Concrete action and results on human rights are needed

A UN report raises questions about Canada’s human rights. The parliamentary committee studying discrimination and systemic racism should take note.

By Amira Elghawaby
Policy Options | September 20, 2017

The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage has begun hearing from witnesses as part of its study of Islamophobia, religious discrimination and systemic racism. After a summer of anti-Muslim rallies and hate incidents and crimes, there is little doubt Motion 103 is necessary —despite past opposition from some Conservative members.

This isn’t the view only of Canadian Muslims and their allies, who are deeply concerned about the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment across this country, evidenced by the 253 percent increase in hate crimes in the past four years, and the rising number of creed-based human rights complaints registered in the country’s largest province. A host of national and provincial organizations, including the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) have raised concerns.

When we see the egregious human rights violations that all too frequently occur around the world (Burma comes instantly to mind), it may be surprising to learn that Canada’s civil society has much to fault Canada for. After all, this country has robust human rights laws, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms and strong case law supporting minority rights.

Yet, CERD agrees there is work that remains to be done. CERD has just completed a review of Canada’s implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which it does every four years. The committee examined our human rights record from the perspectives of the government (which oddly did not name Islamophobia as a form of racism) and of those directly impacted and their advocates. In its report, released in August 2017, CERD raises serious questions about the state of human rights in Canada with respect to “visible minorities” — a term the committee found to be problematic — as well as the treatment of Indigenous peoples. This report should help inform the Heritage committee’s deliberations over the coming months.

CERD acknowledges some positive developments, including the government’s efforts to confront Islamophobia and its work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as provincial efforts such as Ontario’s to establish an Anti-Racism Directorate. However, it recommends that all levels of government fully commit to, and implement, a robust human rights agenda. That would require initiating programs that employ an equity lens. In the same way that the federal government carried out a gender-based analysis of its current budget, why could it not also carry out a diversity and equity analysis next time round?

The reality is that in order to make real economic and social progress, Canada must tap the unrealized human potential that resides in its current and its future citizens (including newly arrived immigrants and refugees).

Systemic barriers to employment and the failure of law enforcement to provide full and immediate protection to vulnerable communities are two important ways that limits are placed on people’s ability to engage with government and private institutions and contribute to their society. Introducing policies that promote equity and inclusion makes sound economic sense, according to a 2017 report, Diversity Dividend: Canada’s Global Advantage, by Bessma Momani and Jillian Stirk. They find that “in almost all sectors a significant, positive relationship between ethnocultural diversity increased productivity and revenue.”

CERD also calls for more training for front-line police officers in addressing complaints of hate crimes and hate incidents, and for more transparency around their prosecutions, investigations and convictions.

These are issues the NCCM identified in an open letter to all levels of government following the attack at a Quebec City mosque last January. What we hear from those who report anti-Muslim incidents or hate crimes is that their complaints are often quickly dismissed, or they are poorly followed up on (unless an advocate intervenes). More timely national statistics and reports documenting hate crimes and incidents would also help provide a more current snapshot of the experiences of targeted communities.

In addition to calling for all government ministries, departments and private sector employers to ensure that the impact of policies intended to eliminate racial discrimination and inequality is systematically evaluated, CERD calls for the establishment of a new national action plan against racism. This is indeed long overdue, considering the last one expired in 2010.

CERD has laid out clearly what it expects to hear from Canada at its next review four years from now. The work that needs to be done between now and then will require not only political will, but also that policy-makers and bureaucrats turn their promises into concrete action and results. Only then will Canada be able to fully live up to its reputation as a beacon for human rights.

Amira Elghawaby is communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).