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Events of 2023

People gather in front of the Ontario Legislative Building to protest the development of mines on Indigenous lands, Toronto, Canada, September 27, 2023.

© 2023 Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Image

Since assuming office in 2015, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken significant steps to advance human rights at home and abroad. Despite progress in a few key areas, a range of deeply entrenched challenges remain. These include wide-ranging abuses against Indigenous peoples and immigration detainees, including people with disabilities. Canada’s failures to mitigate the impacts of climate change and provide adequate government support are also leading to violations in Indigenous communities across the country while compounding risks for people with disabilities, children, and older people.

The Trudeau government has failed to address serious human rights concerns beyond Canada’s borders, including impunity for abuses by Canadian extractive and apparel companies overseas. Canada also continues to fail to provide consular assistance or repatriate a group of Canadian men, women, and children unlawfully detained in life-threatening conditions in northeast Syria.

Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

In April 2023, police chiefs representing nine First Nations police forces in Ontario province filed a complaint against the federal government with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal alleging discrimination due to the “chronic underfunding and under-resourcing of the safety of Indigenous communities.”

Following a 16-year legal battle, in July, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal approved a revised settlement of 23.4 billion Canadian dollars (about US$17.1 billion) to compensate victims of the First Nations child welfare system. In 2016, the tribunal found that the federal government had racially discriminated against this group “by chronically underfunding on-reserve child and family services and refusing to pay for essential health care.”

In April, representatives of more than 50 Indigenous communities across North America submitted a report as part of the United Nations Human Right Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Canada’s human right record, condemning Canada’s support of a controversial cross-border pipeline, known as Line 5, that transports crude oil through the Great Lakes region.

Ten First Nations communities in Ontario province filed a lawsuit in April against the provincial and federal government to end their “unilateral jurisdiction and decision-making control” of Treaty 9 territory in northern Ontario. The territory includes the Ring of Fire, a mineral-rich area located in the James Bay Lowlands region that is the traditional territory of more than a dozen First Nations.

In his report to the UN Human Rights Council in July, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples called on Canada to “suspend large-scale mining and other business activities in the Ring of Fire region and cease construction or operation of the Coastal GasLink, Trans Mountain and Line 5 pipelines, until the free, prior and informed consent of the Indigenous Peoples affected is secured.”

In June, the federal government released its action plan for implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) despite calls for more consultation by the Assembly of First Nations in April. The action plan includes 181 measures the government intends to take to advance the rights of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people in Canada.

Violence against Indigenous Women and Girls

In May, Canadian parliamentarians unanimously supported a motion declaring the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls a national emergency and called for federal funding for a new public alert system.

In response to one of the key recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the federal government announced an investment of 103 million Canadian dollars (about US$75.3 million) in May to build and support 178 shelter spaces and transitional houses for Indigenous women, children, and Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer+, and intersex (2SLGBTQI+) people fleeing violence.

Immigration Detention

People in immigration detention, including people with disabilities and those seeking refugee protection in Canada, continue to be regularly handcuffed and shackled. With no time limits on immigration detention, they can be detained for months or years and are at risk of being held indefinitely. 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, including prolonged solitary confinement in maximum-security jails, child detention and family separation, indefinite detention, and the stripping of legal capacity of people with mental health conditions.

CBSA has traditionally had broad latitude to place people in immigrant holding centers, provincial jails, or other detention facilities. Following the 2021 launch of a joint Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International campaign, #WelcomeToCanada, eight of Canada’s ten provinces 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.

Corporate Accountability

Canada has not taken adequate steps to ensure that authorities exercise meaningful oversight of Canadian extractive companies operating abroad. Communities and workers whose rights have been violated are often unable to access justice or remedy, and human rights defenders frequently face violence and intimidation. 

In response to complaints filed in 2022 by a coalition of 28 human rights organizations, the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) announced in August the opening of investigations against three Canadian companies alleged to have used or benefited from the use of Uyghur forced labor in Xinjiang, China.

In May, a coalition of civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch, critiqued a new forced and child labor law passed by Canadian parliamentarians for failing to require that companies both take action if they are made aware of abuses in their supply chains and offer assistance to victims.

In February, members of the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on International Trade held hearings on the harmful impacts of Canadian mining companies abroad. As inputs to the proceedings, the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA) submitted six new reports linking Canadian companies and their subsidiaries overseas to “widespread and ongoing” abuses, including allegations of killings, torture, forced labor, arbitrary detention, and intimidation.

In September, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery urged the Canadian government to “bring forward legislation requiring Canadian companies to implement mandatory human rights due diligence, and expand the independence, powers, and mandate of the CORE.”


In response to growing international pressure and a federal lawsuit, Canada in April and July repatriated 19 Canadian women and children who had been unlawfully detained since at least 2019 in camps holding suspected members of the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and family members in northeast Syria. However, Canada refused to repatriate at least one Canadian mother and her six children, citing security concerns about the mother, as well as a group of Canadian children born to foreign mothers unless the mothers agreed to stay behind. Canada also refused to bring home at least eight Canadian men detained in northeast Syria for alleged ISIS ties. All are held in dire and at times life-threatening conditions.

Canada brought home the 19 citizens as part of an out-of-court settlement in January. That same month, a federal court in Ottawa ruled that Canada should also bring home four detained Canadian men, finding that the government had a positive obligation to request the return of its detained citizens, provide them with travel documents, and appoint a representative to travel to the region as soon as possible. The court found that Canada had breached the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in its failure to take all reasonable steps to bring the Canadians home.

In May, a federal court of appeal overturned the decision, upholding Canada’s argument that the government is not obligated to repatriate the four Canadian men. In August, lawyers representing the families of these men said they would appeal to the Supreme Court.

In July, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism urged the Canadian government to reconsider its decision not to repatriate a Canadian mother from northeast Syria along with her children.

In August, a delegation, including Canadian Senator Kim Pate, visited northeast Syria and met with a group of unlawfully detained Canadians, including two men who had not been heard from in years. Following the visit, the delegation urged the government of Canada to provide consular assistance to the detainees and engage with officials in northeast Syria to repatriate all Canadians still held in the region.

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 its growing toll on human rights around the globe. Since being re-elected in 2021, the Trudeau government has repeatedly pledged to pursue ambitious actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada is the top public financier of fossil fuels among G20 nations and projects increased domestic oil and gas production through 2050. Extraction of oil from Canadian oil sands is 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 the current and anticipated impacts of climate change, and they have largely ignored the impacts of climate change on First Nations’ right to food.

Fueled by hot, dry conditions, over 17 million hectares of forest was consumed by wildfires throughout Canada in 2023, displacing thousands and negatively impacting air quality throughout the country and into the United States.

A June 2023 report by British Columbia’s Centre for Disease Control confirmed that the 2021 heat dome led to the deaths of more than 130 people with schizophrenia. This represents about 8 percent of all deaths during the heat dome, even though people with schizophrenia represent only about 1 percent of the province’s population. The report also confirmed that people with schizophrenia are not usually at the forefront of public health messaging about extreme heat despite the risks.

British Columbia is currently developing a disaster and climate risk and resilience assessment and a disaster risk reduction plan and is in the process of modernizing the Emergency Management Legislation to align with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which aims to ensure full and meaningful participation of women, older people, people with disabilities, migrants, Indigenous peoples, and local communities.

Key International Actors

In July, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples presented a report on his country visit to Canada calling on the government to urgently address “the deep-set, systemic and structural racism affecting Indigenous Peoples.”

Following a visit to Canada from August to September, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery called on the government “to promote effective human rights due diligence in the activities of Canadian companies” and reform “migration programmes that serve as a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery.”

In August, following a visit to northeast Syria, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism condemned Canada’s failure to take responsibility for its nationals unlawfully detained in prisons and camps holding ISIS suspects and their families.

Foreign Policy

Addressing the House of Commons in September, Prime Minister Trudeau said that Canadian authorities were investigating “credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India” and the killing of Canadian Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia in June. The Indian government strongly denied the allegations.

In May, Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly announced Canada’s intention to run for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council for the 2028-2030 term.

In September, Canada, in partnership with the Netherlands, launched a new UN declaration on misinformation aimed at “establishing global norms on disinformation, misinformation, and information integrity.”

In September, Canada announced sanctions against three Haitians in “response to acts of significant corruption, which are fueling the current security, political and humanitarian crisis in the country.”

In October, the International Court of Justice began hearings as part of a case brought by Canada and the Netherlands against Syria alleging it has breached the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Throughout 2023, Canada imposed a series of measures against the government of Iran, including a 14th package of sanctions against Iranian officials for gross and systemic violations of human rights. In January, Canada also reaffirmed its commitment to holding Iran accountable for the 2020 downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 and ensuring reparations for the victims’ families. 

In August, Canada imposed additional sanctions against 4 individuals and 29 entities with “direct ties to Russia’s military-industrial complex,” building on sanctions announced in July targeting Russia’s nuclear sector. Also in August, Canada announced new sanctions against 15 Russian individuals and 3 entities, including senior officials of the Russian government, judiciary, and investigative committee, “directly involved in human rights abuses against Russian opposition leaders.”

Following the third anniversary of the Beirut blast explosion, Canada joined the United Kingdom and the US in August in imposing sanctions against three Lebanese nationals for their involvement in acts of significant corruption.

In January, on the second anniversary of the Myanmar coup, Canada imposed sanctions against six individuals and new prohibitions on the “export, sale, supply or shipment of aviation fuel to the Myanmar military regime.” That same month, Canada announced targeted sanctions against four Sri Lankans, including two former presidents, responsible for gross and systematic violations of human rights during the country’s armed conflict.