UN says Canada failing to improve life of poor - by Bill Dunphy, the Hamilton Spectator - May 24, 2006
Canada has been put on a short leash by a United Nations human rights watchdog group that is concerned that we are failing to protect the basic rights of poor and marginalized individuals.
In a just released report, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has issued a carefully worded but stinging rebuke of Canada's repeated failure to meet its treaty obligations and is asking the Canadian government to report on progress annually -- instead of every four years.
"I certainly see that as the committee trying to keep Canada on a shorter leash, and that is a new thing," anti-poverty lawyer Craig Foye said yesterday. Foye travelled to Geneva earlier this month to provide the committee with a report on poverty in Hamilton as an illustration of Canada's failure to provide everyone with an adequate standard of living.
"There was very much a sense of frustration (in Geneva). The committee was saying, 'Look, we made these recommendations in 1993 and in 1998 and you seem to have ignored them,'" Foye recalled of the hearings.
Foye was sent to Geneva by his employer, McQuesten Legal and Community Services, on behalf of the Income Security Working Group.
Foye said he was gratified to see so many of his group's concerns reflected in the committee's report.
"We were very thankful for that. After spending all that money to cross the ocean, to go to Geneva, it's gratifying to know that they did hear our message. We spent a lot of time making sure we got the data, the statistical data they needed to understand the situation in Canada and to ask informed questions. That they chose to make use of it is exactly what we were hoping for."
The UN committee Foye addressed is responsible for reviewing compliance with a 1977 covenant on human rights that Canada signed but has consistently failed to live up to.
Its 11-page report notes six instances of progress Canada has made: increased employment and decreased poverty levels, increased maternity leave, improved aboriginal infant mortality and education rates, equal pay legislation, health-care spending and increased foreign aid. However, it notes more than 30 instances of failure to protect the (mainly economic) rights of all Canadians.
Most of the examples of failing to protect covenant rights or meet goals cited by the committee related to poverty and the way it is felt disproportionately by minorities. Among the examples were:
* long waiting lists for subsidized housing in Hamilton;
* inadequate minimum wage levels;
* social assistance rates that were 50 per cent of poverty levels;
* high levels of homelessness and hunger;
* the failure to prevent the clawback of the National Child Care Benefit.
The committee also criticized Canada for treating the covenant's legal obligations as programming goals and for failing to provide Canadians with a legal recourse when those obligations are not met.
Virtually all of the failings have been the subject of earlier recommendations for correction by the committee and almost none of those recommendations have been adopted by the Canadian government.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Rejean Beaulieu was unable to offer any reasons for Canada's continuing failure to meet its treaty obligations.
"I have no answer for that. We made the decision to be part of this convention with the obligations ... we know there's room for improvement and nothing is perfect and we'll keep taking into consideration their recommendations. Sometimes it may take years, sometimes it may go faster.
"We will keep instituting programs and measures to make sure the rights of the convention are respected and protected."
Some of those measures were acknowledged by the committee, but clearly they felt Canada was capable for more, much more.
"The committee notes the absence of any factors or difficulties preventing the effective implementation of the covenant (in Canada)" the report's authors wrote. While acknowledging that, in general, Canada still ranks at the highest level on the Human Development Index, they expressed concern that that high life is not shared by all.
"The committee is concerned that, despite Canada's economic prosperity ... 11.2 per cent of its population still lived in poverty in 2004. (It) also notes with particular concern that poverty rates remain very high among disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups."
Foye echoed those comments.
"There's nothing stopping us here in Canada. We have the money for this, we're posting record surpluses every year and unfortunately, we're posting those record surpluses on the backs of the poor.
"This isn't pie in the sky, this is something that's doable."