(Toronto) – The government of Stephen Harper, in power in Canada until October 2015, failed the grade on a number of human rights issues in domestic and foreign policy, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016. The current government, led by Justin Trudeau, has pledged to address pressing human rights concerns, including the high rates of violence indigenous women and girls face.
“The Trudeau government inherits a number of human rights problems that it will need to correct,” said Jasmine Herlt, Canada director at Human Rights Watch. “Restoring Canada’s reputation as a global human rights leader should begin with confronting abuses at home, from the murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls to restrictions of key civil liberties under counterterrorism measures.”
In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.
Trudeau’s cabinet is Canada’s first with gender parity and includes two indigenous ministers. Human rights issues of particular concern include the rights of the indigenous peoples, the legal status of sex work, and the rights of asylum seekers and migrants.
In June 2015, Canada passed the Anti-Terrorism Act, which imperils constitutionally enshrined human rights, including the freedoms of expression and association. In addition, Canada has failed to take steps to ensure that Canadian companies respect human rights when they do business abroad, despite documented problems in the extractive and garment industries.
The Harper government repeatedly rejected recommendations from human rights authorities. These include recommendations to uphold indigenous peoples’ rights and promote reconciliation developed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and endorsed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
In March, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women concluded that Canada had committed a “grave violation” of the rights of indigenous women by failing to promptly and thoroughly investigate the high levels of violence they suffer. Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) figures show that while indigenous women are 4.3 percent of Canada’s female population, they are 16 percent of female homicide victims.
The Harper government rejected calls from multiple UN expert bodies to establish a national public inquiry into the murders and disappearances of indigenous women and girls. The Trudeau government has begun preparations for an inquiry.
In October, eight police officers of the Sûreté du Québec (Quebec Provincial Police) were suspended pending investigation of allegations that they had abused, and in some cases sexually abused, indigenous women in the mining city of Val-d’Or.
A 2013 Human Rights Watch report on policing in British Columbia documented abuses of indigenous women and girls by members of the RCMP, including excessive use of force, physical assault, rape, and other sexual violence. Canada has inadequate police complaint mechanisms and oversight procedures and no nationwide mandate for independent civilian investigations into all serious police misconduct.
“The national public inquiry opens up the opportunity for a comprehensive, independent examination of the violence indigenous women and girls in Canada endure,” Herlt said. “The inquiry should be unflinching in confronting all aspects of the violence, including by police officers, to identify ways to halt the abuse.”