By Leilani Farha
Published in the Toronto Star, July 13, 2015 Last May I was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing. The goal of this position is to advance the rights of marginalized communities around the world who are homeless or living in inadequate housing. I’ve spent the last year travelling to various parts of the planet and I’ve been amazed to find that invariably those who have the least have an uncanny sense that they are no less deserving of dignity than anyone else in the human family.
What differentiates Canada from many of the countries I’ve visited is its posturing on human rights.
In Cabo Verde families with disabled children told me they want wheelchair ramps in their ramshackle settlements to make it possible for their kids to attend school and play outside. In Serbia the Roma seek inclusion, and to live in proper structures not makeshift huts and shipping containers. And in downtown Detroit, poor African American families want affordable water like their affluent white neighbours so they too can bathe, cook and clean in their own homes.
Whether in UN corridors, meeting rooms and cafeterias, or in government offices in West Africa or East Europe or the U.S., I have been equally struck by the fairly candid recognition by many government officials that they don’t always get it right and that they can do more to protect the rights of the world’s most vulnerable populations. From this vantage point, watching Canada last week on the world stage was enlightening. After 10 years of radically re-orienting Canada’s relationship to human rights, finally our government was being held to account by the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva. Over the course of the two-day review (which will result in a set of recommendations for compliance to be released later this month) Canada was confronted with arched eyebrows and sharp questions from the 18 committee members, each an expert on human rights. They wanted to know, for example, about the suppression of free speech and dissent under Bill C-51; the silencing of charities with political audits under the Income Tax Act; the denial of health care to irregular migrants and refugees; the refusal to address homelessness; and the failure to address the situation of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Canada is a wealthy democracy, a country with strong legislative and judicial branches — it should not have a laundry list of potential human rights abuses of this nature. Not only is it perplexing to the international community, it’s deeply concerning. At the close of the session, a UK veteran of the committee summed it up gravely: “This is not the Canada I once knew.” But what differentiates Canada from many of the countries I’ve visited is its posturing on human rights. Hubris is what has come to define us. Our smug self-righteousness and lack of humility in the face of grave allegations of human rights abuses are astounding. Think back to how the government ridiculed the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food when he expressed concern in May 2012 that 800,000 people in Canada were food insecure. The government issued personal attacks and suggested he go to a developing country that really needed his help. When civil society critiqued Bill C-51 for being contrary to the Charter, the government claimed the critics were associated with terrorist organizations. But equally concerning is that Canada’s population as a whole seems to have failed to name what’s actually happening here. Canada has historically been a country where democracy and human rights thrived and could flourish. And yet our response to the growing domestic threats to human rights has been not much more than a whimper — a crowd of a few hundred here, and a few thousand there, all singing to the choir. Meanwhile, so many others seem to be open prey to the dumbed-down politics of good-versus-evil, us-versus-them, left-versus-right. My recent travels tell me that there is a way forward for Canada. I have seen decency and a sense of shared humanity serve as a real basis for policy change in countries without our democratic heritage. Ruthless governing that disregards the people can only be sustained in a country like Canada for so long. It wasn’t by chance that after the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized the inherent dignity and the equal rights of all members of the human family as the foundation for freedom, justice and peace in the world. As one of the chief drafters of these fundamental principles, let’s see if Canada still measures up when the UN Human Rights Committee releases its assessment later this month. Leilani Farha is the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing and the Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty, a national charity based in Ottawa. She is also a Visiting Scholar at the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre.