions as we embark on this project:
1. How well is Canada living up to its international obligations in terms of education as a human right?
Canada has affirmed the right to education as a signatory to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It is also a signatory to the UN 2030 Agenda & Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015 including SDG 4, committing Canada to providing equitable, inclusive quality education promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. However, more work needs to be done to elaborate the components of this SDG in order to hold our governments accountable.
2. Why are some students in Ontario unable to realize their right to education? What are the barriers?
Canada has a well-developed public education system, with broad access, highly skilled teachers, and strong outcomes. However, not everyone experiences the same outcomes. The right to education in Canada has not been clearly defined and is not experienced equally: Indigenous peoples, racialized communities, children with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups are more likely to face barriers in achieving their right to education to the fullest extent possible.
Collaborating with parents, students, and affected communities, we want to explore what the violations of the right to education look like and what solutions there are to remove existing barriers.
3. What issues, challenges, and opportunities emerge when we frame educational attainment as a human right?
In Canada, discussions around public education are often centered on equity and freedom from discrimination. These are, of course, crucial concerns; we must continue to bring attention to the ways in which students are denied equal treatment, and work to address those systemic barriers.
But our hope is that situating these concerns within a larger human rights framework will allow us to raise the bar even further, to not only address inequities within the current system but also elaborate the positive duties of governments and other institutions to uphold the right to an education that allows all students to succeed in the world today. This framing is guided by our belief that the most enduring solutions to poverty can be found by protecting social and economic rights — including the right to education — for all people in Canada.
We look forward to sharing new ideas, insights, and resources over the next year.
Read the Maytree opinion on the right to education.