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Opinion Canada comes up short at UN review of human-rights issues

Alex Neve is secretary-general, Amnesty International Canada. Brenda Gunn is a member of the Indigenous Bar Association and associate professor, University of Manitoba Faculty of Law.

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Some 40 indigenous leaders and activists, human rights campaigners and equality advocates travelled from all corners of Canada to the United Nations in Geneva this week. They went with considerable anticipation.

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After years of increasing disengagement from the UN system, and even frequent derision when the UN offered human-rights advice to Canada, a new Canadian government offers a tremendous opportunity for a major reset of that relationship.

That was certainly in the spotlight this week as the UN's expert Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights carried out the first human-rights review of Canada since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to power.

Sadly, the high expectations weren't met. Before the review began, several welcome developments were already under way in Canada, including preparations for an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, restoration of cuts in health care to refugees and the promise of a national poverty strategy.

The Canadian government delegation arrived in Geneva with a positive tone, including noting that they were humbled by the range of concerns. But advocates were looking for something new and concrete to be put on the table in Geneva. That is what a review is all about – moving forward.

In particular, we hoped for tangible signs that Canada is prepared to turn the page on long-standing positions that stand in the way of meaningful and consistent protection of economic, social and cultural rights. This isn't about legal abstractions. At stake are crucial rights dealing with such essentials as health care, education, safe water, food and adequate housing.

But the government remained at loggerheads with the UN committee with respect to Canadian shortcomings in complying with international human rights.

First, the government continues to insist that economic, social and cultural rights aren't fully protected by the Charter, and do not need to be. That flies in the face of international law and is an affront to those individuals and communities whose rights are disregarded and who have no remedy to turn that around – for example, those who are homeless.

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Second, there was no sign of federal leadership to draw the different levels of government in Canada together in a shared model for more effective, accountable and transparent implementation of human rights obligations. Ministers haven't gathered to discuss human rights in Canada since 1988. The current intergovernmental system is outdated, to say the least (non-existent is a more apt description). But there was no suggestion of doing anything about that. Committee members were unimpressed, at times exasperated, by Canada's failure to offer anything new on these two fronts.

Meanwhile, they canvassed issues ranging from First Nations' water concerns to criminalization of homelessness; from business and trade arrangements to violence against indigenous women. How will consultation and consent with indigenous peoples be upheld? Will new strategies around poverty or food be rights-based? Some issues show welcome progress, others none at all.

Until governments in Canada come together to uphold human rights in a more effective way, and until their approach in courts is to promote economic and social rights, the reset that is so sorely needed will not happen.

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