A new report from the United Nations is calling on Canada to get to work on a number of barriers still facing women when it comes to gender equality and urging the government to take more concerted steps to stop violence against indigenous women and girls.
The review – typically conducted every four or five years – by the Geneva-based Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women covered a range of issues, from the gender pay gap to poverty and violence against women, as well as the use of solitary confinement in prisons.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who often calls himself a feminist, has said improving relationships with indigenous communities and working toward gender equality are key priorities for his government. And the report did note some progress, namely the equal representation in the federal cabinet.
But the committee cited a range of concerns, among them the "continued high prevalence" of gender-based violence, particularly against indigenous women and girls.
It also highlighted the "very low" number of cases of violence against women reported to police by victims, and low rates of prosecution and conviction against perpetrators. The report, posted on its website Friday, came as prosecutors in Quebec said no charges would be laid against police officers in Val-d'Or, after 21 indigenous women and seven men filed complaints against police that included sexual assault and excessive use of force.
"It's difficult enough when you're dealing with violence in your personal life," said Francyne Joe, the interim president of the Native Women's Association of Canada. "If you can't go to police expecting to be protected, that's going to lead to such despair and depression and anger … and disrupt any growing positive relationship with the policing system."
The review recommended establishing a mechanism for "the independent review" of cases in which there are allegations of inadequate or partial police investigations. And it stressed that "insufficient measures" are being taken to ensure that all cases of missing and murdered indigenous women are investigated and prosecuted. There were also concerns about the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, saying the scope of the inquiry should include investigating the role of police at all levels.
"If we're talking about reconciliation, and restoring trust of indigenous peoples in the justice system, certainly, there are a number of things that need to happen – and one is making sure there is independent oversight," said Jacqueline Hansen, women's rights campaigner for Amnesty International Canada. "And investigating the role of systemic racism in law enforcement."
On the justice system, the UN urged Canada to address the disproportionate incarceration of indigenous and black women, partly through using alternative measures for people who commit non-violent offences.
It recommended the government abolish the use of solitary confinement, urging Canadian authorities to limit the use of disciplinary segregation as a "measure of last resort" and avoid it altogether for women with mental illness. The report also said Canada should stop the practice of employing male guards as front-line staff in women's institutions.
The review also scrutinized Canada's record on human trafficking, highlighting the low rates of prosecution and conviction in trafficking cases. It recommended better data collection on the victims of trafficking, and that Canada "expeditiously" adopt a new national action plan on human trafficking.
The report comes as Canada has tumbled in international rankings on gender equality. The World Economic Forum puts Canada in 35th spot in its latest gender-gap report, down five places from last year. The UN's gender-inequality index shows Canada in 25th place, down from its first-place ranking in 1995.
Status of Women Canada said in an e-mail that the federal government "takes the concerns and recommendations raised by the committee very seriously." It said it "remains committed to improving and addressing issues relevant under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women."