From Geneva

Friday, May 05, 2006

Canada moving backwards: UN committee reviews federal government's committment to UN covenant



The UN Committee began dealing with Canada this morning. The Committee is considering both Canada’s 4th and 5th reports this year, as it has been 8 years since she last reported (signatory nations are required to report every 4 years). I think I can safely say that the Committee was fairly critical of Canada in their opening questions, as it did seem that many of the issues of concern from 1993 and 1998 had not been addressed in any way by Canada.

The first question came from Mr. Arirangana Govindasamy Pillay, the committee member from Mauritius. Mr. Pillay structured his question as an overview of the issues of concern and recommendations identified by the Committee in 1993 and 1998, and he went through issue after issue that did not appear to have been addressed by Canada. His questions included reference to the inadequacy of social assistance rates, and many other points with regard to the clearly established right to an adequate standard of living.

As a stark example, Mr. Pillay addressed the ongoing clawback of the National Child Benefit Supplement from families on social assistance in most provinces in Canada. The UN Committee recommended in 1998 that the clawback be ended. Mr. Pillay noted that this was a simple recommendation that could have been implemented, "yet it is a dead letter".

For an overview of the National Child Benefit Supplement Clawback issue - click here

On the issue of Canada’s response to previous recommendations, Mr. Pillay noted that some of the factual evidence before him seemed to indicate that the Government of Canada and provinces had engaged in retrogressive measure with regard to some covenant rights. If any deliberately retrogressive measures are taken, the State party has the burden of proving that they have been introduced after the most careful consideration of all alternatives and that they are duly justified by reference to the totality of the rights provided for in the Covenant in the context of the full use of the State party's maximum available resources.

Among the many questions, there were also some questions and discussion around funding for civil legal aid across the country. Gwen Brodsky had presented to the Committee on this issue on behalf of the Canadian Bar Association. Mr. Philippe Texier, the Committee member from France, referred to legal assistance being required to help poor persons with social assistance appeals or rental housing matters. Of course, these are the kind of services that Hamilton’s Community legal clinics offer; but Ontario’s community legal clinics are in a funding crisis, with demand for services high. More worrying is the fact that other provinces in Canada have no such legal aid services at all, thus leaving our most vulnerable members of society without needed representation.

Overall, it is clear that the NGO submissions have been read and considered by the Committee, and critical issues are being addressed. Of course, this has been the goal of all the work this week, so it is a relief to realize that the messages seem to have gotten through, and the factual evidence is being utilized.

This will be my last blog entry for some time. I will be leaving Geneva tomorrow at 7am and returning home to Hamilton. The Committee will continue considering Canada’s reports on Monday, and will continue meeting with other countries until May 19. Later this month, the Committee will release concluding observations on Canada. At that time, the Income Security Working Group and others, including Hamilton’s community legal clinics, will review the document and will advocate that all levels of government implement the recommendations of the Committee and address all areas of concern with regard to the right to an adequate standard of living.

Thanks for reading!

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