Canada Taken to Task at UN on Human Rights: Women, Aboriginals, Refugees Report on Covenant [of Economic, Social & Cultural Rights]

Article excerpt

Prime Minister Jean Chretien's Liberal government has been accused by a United Nations committee of balancing its books on the backs of the poor by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

At issue was Canada's obligations under the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a UN document adopted 22 years after the original human rights declaration in 1948. As a signatory to the covenant, Canada is obliged to ensure its people are entitled to certain rights, including adequate food, clothing, housing, health care, education, working conditions. A delegation of Canadian non profit organizations representing women, First Nations, poor people, homeless people, immigrants and refugees made presentations to the Geneva-based committee in November.

The National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL) said in its report that the impact of social service cuts by the Chretien government has been harshest for Canadian women. More women are poor today than when Canada last reported to the committee in 1993, and their poverty is deeper. Single mothers have a poverty rate of 82%, with incomes almost $9000 under the poverty line and the committee agreed with NAWL that the burden of filling the gaps left by cutbacks to government programs has fallen disproportionately on women, increasing their load of unpaid care-giving work.

Shelagh Day, Special Advisor on Human Rights to NAWL noted that "The UN committee's observations make it clear that the Minister of Finance needs to consider himself also the minister responsible for human rights. The two responsibilities -- the budget and human rights-cannot be separated."

Committee members asked Mark Moher, Canada's ambassador to the UN in Geneva why aboriginal people were allowed to Five in "subhuman" conditions, and why "needless poverty" was permitted. Moher replied that Canada couldn't be held accountable because the federal government was no longer responsible for ensuring minimum living conditions were met, but that the provinces are.

The committee criticized the Government of Canada for deferring to the provinces, noting that the move towards a more decentralized form of government has "created a situation in which Covenant standards can be undermined and effective accountability has been radically reduced." The Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) was a cost-sharing agreement for welfare and social services; it set national standards for social welfare, and required that work by welfare recipients be freely chosen. The Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST), introduced in 1996, eliminated theses features and significantly reduced transfer payments to the provinces. Canada has the capacity to achieve a high level of fulfillment, but has failed to do so; we are a wealthy country; yet spends only 12% of the GDP on social programs, low compared with other G-7 countries. …