Fresh Air and New Hope for Canada and Human Rights

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Jeudi 10 décembre 2015


John Packer, Director, Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa

Ce billet de blogue a été préparé à l'occasion de la Journée des droits de l'homme 2015.

There is a palpable sense of relief within the human rights community following the federal election results of October 19th.  Notwithstanding some commitments and investments in selected matters like religious freedom and LGBTQ rights, the past decade has been one of substantial damage to human rights in Canada, and our generally positive reputation abroad (if not always fully merited) took a broad and deep hit.   

With the new majority Government in Ottawa, Canada claims to be “back” – not least in terms of a strong commitment to the idea of respecting, protecting and promoting all human rights for everyone, at home and abroad.  In many circles, this has been greeted literally with applause.  But to walk the talk implies a long and substantial agenda of work.  In many respects, it literally means to return to abandoned forums, and to re-establish and finance a range of dedicated bodies and programmes (both governmental and non-governmental).  It will also entail a robust re-engagement in political terms to confront both old and new challenges ranging from fully realising women’s human rights to tackling the many implications of climate change or the surveillance society.  Indeed, it’s clear that it won’t be enough merely for Canada to be “back”: we must seek to be “ahead” and to lead as we are both capable and largely welcome.

While much of the rhetoric has yet to be defined in terms of concrete action, the Liberal Government has made clear its unequivocal intention to support and vindicate the rights of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.  This is long overdue – as most Canadians and much of the world know.  Most notable are the recent pronouncements to implement all ninety-four (94) of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada’s recommendations[i] and to mandate and equip a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (beginning with an initial “design” phase involving sensitive consultations)[ii].  Both commitments are wide-ranging and potentially transformative for the directly affected persons and communities as well as for Canadian society in general.  They will entail a lot of healing and repair, but they will also empower and contribute substantially to creating a stronger Canada which views and treats everyone with respect, values equally all talents and invests in all citizens.  We all have much to gain.

The history of Indigenous peoples in Canada need not here be recounted: it is well-known to be shameful and a tragic waste of human potential.  The future can and must be different.  Implementation of all 94 of the TRC’s recommendations will contribute substantially to effect real change.  Of course, this change in governmental attitude needs to be matched by substantially different behaviour on the part of institutions, public officials and civil servants, and the general public, and it must be accompanied by adequate resource allocations.  To ensure this takes place, ongoing public reviews of progress will need to gauge actions and especially results.  We can already say what some of this must be: to reduce poverty and rates of incarceration and violence, and to increase rates of employment and educational attainment.  Ultimately, this will mean greater self-governance and genuine social integration based on mutual respect and partnership – a new modus vivendi.

These goals need to be rooted in universal human rights as a shared reference and understanding of the foundational norm of human dignity, and so it is important to promote and implement at home and abroad the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples[iii], and to elaborate the fuller scope and content of Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 of Canada which recognizes and affirms existing “aboriginal rights”, but does not define them.  There is no good reason to wait for these to be defined piecemeal over time through costly references to the Courts.  Internationally, Canada should immediately ratify International Labour Organisation Convention No. 169 – Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries[iv] and also the American Convention on Human Rights[v] (which has proved especially important as a recourse for Indigenous peoples throughout our hemisphere).  In doing so, Canada will simultaneously improve the situation within our country and gain significant credibility in the international arena where we pursue our foreign policy objectives.

Action with regard to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is a case in point.  The gobsmacking numbers (in real terms and ratios) cry out not only for a complete study, but for immediate implementation of recommendations, many of which are foreseeable.  This holds potential similar to Canada’s 1967 Royal Commission on the Status of Women which succeeded in opening eyes, marshaling evidence, and then effecting crucial social change.  Unfortunately, Canada’s overall record of implementing recommendations of such commissions is not good, as the experience shows for the Arar, Air India and Iacobucci Inquiries[vi].  To avoid this, the Government can already declare it will not permit such a fate and will, instead, commit to implement the new Inquiry’s recommendations.  Indeed, we already know that our society must come to terms with the root causes of the scale and breadth of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in our country.  Actions to address the root causes will surely go a long way to achieve the social reconciliation our country needs, and unlock the human potential we have so far lost.

The fresh air and new hope in Ottawa has been accompanied by a good start in terms of policy pronouncements and “actions”.  To be sure, things look much better than a year ago.  Now we need the actual practice.  This will demand focused attention and effort.  We will all of us need to keep watch and hold to account, so next 10 December we may reflect on some real achievements. 

[i] The recommendations, titled “Calls to Action”, are found on pages 319-337 of the Executive Summary of the TRC’s report, published on 23 July 2015; see:  The Final Report (i.e. full report) of the TRC will be published on 15 December 2015.

[iv] For the full text of the Convention adopted in Geneva on 27 June 1989, see:

[v] For the text of the convention, adopted by Member States of the Organization of American States meeting in San José, Costa Rica, on 22 November 1969, see:

[vi] For the report of a conference reviewing (no) progress ten years after the Arar Inquiry, and including contributions from the three mentioned Inquiries, see:



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