Human Rights in the Americas. Review of 2019 - Canada [AMR 01/1353/2020]

Despite frequent promises, new laws and a long-awaited national inquiry report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, extensive violations of the rights of Indigenous Peoples continued. The government refused to lift the designation of the USA as a “safe” third country for refugee protection.

Indigenous Peoples

In May, the Minister of Indigenous Services visited the Grassy Narrows First Nation but failed to establish a specialized health care facility to address decades of mercury contamination in the community.

A proposed law to incorporate the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Declaration) into Canadian law, which had been passed by the House of Commons, was blocked in the Senate and was not adopted before the previous parliamentary session ended in June. In November the province of British Columbia unanimously adopted a new law implementing the Declaration.

In June, a new law recognized Indigenous peoples’ jurisdiction over child and family services. A judicial review of a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that First Nations children had been subject to “wilful and reckless” discrimination and awarding CDN$40,000 to children taken into care since 2006 was ongoing at the end of the year.

In June, a law to “reclaim, revitalize, strengthen and maintain” Indigenous languages in Canada was passed.

In September, a public inquiry in Quebec concluded Indigenous Peoples faced systemic discrimination in accessing public services in the province.

In December, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD) called on Canada to halt the construction of the Trans Mountain Expansion Pipeline, Site C dam and Coastal GasLink pipeline in the province of British Columbia unless the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples impacted by these projects was obtained.

Climate crisis

National efforts to address the climate crisis remained inconsistent and inadequate. Saskatchewan and Ontario appeal courts ruled that national carbon pricing legislation was within the federal government’s constitutional authority. A similar challenge was pending in Alberta and a further appeal before the Supreme Court of Canada was scheduled for March 2020. The federal government approved the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline to carry bitumen from oil sands in Alberta to a marine terminal in British Columbia. The Federal Court of Appeal agreed to hear an appeal of that approval from Indigenous communities regarding inadequate consultation.

Women’s rights

In June, the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released. The federal government committed to develop a national action plan to address violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, and enacted an overdue amendment to end sex discrimination in the Indian Act, but did not make any other commitments in response to the Inquiry.

In June, legislation requiring assessment of the gender and Indigenous rights impacts of major resource development projects under federal jurisdiction was adopted.

In October, the only clinic in the province of New Brunswick providing abortion services outside a hospital announced it would close because of a lack of government funding, significantly restricting access to abortion services.

Canada failed to implement the UN Committee against Torture’s 2018 recommendations to investigate forced and coerced sterilization of Indigenous women and girls, and take concrete steps to halt the practice and ensure justice for survivors.

Freedom of religion

Four legal challenges were pending regarding a Quebec provincial law, adopted in June, banning certain public servants in positions of authority, including teachers, police officers and judges, from wearing religious symbols such as the hijab, turban, kippah or crucifix while at work. The lawsuits raise concerns about gender equality, discrimination, religious freedom and freedom of expression.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI)

In December, the federal government committed to amending the Criminal Code to ban conversion therapy, and to work in conjunction with provinces and territories to end the practice. Conversion therapy seeks to change people's sexual orientation, or suppress a person's gender identity or expression.

Canada failed to take steps to end medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children without their free, full and informed consent.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

In April, the government of Ontario ended legal aid for refugee and immigration proceedings. In August, the federal government covered that funding gap on a temporary basis.

In May, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the China case that immigration detainees have the right to bring habeas corpus applications before provincial courts.

In June, a new law excluded refugee claimants who have previously claimed refugee status in countries with which Canada maintains intelligence sharing agreements from hearings before the independent Immigration and Refugee Board. Their claims are instead referred to the Pre-Removal Risk Assessment process carried out by government officials.

A legal challenge to the Canada/US Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) launched in 2017 by Amnesty International, the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian Council of Churches and individual refugee claimants was heard in November. Under the STCA refugee claimants are turned back from official Canada/US border posts because Canada considers the US asylum system to meet international human rights requirements.

Criminal justice system

Independent reports released by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission in March and the City of Montreal in October, building on similar reports in Ontario in 2018, added new urgency to calls to address discrimination against Black and Indigenous people in policing and the justice system, including a ban on random street checks.

Concerns about prolonged solitary confinement in federal prisons were not fully addressed by a law adopted in June, which replaced past practice with “structured intervention units”.

Counter-terror and security

National security reforms in June established a National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, strengthened oversight of Canada’s no-fly list and reversed some restrictive measures adopted in 2015, but also granted new mass surveillance powers to intelligence agencies.

In July, an external review of the 2014 extradition of Canadian citizen Hassan Diab to France, where he was detained without charge for over three years, concluded that the federal government had complied with Canadian law, renewing calls for a full judicial inquiry.

The government refused to facilitate the return to Canada of over 40 Canadian citizens, accused of being ISIS fighters or their family members, who are detained or trapped in Syria.

Corporate accountability

In February, mining company Tahoe Resources was acquired by Pan American Silver, which was followed in July by settlement of a lawsuit brought against Tahoe by Guatemalans shot and injured by company security forces in 2013. Pan American Silver publicly apologized and acknowledged the shootings infringed the human rights of protesters.

In April, the federal government appointed the first Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise but failed to grant them necessary powers to carry out independent investigations into alleged human rights abuses associated with Canadian companies operating abroad, undermining the effectiveness of this new body from the outset.

Despite a recommendation from investigators, no charges were laid for the 2014 Mount Polley mine disaster and the government failed to implement UN CERD and UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights recommendations regarding the health impact of the disaster on Indigenous peoples.

Human rights defenders

In June, the government released updated guidelines detailing support to be provided by Canadian diplomats to human rights defenders in other countries.

In July, the government of Alberta launched a public inquiry into alleged foreign funding of the province’s environmental movement and in October established the privately incorporated Canadian Energy Centre, which exposed human rights defenders critical of the province’s oil and gas industry to harassment.

Arms trade

In September, Canada’s accession to the UN Arms Trade Treaty took legal effect. A government review of an ongoing CDN$15 billion 2014 deal to sell light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, made public in November, concluded that there was “no credible evidence linking Canadian exports of military equipment or other controlled items” to the commission of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia, paving the way for the approval of 48 pending export permits.