In September 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected for a third term following a snap election. In office since 2015, his government has championed human rights, but longstanding challenges remain across Canada. These include widespread violations of the rights of marginalized groups including Indigenous peoples, immigration detainees, people with disabilities, and older people.
The Trudeau government has also failed to address serious human rights concerns beyond Canada’s border, including impunity for abuses by Canadian mining companies overseas. Canada also continues to ignore the need to adopt and implement robust climate mitigation policies. For over three years, the government has also rebuffed calls by Canada-based family members and top United Nations officials to repatriate dozens of Canadians, most of them children, unlawfully detained in life-threatening conditions in northeast Syria.
Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Decades of structural and systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples has led to widespread abuses that persist across Canada.
Inadequate access to clean, safe drinking water continues to pose a major public health concern in many Indigenous communities and impede efforts to advance Indigenous rights in Canada, one of the world’s most water-rich countries.
The government of Prime Minister Trudeau committed to end all drinking water advisories on First Nations reserves by 2021 but, as of September, 28 First Nations communities across Canada remained subject to long-term water advisories, which alert communities when their water is not safe to drink.
In July, Canada signed a US$14 billion final settlement agreement to compensate First Nations children and families unnecessarily taken into government care due to its failure to provide funding for child and family services in Indigenous communities.
Violence against Indigenous Women
In May, a Statistics Canada report found that 81 percent of Indigenous women who had been in the child-welfare system had been physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
In June 2021, the federal government published a report promising a series of “transformative changes” to address persistent discrimination and violence against Indigenous women and gender-diverse people. That year, the Trudeau government released a National Action Plan in response to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls' findings and recommendations. In June, an assessment by the Native Women’s Association of Canada on the government’s performance deemed it to be a “failure.”
People in immigration detention, including persons with disabilities and those seeking refugee protection in Canada, continue to be regularly handcuffed and shackled, and at risk of being held indefinitely. With no time limits on immigration detention, they can be detained for months or years. Many are held in provincial jails alongside people detained on criminal charges or convictions, and they are also sometimes subjected to solitary confinement.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) remains the only major law enforcement agency in Canada without independent civilian oversight. The federal government has introduced oversight legislation, but it has yet to pass. CBSA’s unchecked exercise of its broad mandate and enforcement powers has repeatedly resulted in serious human rights violations in the context of immigration detention.
CBSA has the sole authority to decide where immigration detainees are held: immigration holding centers, provincial jails, or other facilities. Following the launch of a joint Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International campaign, #WelcomeToCanada, the governments of British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Alberta and Manitoba gave notice of termination of their immigration detention contracts with the federal government. This means CBSA will no longer have the power to detain refugee claimants and migrants in those provinces' jails solely on immigration grounds.
Canada is home to more than half of the world’s mining companies, with Canadian companies operating in nearly 100 countries and holding foreign mining assets estimated at US$130 billion. The government of Prime Minister Trudeau has not taken adequate steps to ensure that Canadian authorities exercise meaningful oversight of Canadian extractive companies operating abroad.
The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE), appointed in April 2019 to address corporate human rights challenges and receive complaints about Canadian garment, mining, oil and gas companies’ conduct abroad, still does not have the authority or independence required to effectively investigate claims of wrongdoing or compel documents and witness testimony.
In March, two private members bills were tabled in the House of Commons aimed at advancing accountability for human rights abuses linked to Canadian companies’ operations or supply chains abroad. Bill C-262 would require companies to identify, prevent, and mitigate human rights abuses throughout their global operations and supply chains, including violations to the right to a healthy environment. The bill provides affected communities with a statutory right to bring a civil lawsuit against a company in a Canadian court to seek justice and remedy for causing harm or failing to undertake human rights due diligence. Bill C-263 seeks to establish an Office of the Commissioner for Responsible Business Conduct Abroad, essentially transforming the CORE into a corporate watchdog able to independently investigate allegations of abuse.
In June, Canada’s parliament unanimously consented to a second reading of a bill that would expand an existing prohibition on importing goods produced with forced labor to include goods produced with child labour. Bill S-211, would require government and private entities to submit annual reports on any measures taken to prevent and reduce the risk of forced or child labor in their supply chains.
In April, a coalition of Canadian civil society organizations filed a complaint with the CORE urging the body to investigate allegations that products sold by 14 Canadian companies are made in whole or in part with forced labor in China.
Right to Education
The education ministries of Ontario and Quebec failed to act following reports that they had recommended unsafe online learning products for children during the Covid-19 pandemic. Five products surveilled or had the capacity to surveil children online, outside of school hours, and deep into their private lives, and transmitted children’s personal data to advertising technology companies.
Since February and March 2019, the Kurdish-led authorities in northeast Syria have arbitrarily detained an estimated four dozen Canadians in locked desert camps and prisons for Islamic State (ISIS) suspects and their families. Despite being held in appalling and life-threatening conditions, the government of Prime Minister Trudeau continues to fail to take adequate steps to assist and repatriate these nationals. To date, none of the Canadians have been charged with a crime or brought before a judge to review the legality and necessity of their detention. More than half of the Canadian detainees are children.
In January 2021, Global Affairs Canada adopted a consular policy framework specifically for this group of citizens that makes it near-impossible for them to return home. The policy, made public in February 2022, was not shared with the detainees or their family members seeking assistance for nearly a year.
In February, more than a dozen UN independent experts called on Canada to urgently repatriate a gravely ill Canadian woman, Kimberly Polman. Despite offers of assistance by a former US ambassador, Canada prevented her and an unrelated young Canadian child from coming home for life-saving medical care that month. Polman remained in detention until late October, when she was repatriated with another Canadian woman and two children.
In June, UN experts sent an urgent appeal to Canada relating to the plight of a detained Canadian man expressing serious concern about his continued detention in northeast Syria. The appeal called for the repatriation of all Canadian citizens. UN officials including Secretary-General António Guterres have repeatedly called on all countries with nationals held in northeast Syria to repatriate their citizens for rehabilitation, reintegration, and prosecution as warranted.
Climate Change Policy and Impacts
As a top 10 global greenhouse gas emitter, and one of the highest per capita emitters in the world, Canada is contributing to the climate crisis, and taking a growing toll on human rights around the globe. Since being re-elected in 2021, the Trudeau government has repeated its pledges to pursue ambitious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In March, the government released a new Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP), setting out how it intends to meet its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40-45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. According to Climate Action Tracker, Canada’s climate goals are not sufficient to meet the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Canada is the top public financier of fossil fuels among G20 nations and projects increased oil and gas production through 2050. Canadian oil sands are among the most carbon intensive and polluting oil production methods globally. The government continues to permit oil and gas pipeline expansions, including on First Nations’ lands. Plans to increase fossil fuel production disregard the government’s human rights obligation to adopt and implement robust climate mitigation policies.
Federal and provincial climate change policies have failed to put in place adequate measures to support First Nations in adapting to current and anticipated impacts of climate change and have largely ignored the impacts of climate change on First Nations’ right to food. A 2022 report by the Canadian Climate Institute found that the climate crisis, especially permafrost thaw, is widening the Northern infrastructure gap and putting communities at risk. Much more government action is needed to address the impact of the climate crisis on First Nations and to ensure that appropriate food subsidies and health resources are available to all who need them.
The British Columbia’s Coroner’s report from June 2022 confirmed there was inadequate government response during the June 2021 “heat dome” that resulted in 619 deaths— mostly among older people and people with disabilities. In March, the province hosted small, limited engagements with heat-sensitive populations, including people with disabilities and older people. It remains unclear how the recommendations from people with lived experience will inform government policy. In July, the BC government released its new climate adaptation strategy which includes steps to prepare for and address heat risks but fails to discuss how these can be applied to at-risk populations.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Prime Minister Trudeau’s government has taken significant steps domestically and internationally to advance the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. In August, the federal government launched its first national action plan to advance and strengthen LGBT rights at home and abroad, committing US$72 million over five years to develop and implement the plan.
Key International Actors
In March, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) called on Canada to address long-standing gender-based discrimination in the country’s Indian Act, which continues to discriminate against Indigenous women.
In April, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed concerns about the “escalated use of force, surveillance, and criminalization against land defenders and peaceful protesters.” The committee urged Canada to stop construction on two natural gas and oil projects until the government obtains consent from affected Indigenous communities.
In June, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on Canada to “take immediate measures to repatriate Canadian children” from northeast Syria and “provide them with appropriate assistance for their full physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration.”
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Canada imposed a series of targeted sanctions on more than 1,150 individuals and entities complicit in human rights abuses. Canadian sanctions also targeted Russia’s oil, gas and chemical industries, defense sector and officials and entities involved in disinformation efforts. In March, Canada referred the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in coordination with other ICC states parties.
In March, Canada, in coordination with the United Kingdom and the United States, imposed targeted sanctions against individuals and entities “responsible for procuring and supplying arms and military equipment” to the Myanmar military, including the commander of the Air Force.
At the March session of the UN Human Rights Council, Canada and seven Latin American states presented a resolution to create a group of experts charged with investigating human rights violations in Nicaragua. The resolution passed by a vote of 20 to 7.
In September, Canada co-led the resolution with a group of Latin American states to renew the mandate of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, charged with investigating grave human rights violations committed by all parties in Venezuela since 2014. The resolution was approved by 19 votes in favour.
In July, following a decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declaring the admissibility of the case, Canada reaffirmed its intention to intervene, together with the Netherlands, in proceedings relating to Gambia’s case before the court alleging that Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya violated the Genocide Convention.
At this session, Canada also supported a resolution renewing the mandate of the Sri Lanka Accountability Project tasked with collecting evidence of international crimes during and following the civil war.
Canada, together with 46 other countries, also supported a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council on the human rights situation in China calling on authorities to end the arbitrary detention of Muslim Uyghurs and other communities in Xinjiang.
In October, following the widespread outcry over the death of an Iranian woman in the custody of Tehran’s “morality police,” Canada imposed targeted sanctions on Iranian officials, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC)’s top leadership, rendering them inadmissible to Canada for life.