UN committee sees little progress despite new government

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Canada last faced the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 2012, when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were in power. Now, with Justin Trudeau as prime minister of a Liberal government, Canadian policies were once again under the spotlight at the UN committee August 14 and 15 during hearings in Geneva, Switzerland.

Despite the change in government, not much has changed, however. According to the CERD’s preliminary report released August 31, Canada still has a long way to go in addressing racism, particularly against Indigenous people.

As Emily Hill, the legal advocacy director at Toronto’s Aboriginal Legal Services, told the CBC: “In many areas there has been no improvement and in some areas it’s gotten worse.”

Other First Nations leaders criticized Canada’s submission to CERD as incomplete. The UN committee’s eight-page report released in 2012 identified areas that Canada needed to work on such as safe drinking water, discontinuing the practice of removing Indigenous children from their families (such as into foster care), better access to health services and higher education as well as adequate housing. Five years later, these services remain woefully deficient.

The number of First Nations inmates in prisons is still out of proportion to the rest of Canada. Native people make up around 3% of the Canadian population but represent over 24% of the prison population. Some have characterized this phenomenon as Canada’s modern residential-school system.

The CERD’s concluding observations addressed many of these issues. Included among the UN committee’s recommendations:

  • Ensure that law enforcement and security agencies have programs to prevent racial profiling, and that they are implemented and compliance monitored, including through independent oversight;
  • Make it mandatory to collect and analyze data at the federal, provincial and territorial levels for random stops by law enforcement officers, including on the ethnicity of the persons stopped, reason for stop, and whether stop resulted in an arrest, prosecution and conviction;
  • Ensure that staff in law enforcement, security agencies and among border agents are demographically diverse and include Indigenous peoples and other ethnic minorities;
  • Ensure lawyers and judges are trained on provisions relating to sentencing and alternatives to incarceration for Indigenous peoples;
  • Address the root causes of over-representation of Indigenous peoples at all levels of the justice system, from arrest to incarceration, such as by eliminating poverty, providing better social services, re-examining drug policies, preventing racially biased sentencing through training of judges, providing evidence-based alternatives to incarceration for non-violent drug users;
  • Fully implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on this topic.

It was exactly what First Nations expected. While the report welcomed some changes and enjoyed the “vibrant participation of representatives of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis,” they had a number of concerns. Standing out was that the “committee regrets again that the absence of recent reliable and comprehensive statistical data on the ethnic composition of the population…” They indicated that this discrepancy would hinder efforts to monitor and evaluate the “implementation and impact of policies to eliminate racial discrimination and inequality.”

The CERD also noted that racist hate crimes are underreported in Canada. The committee said there is a lack of effort to update data on racist hate crimes in all provinces and territories in Canada. That it means actual numbers of violations may be much higher than indicated.

The UN committee welcomed Canada’s commitment to implement the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but is concerned over the lack of action. They made the same observation on the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Other concerns that CERD outlined included First Nations self-determination, violence against Indigenous women, bringing the standards of equality of social services to Indigenous children up to national standards, to name just a few. To see the full report by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, go to their website and search for state reports with reference to Canada.

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