Universal human rights have been the law in Canada for some time, but we have seen that there are still many problems and the application has been faulty due to apathy and even contempt in the tribunals and courts. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to all nations and is upheld in Canada’s laws, not just in human rights legislation, but also in other areas of criminal and civil law.
These include basic rights such as a fair trial, working, participating in democracy, etc. Article 2 specifies that these rights apply to:
“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
This encompasses the right of everyone in Canada to take part in all aspects of society. To ensure that no one is prevented from doing this, Canada provides what it calls “human rights.” However, if you read the declaration, human rights are broad and apply to everyone. Given the state of the world today, they can border on aspirational. In fact, given the state of the world today, you might even ask, why should the United Nations even worry about Canada?
Systemic racism in Canada
Some of the systemic issues that Canada faces are racism in schools, hospitals, policing and other areas of life, especially towards First Nations and black people. There are numerous First Nations communities where health and public safety are inadequate. For example, two-thirds of First Nations communities have had a boil water advisory in the past decade and in fact in some of these cases they have not had drinkable water for years. Then, of course, there are all the things enacted as part of colonialism, which continue to exist or cause repercussions that have not been resolved.
People on disability in Canada generally live on an income that is below the housing costs of their communities. For example, in British Columbia the disability rate for a single person is $1,133, while the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver is $1,350 outside the city centre.
The treatment of refugees is another major issue facing Canada. Questions have been raised about refugee detention, the rights of undocumented migrants and the fairness of decisions.
Don’t get me started on Quebec’s bizarre what-Muslim-women-can-wear law, which will almost certainly be challenged in court.
Women in Canada have faced major roadblocks in the workforce, including the ability to find affordable daycare, unfair pay, being fired without cause and replaced by under-qualified men, and being subjected to sexual harassment.
Can the United Nations force the government to live up to their commitments?
The United Nations role is limited. When they criticize, it doesn’t necessarily mean things are going to change. For example, publicly funded Catholic schools have been criticized by the UN, but as far as I know, eliminating the Catholic school system is not a priority for the provinces that have it.
Canada is great at paying lip-service to human rights and has signed seven conventions. These are voluntary treaties. Signing a convention means Canada has agreed to honour the provisions. Some of these conventions have complaint processes. Once an individual has exhausted domestic remedies they can file a complaint under the United Nations, which is confidential.
This process exists under the Committee against Torture, the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and the Human Rights Committee. A new process may be added soon under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This will allow people with disabilities, whose rights have been violated, to file a complaint. Canada has committed to signing this after a consultation period, which is currently taking place.
The United Nations reviews these complaints and makes recommendations. However, the country is not obligated to comply. While Canada claims they are committed to complying, not much has changed since the country was condemned for its failures on Aboriginal rights in 2015.
Another problem is the immunity of the courts that make the decisions that take away the rights of Canadians. Politicians cannot interfere with the courts even when they’ve grossly overreached the limits of their discretion and clearly breached fundamental human rights. Greater oversight of courts in Canada needs to come from somewhere. Canada can pass all the legislation it wants, but as long as the judges care about white privilege, their decisions will continue to uphold white privilege at the expense of everything else.
More community-based and grassroots resolution organizations may help fill the gaps caused by judicial incompetence as long as they are staffed by qualified professionals. Many provincial organizations hire people with BAs to do work that they are completed unqualified to do, such as advise persons on the law or make decisions about whether a Tribunal violated the law. Ombudsperson offices, workers compensation schemes and employment standards offices come to mind. Human rights commissions are another place where unqualified people have been appointed as intermediaries. In Ontario and British Columbia, recent BA grads have even stood in the way of complaints going to hearing.
How can we help promote human rights in Canada?
One option for tackling incompetence by bureaucrats and white privilege by lawyers and judges, is to appoint qualified advocates to help people with their fundamental rights. These people could be interdisciplinary experts or qualified lawyers, but should have the skills to understand things like fundamental rights and have the mandate to uphold them above all other considerations. Considerations, such as the fact that judges and tribunal members don’t want to be embarrassed for bad decisions, should not be held higher than supposedly guaranteed human rights.
The other issue that limits rights is the cost. Without a lawyer, you are basically lost. When people end up in the courts, it’s not because they have a fabulous job that lets them pay $10,000 in legal fees. Usually, they are already struggling. Knowing how effective legal fees can be in limiting human rights, many judges will use costs to intimidate self-represented applicants from bringing human rights cases forward.
This is a main reason that I want to start a charity to help people with disabilities pay legal fees, so that judges can no longer use these excuses to take away human rights. I have personally seen how people are abused by contemptuous, white-privileged judges when they attempt to do these things on their own. More on that later.
Without the United Nations, we may not have the rights we enjoy today. However, the voluntary nature of compliance with UN obligations, and the limitations of the government to interfere in courts and Tribunals, means many of the rights we are supposed to enjoy do not exist. The government can help by putting in place the infrastructure to build a culture of compliance starting with those who are most affected.