WE CAN AND SHOULD DO BETTER:
The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights released its "concluding observations" of Canada's record on social and economic rights in May.
A few weeks earlier, a large group of Canadian human rights advocates made submissions to this committee in Geneva as it reviewed Canada's compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. I was part of that group and, while we came away from the hearings expecting criticism of Canada, the UN's final assessment was even more scathing and far-reaching than anticipated.
The UN committee heard from the official Canadian delegation, from Canadian NGOs, and it also reviewed voluminous written material. In the area of social assistance (the income support program that millions of Canadians rely on), anti-poverty groups reported that, for poor people in Canada, rates are breathtakingly inadequate.
While the government of Canada claimed before the UN that it is "committed to a high and rising quality of life for all Canadians," the federal government's own advisory body, the National Council of Welfare, recently issued a report concluding that none of the welfare incomes in Canada could be considered adequate or reasonable. Welfare policy in Canada, according to the Council, "is an utter disaster."
We argued that, in light of Canada's unrivalled economic and fiscal health, it is clear that Canada has chosen to permit the poorest people in the country to live at a level of misery that undermines their human dignity and violates their fundamental human rights. The concluding observations of the UN committee support our assessment.
The UN committee recommended a number of steps Canada could take to bring itself into compliance with its international legal obligations, including:
* establishing social assistance at levels that ensure the realization of an adequate standard of living for all;
* re-establishing a national framework that would make federal transfers to the provinces and territories conditional on their welfare programs meeting the standards protected by the UN covenant; and
* taking immediate steps to create and ensure effective domestic remedies for all covenant rights in all relevant jurisdictions.
The crucial problem, as the UN committee noted, is not fiscal capacity, nor is it anything to do with the division of powers between governments. It is that governments in Canada have not really committed to the recognition of social and economic rights as fundamental human rights.
Yes, Canada signed the covenant and, indeed, obtained provincial and territorial agreement before doing so. Ultimately, however, governments in Canada have shown by their actions that they have not accepted that social and economic rights are real rights. …