Canada is seen as a global human rights beacon—but not so much, at home

As Canada works to protect human rights in the world, we have to acknowledge the failures at home, even as we fete Canada 150
Christie McLeod
The opening of Desmarais Indian Residential School, Wabasca, Alberta December 8, 1959. (Library and Archives Canada)
The opening of Desmarais Indian Residential School, Wabasca, Alberta December 8, 1959. (Library and Archives Canada)
The opening of Desmarais Indian Residential School, Wabasca, Alberta December 8, 1959. (Library and Archives Canada)

“#WelcomeToCanada,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously tweeted to fleeing refugees this past January—a widely praised response to the Syrian refugee crisis that, for many, reflected Canada’s role as a beacon for human rights in this troubled world. Canada has sought to champion human rights in the international community. We’re not perfect—in 1939, we turned away a boat carrying 907 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, and today, Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia may or may not be aiding war in Yemen. But we’ve also played a leading role in creating the Mine Ban Treaty (often referred to as the Ottawa Treaty) that aims to eliminate landmines, launched the Muskoka Initiative to encourage donor countries to fund maternal health initiatives, and supported countless other efforts to protect the rights of marginalized populations around the world. It is from these shining moments that our peacekeeping reputation has emerged.

Canada has crafted a vision of itself as a human rights champion at home, as well. The federal government’s website declares that “in Canada, your human rights are protected by Canada’s Constitution and by federal, provincial and territorial legislation.” This may be largely true, but with a glaring caveat: unless you’re Indigenous.

As editors Kiera Ladner and Myra Tait state in the title of their new book, Surviving Canada, this year’s Canada 150 celebrations are also a commemoration of “150 years of betrayal.” The struggle for the fulfilment of Indigenous rights in Canada is longstanding, and is particularly disconcerting when contrasted against some of our nation’s active efforts to protect human rights globally.

In the late 1940s, Canadian John Peters Humphrey wrote the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Rising from the aftermath of the Holocaust, the world joined together in creating this aspirational document to prevent future systematic human rights abuses. While Canada promoted this “never again” rhetoric, however, it simultaneously denied Indigenous peoples many of the very rights inscribed in the document. The UDHR’s first article—the right to equality—was the antithesis to the institutionalized racism imposed by the Indian Act, which forced Indigenous peoples to give up their treaty status to gain the right to vote, stripped Indigenous women of their status if they “married out,” and dispossessed Indigenous peoples from owning land. While portions of the Indian Act have been amended, this colonization legislation remains in effect and continues to hinder the realization of Indigenous rights in Canada.

In 1956, prior to his time in office as Prime Minister, Lester Pearson proposed the notion of peacekeeping, revolutionizing the international conflict response landscape. Pearson’s idea was sparked by the Suez Crisis—wherein Western powers grappled for control over Egypt—but had he shifted his gaze closer to home, he might have noticed Canada was similarly imposing Western ideology on Indigenous children. Residential schools deliberately separated children from their families and communities to make it easier to indoctrinate them with Western religion, language, and culture. Detailed in his harrowing memoir, Up Ghost River, Chief Edmund Metatawabin was forced to sit in a homemade electric chair—twice—as a young boy attending St. Anne’s Residential School.

Canada once again showcased its benevolent side to the international community, however, in initiating the humanitarian concept of the “responsibility to protect,” or “R2P,” which acknowledges a country’s duty to protect those within its borders from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleaning, and crimes against humanity. When Canada shared this epiphany with the world in 2001, it had only just closed its last residential school five years prior, and would not apologize for these schools—which were unquestionably an act of cultural genocide—for another seven years.

Canada puts forth this image of a kind, caring nation, but what happens within our own borders—well, that’s a different story. Sure, we’ve made progress. Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and apologized to former students of residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission produced a mammoth 25-pound report that documents our nation’s wrongdoings and sets out a path forward. Now, it’s time to follow that path and make things right. As Anishinaabe musician Leonard Sumner recently stated, “Keep all your apologies, I know you’re sorry.” Our quintessential Canadian sentiment is only the first step on this journey to justice, and frankly, it’s high time we stepped up the pace. Let’s ensure that the rights Canadians have fought to protect in the international arena are also protected for the people living in Canada.

Ashley Green, a resident of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, carries a 20-litre water container into his home Wednesday, February 25, 2015. Canada's new indigenous affairs minister says the isolated reserve, under one of the country's longest boil-water advisories, will get an all-weather road to connect it to the rest of the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Ashley Green, a resident of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, carries a 20-litre water container into his home Wednesday, February 25, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

While Canada sends international aid for water and sanitation around the world, it has failed to provide this basic right—and biological need—to the 89 First Nations communities in Canada (excluding British Columbia) presently under a drinking-water advisory. Some communities, such as Shoal Lake 40 FN, have been under a permanent boil-water advisory for so long that an entire generation of children has grown up without being able to turn on a tap and access clean water. While water governance falls under provincial regulation, this legislation excludes First Nations reserves, and the federal government has failed to create regulations to fill this void. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) largely oversees the design and construction of water treatment plants, and without such regulations, many plants have been built in violation of building codes, below the provincial standard, or are just poorly built.

Justin Trudeau campaigned on the promise of ending drinking-water advisories in First Nations communities within five years, and committed $1.8 billion over five years for water infrastructure, plus another $141.7 million to monitor water quality. This sounds great—until you read the 2011 report commissioned by then-titled Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, which estimated $4.7 billion dollars (or $5.1 billion dollars in 2017 figures) was needed to meet and maintain water needs on reserves for the next 10 years. Nearly one-third of First Nations reserves are at a medium to high risk of having their water systems fail, so although INAC has repaired a few systems under Trudeau’s tenure, new advisories in other communities negate this progress. This cycle will continue until the government allocates sufficient resources and makes the needed legislative reforms to protect the right to water in First Nations communities.

Water rights are just one of many issues, however, that Canada needs to resolve before we put our party hats on to celebrate Canada 150, which in many ways celebrates these very failures. While the government has been writing cheques for fireworks and festivities, it’s been dodging compliance orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. In January 2016, the tribunal ruled that the federal government had discriminated against First Nations children by providing up to 38 per cent less funding for child welfare services on reserves. The decision called for Canada to take measures to redress this issue, which one of the two complainants, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, estimated would cost $216 million. The federal government allocated $634 million over the next five years, but gave only $71 million in 2016. The $99 million earmarked for 2017 is nowhere to be found in the 2017 budget.

These are two pressing matters, but they’re not the only ones. A glance through the headlines on any given day will raise problems that ultimately stem from lasting impacts of colonialism and inequality.

So, no, Justin, I don’t really feel like celebrating the anniversary of our colonization. I don’t want you to spend my tax dollars on bringing musicians to Parliament Hill or the numerous other frivolities you have in store for Canada Day; I want you to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights that our country is obligated to. Act to ensure the next 150 years are free of violent assimilation, colonization, racism, and genocide, and then, just maybe, we’ll have something to celebrate.

Christie McLeod is the founder and managing director of Human Rights Hub Winnipeg, and is a second-year law student at Osgoode Hall, where she is the co-president of Osgoode’s chapter of the Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights.