It was only a few years ago when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper floated the idea that the animal which would now best represent Canada is...a wolverine. Speaking on Canada – U.S relations, he was elaborating on his theory that Canada, “may be smaller, but we're no less fierce about protecting our territory.” The beaver, Canada's official national animal, apparently paints a picture which is altogether too peaceful and constructive for the Prime Minister. To be more accurate though, the image of the three, “See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” monkeys covering their eyes, ears, and mouths would be best suited to describe the Canadian government. Just look at its shameful denials of a recent flurry of official criticisms of its human rights abuses by the United Nations.
The Canadian government seems to think that if it pretends not to see its human rights abuses, does not talk about its human rights abuses, and does not listen to others pointing out its human rights abuses, that it is basically not accountable for having committed them in the first place. The irony is that it is so quick and to speak out and act out against other countries which it deems to have violated human rights.
Lack of Food for Thought
Canada's publicity problems flared up in May, when the UN right-to-food envoy Oliver de Schutter made an 11 day official visit. The trip included visits to remote indigenous communities and urban centres where he found, “very desperate conditions and people who are in extremely dire straits.” The government refused to arrange any meetings between him and cabinet ministers, which is essentially unheard of internationally. Instead, they focused on bashing him in the media. Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq called de Shutter “ill informed” and “patronizing” when talking about the massive health problems of northern indigenous communities. Meanwhile, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Inuit Circumpolar Institute submission to the UN envoy pointed out government-funded research that shows that 68.8% of adults in Nunavut do not have secure access to food — six times higher than the Canadian average.
De Shutter responded to the criticism with facts, “It’s even more shocking to me to see that there are 900,000 households in Canada that are food insecure and up to 2.5 million people precisely because this is a wealthy country. It’s even less excusable,” he continued, “It’s not because the country is a wealthy country that there are no problems. In fact, the problems are very significant and, frankly, this sort of self-righteousness about the situation being good in Canada is not corresponding to what I saw on the ground, not at all.”
How Many Rights Can you Violate at Once?
The beginning of June saw more troubles for Canada's human rights record, when the UN Committee Against Torture issued a damning report focusing on several alarming situations, and listed more than 20 reforms that Canada must enact to comply with the Convention Against Torture it signed on to in 1985.
The Committee’s report found the Canadian military knowingly complicit in torture and human rights abuses against detainees in Afghanistan and Canadian citizens in third countries. It also drew special attention to Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who has been imprisoned in the notorious Guanatanmo Bay prison for 10 years, since he was 15 years old! A deal was made to return him to Canada, but Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has so far refused to approve the transfer.
The use of “security certificates” to indefinitely imprison “suspected terrorists” without providing any evidence was also found to be a clear violation of due process, and the report also added that, "information obtained by torture has been reportedly used to form the basis of security certificates...”
The reports found fault as well with recently passed Bill C-31, which gives unilateral power to “ministerial discretion” over refugee decisions and includes mandatory detention for individuals who “irregularly” enter Canada and excludes them and nationals of so called "safe" countries from having an appeal hearing of a rejected refugee claim. These changes, the report pointed out, mean the principle of non-refoulement could not be inadequately upheld in Canadian legislation and practice. “Non refoulement” is a principle of international law whereby refugees cannot be returned to places where their lives are at risk.
Canada didn't fare any better as June came to a close either. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned Quebec’s Bill 78, which restricts and criminalizes public protests and threatens huge fines in response to a growing wave of student protests against raises to tuition fees. "Moves to restrict freedom of assembly in many parts of the world are alarming," she said. "In the context of student protests, I am disappointed by the new legislation passed in Quebec that restricts their rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly." This was followed two days later by the UN special rapporteur Maina Kiai, who listed Canada as one of the countries where “the laws are particularly harsh in terms of restricting the freedom of association.”
It Doesn't Matter How Many Fingers You Point Elsewhere
The response to these criticisms by the Canadian government was a complete lack of responsibility, and an attempt to cloud the real issues of human rights abuses in Canada by pointing the finger at other countries instead. In her response to Mrs. Pillay, Canada's representative at the UN Human Rights Council, Elissa Goldberg, used up an entire hand’s worth of fingers pointing at Belarus, Sri Lanka, Syria, North Korea, and Mali in her short speech which did nothing to address the real issues raised by these high ranking UN officials. You would think that a country which is so diligent in calling out others in constant press releases by the Foreign Affairs Department would have at least a little time to do some soul searching of its own. In fact, in the last two months, the Canadian government has condemned Kenya, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Mali, and Iran in repeated press releases while refusing to constructively address or engage the huge issues which have been raised against it in the same period.
This really is nothing new. In 2009 the Canadian government was pointing something more similar to a middle finger at the UN Human Rights Council when it said flat out that more than half of the 68 recommendations made by other countries to improve Canada's human rights record were unacceptable. These included such mild recommendations as launching a national poverty elimination program. It also included the recommendation by many countries that Canada sign the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People.
The Original Sin
It was this UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People that the Canadian government finally signed on to in November 12th, 2010 after being among the only four countries in the world (the U.S., Australia and New Zealand included) which voted against this non-binding document. In fact, in its statement on the ratification it stated that, “...the Declaration is a non-legally binding document that does not reflect customary international law nor change Canadian laws,” and reiterated Canada's opposition to clauses related to “dealing with lands, territories and resources; free, prior and informed consent when used as a veto; self-government without recognition of the importance of negotiations; intellectual property; military issues; and the need to achieve an appropriate balance between the rights and obligations of Indigenous peoples, States and third parties.”
So basically the Canadian government said, “We disagree with basically everything in this document, but because we will be under no new obligations if we sign it, we've decided the photo opportunity would be a good move.”
It is when someone takes even a brief look at Canada’s human rights record in regards to indigenous people that all their bluster and posturing regarding human rights becomes so much cruder. From the widespread killings and displacement which accompanied the founding of Canada in 1867, to the 1927 Indian Act which forbid Indigenous people from forming political organizations, speaking their native language, or practicing their traditional religion, to the denial of the right to vote for indigenous people until 1960, to the residential schools which forced thousands upon thousands of indigenous children from their families into an environment of abuse and systemic assimilation. The last residential school did not close until 1990, and over one-third of indigenous people in Canada today have been affected either directly by residential school experiences or indirectly as family or community members linked to survivors.
Is it accidental then that the most recent statistics by that Canadian government find that suicide rates of Registered Indian youths (aged 15 to 24) are eight times higher than the national rate for females and five times higher than the national rate for males? What about the estimated 500 aboriginal women who have been murdered or gone missing in violent circumstances in Canada in the past 20 years? What has Stephen Harper done about the fact that an indigenous woman in Canada is five times more likely to die of violence circumstances than a woman of any other race?
What Lies Beneath
“The nation that cheers and applauds its international nature made of humanitarianism, human rights, anti-apartheid, aid to the suffering third-world Native masses. Bullshit -- Canada's a liar. It's hypocritical and two-faced. Look in Canada's back yard, its crimes, inequities and injustices are there to see.”
- Howard Adams, indigenous rights activist and professor
It was almost exactly 2 years ago during the June G-8 and G-20 summits in Toronto that Canada broke its record for the largest mass arrest in its history. Stephen Harper’s “wolverine” was bearing its claws against its own population with approximately 1,105 people violently arrested, 75% of whom were then released without charge. As with anything else in the world, the true nature of the Canadian government is revealed best when it is challenged, and in every case it has shown no reservations in disregarding the human rights standards it demands so strongly of other countries. It might not be pleasant to admit we live in a country which is a huge human rights abuser, but the sooner we acknowledge that facts the sooner we can hold the Canadian government accountable and improve the situation. The Canadian government is doing a good enough job with the “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” act that we have no need to imitate it when it comes to our own efforts to build a better world.
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