A new report from Human Rights Watch criticizes Canada for violating the rights of Indigenous people and immigration detainees, and for not doing enough to address human rights issues abroad.
The latest edition of the international rights organization’s annual world report summarizes human rights conditions in more than 100 countries and territories, including Afghanistan, where famine and Taliban rule threaten lives and livelihoods, and Ukraine, where the Russian invasion is now in its second winter.
Although the report finds fault with some of Canada’s actions, it also credits the federal government with imposing sanctions against bad actors around the world and taking part in initiatives that defend human rights.
Farida Deif, Human Rights Watch’s Canada director and the author of the report’s chapter on Canada, said human rights are now in crisis around the world.
“While the government has championed human rights, long-standing challenges remain across Canada,” she said. “Where we see the most widespread violations are with respect to marginalized groups.”
The report says decades of discrimination against Indigenous peoples have led to “widespread abuses that persist across Canada.” It notes that inadequate access to safe drinking water continues to be a major public-health risk in many Indigenous communities, and it says this has hindered efforts to advance Indigenous rights. Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to end drinking water advisories on First Nations reserves by 2021, in many cases they are still in effect.
The offices of Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller and Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu said in a joint statement that the government has lifted 137 long-term advisories in partnership with First Nations since 2015, prevented 231 short-term advisories from becoming long term, and is investing just over $5.6-billion in water systems on reserves.
The report also says the government needs to do more to respond to violence against Indigenous women.
On the issue of immigration detention – the practice of holding people in jails or jail-like conditions while they await word on whether they can remain in the country – Human Rights Watch says people with disabilities and those seeking refugee protection in Canada risk being held for months or years. It notes that many are kept in provincial jails alongside people who have been charged with crimes, or convicted of them.
Karine Martel, a spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency, said in a statement that Canada’s immigration detention program is based on the principle that detention should be used as a measure of last resort, in circumstances where someone is a danger to the public, unable to satisfy the government of their identity or unlikely to appear for an immigration proceeding.
“The Agency will continue to work with our partners and stakeholders to maintain community safety and the integrity of the immigration program and to ensure immigration detainees continue to be treated in a dignified and humane way,” she said.
Human Rights Watch’s report also takes aim at Canada’s record on climate change. As a Top 10 global greenhouse gas emitter, and as one of the highest per capita emitters in the world, “Canada is contributing to the climate crisis, and taking a growing toll on human rights around the globe,” the report says. It suggests Canada could do more, including by addressing the effect of the climate crisis on First Nations.
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a statement that he welcomes the findings of the report. He said climate change requires urgent action, and that the government is working on implementing a range of measures.
Mr. Guilbeault said the government has taken “ambitious actions” since 2015, such as putting a price on pollution, developing regulations on oil and gas emissions, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, retrofitting buildings and homes, decarbonizing industry and launching the largest nature conservation effort in Canada’s history.
He noted that the government has also launched Canada’s first-ever national adaptation strategy for tackling the effects of climate change, which includes participation from Indigenous groups.
The report also criticizes Canada’s record on some human rights issues abroad. It points out that Canada has refused to repatriate Canadian citizens detained in northeast Syria on suspicion of having ties to the Islamic State. The report acknowledges that a few of these Canadians have been repatriated.
Human Rights Watch also says the Canadian government has not taken adequate steps to ensure federal authorities are exercising meaningful oversight of Canadian mining companies working abroad.
But the group does praise the government for some of its work abroad. The report says Canada has taken “significant steps” domestically and internationally to advance the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Global Affairs Canada did not respond to a request for comment.
JANICE DICKSON AND CATRIONA KOENIG
The Globe and Mail, January 12, 2023