Canada's record on racial discrimination under scrutiny at UN

A Canadian delegation will appear before a United Nations committee in Geneva starting Monday to defend its record on fighting racial discrimination. Figuring prominently on the agenda is Canada's treatment of Indigenous people.

A delegation will appear before a committee Monday to defend Canada's record

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves a teepee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 30 after meeting with Indigenous activists. Canada's treatment of Indigenous people will figure prominently when a government delegation goes before a UN committee to defend Canada's record on human rights. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada will appear before a United Nations committee in Geneva on Monday to defend its record on fighting racial discrimination.

A delegation — led by the Department of Canadian Heritage — will face two days of questioning by a panel of independent experts tasked with monitoring the implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Canada formally adopted in 1970.

All 178 state parties to the convention are required to undergo periodic reviews outlining efforts made to implement the accord. But dozens of Canadian civil society groups have also submitted alternative reports prior to the UN session arguing that Canada is not living up to its obligations.

The convention "solemnly affirms the necessity of speedily eliminating racial discrimination throughout the world in all its forms and manifestations."

It was 2012 when Canada last went before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

"We see that in many areas there has been no improvement and in some areas it's gotten worse," says Emily Hill, advocacy director at Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto.

In this March 16, 2016, file photo, a United Nations flag flies outside of the European headquarters of the UN in Geneva where the meetings will take place over two days. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

In its concluding observations at the time, the 18-member panel noted its concern about the "disproportionately high rates" of incarceration of Indigenous people, and recommended that Canada reduce the "excessive use" of this practice.

Hill says that hasn't happened. ''Currently in the federal prison system Indigenous men account for 22 per cent of the population, and Indigenous women represent 31 per cent of the overall population,'' she says. "But in Canada as a whole, Indigenous people only make up about four per cent of the population.''

Five years ago the committee also recommended Canada do more to ''eliminate violence against Aboriginal women in all its forms," including through better funding of emergency shelters. 

''The federal government has reported that it currently funds 41 shelters to serve women and girls in First Nations communities," says one of the alternative reports jointly submitted to CERD by the National Aboriginal Circle Against Family Violence and Quebec Native Women Inc.

"By the federal government's calculation, the 41 shelters are accessible to women and girls in 55 per cent of the 617 First Nations communities across Canada, leaving women and girls in 45 per cent of First Nations communities without access to dedicated shelter spaces," the report states.

Safe drinking water, "discontinuing" the practice of removing Indigenous children from their families (such as into foster care), better access to health services and higher education as well as adequate housing were among the areas of need identified in the committee's eight-page report in 2012.

Indigenous issues to take centre stage

Concerns such as the detention of asylum seekers, racial profiling by police "against African Canadians, in particular in Toronto" as well as outdated statistics on Canada's ethnic composition were among the concerns raised after the last review.

But issues regarding Canada's Indigenous communities will likely figure prominently this week, according to a short list of themes issued by the CERD to help frame the two-day discussion. More than half the civil society groups that presented reports to the CERD ahead of Monday's session represent indigenous organizations from across Canada.

Some have travelled to Geneva to testify before the panel in person, but their statements will not be public. That's part of a blanket rule meant to protect civil society groups from retaliation by less democratic governments. 

For some people who participate, "it may not be at all safe to have your image displayed on the web while criticizing that country," says Craig Benjamin of Amnesty International Canada.

'Rigidly adversarial position' on land disputes

Benjamin will be among more than a dozen speakers from civil society groups registered to meet with panel members Monday morning, ahead of its dialogue with the Canadian government delegation.

"One of the key things that we want to talk about will be the land rights of Indigenous people," says Benjamin.

In the 2012 review, Canada was called out for its "rigidly adversarial position" over land disputes and the "heavy financial expenditures in litigation" incurred by Indigenous groups.

"I am going to be giving the committee a very specific example that highlights all of these problems, which is the decision to proceed with the Site C dam in northeast B.C.," says Benjamin.

A written statement submitted to the CERD by a dozen organizations including Amnesty International Canada states that "if completed, the dam will flood more than 100 kilometres of the Peace River Valley and its tributaries."

"The Site C dam will devastate a crucial natural environment on which we depend for our culture and way of life," says Robyn Fuller, a councillor from the West Moberly First Nation in a written statement. "We're frankly sick of hearing about the Canadian government going to the UN and bragging about its human rights record when our rights are being violated on a daily basis," says Fuller, who will also be addressing the UN committee in Geneva.

This will be the tenth time Canada has appeared before the committee.

Canada's statement

Canada has submitted a detailed 37-page report outlining measures adopted to ''enhance the implementation'' of the convention since its last review.

Elizabeth Throssell, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, says the proceedings will begin with the Canadian delegation reading out a statement. "Then the committee will go through a range of questions, and then you'll have answers from the delegation, and then more questions, and then answers.'' Throssell says the entire back-and-forth will last six hours over the two days.

Half of the Canadian government report is dedicated to a sub-section entitled "Indigenous Peoples," which outlines initiatives ''undertaken to improve their socio-economic conditions, initiatives addressing violence against Indigenous women and girls, and consultations with Indigenous peoples with respect to Indigenous and treaty rights.''

The UN panel will publish its latest recommendations at the end of the month.


Melissa Kent


Melissa Kent is a producer with CBC News covering the United Nations from its headquarters in New York City. @KentUNCBC