In July of 1999 the United Nations’ Human Development Index rated Canada first in a list of approximately 170 countries for our achievements in the areas of education, standard of living and life expectancy. This index has been produced annually for 10 years and, in the last six, has rated Canada as first. As Canadians, we should be proud of the social welfare programs and policies put in place over the past fifty years that allow for such international recognition. But all is not well. There is concern over the systematic dismantling of our social welfare and educational achievements which benefit all citizens.
In 1976 the United Nations, Canada and the provinces ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Canada is a signature to this Covenant, which complements the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that articulates the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want. This can be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone can enjoy economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights. The activities of all States Parties to this Covenant are reviewed every five years by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in order to assess progress made in achieving the provisions of the present Covenant. The Committee is a panel of experts from eighteen countries, selected by the Economic and Social Council of the UN.
The Canadian representatives met with the Committee in November of 1998. Our government delegates commented on Canada’s progress over the past five years toward achieving economic, social and cultural rights as established in the Covenant. Highlights of these reports include:
- an overhaul of the Employment Insurance system;
- the National Child Benefit to combat child poverty;
- deficit elimination, retrenchment, and focused reinvestment;
- safeguarding social programs through the Canada Health and Social Transfer
These reports were challenged by several Canadian non-government delegations who brought attention to public policy initiatives that they feel are responsible for growing poverty, inequality, hunger and homelessness. Delegation members described deteriorating conditions affecting vulnerable groups such as the poor, disabled, minorities, indigenous people and children. The priority of these delegations is to ensure that Canada adopts the terms of the Covenant in legislation and a framework to enforce national standards to protect the economic and social rights for all Canadians.
The UN Committee’s Principle Subjects of Concern:
- the number of claims brought by people living in poverty (usually women with children) against Government policies which deny the claimants and their children adequate food, clothing and housing. The UN Committee feels that provincial governments have denied recognition of the Covenant rights and have consequently left the complainants without the basic necessities of life and without any legal remedy
- cuts to social assistance rates in several provinces for both single people and families have had a significantly adverse impact on vulnerable groups, causing increases in already high levels of homelessness and hunger
- that such a wealthy country as Canada has allowed the problem of homelessness and inadequate housing to grow to such proportions that the mayors of Canada’s ten largest cities have now declared homelessness a national disaster
- the number of food banks has almost doubled between 1989 and 1997 in Canada and these are able to meet only a fraction of the increased needs of the poor
- provincial courts in Canada have routinely denied protection of the right to an adequate standard of living and other Covenant rights for individuals
- inadequate legal protection in Canada of women’s rights which are guaranteed under the Covenant, such as the absence of laws requiring employers to pay equal remuneration for work of equal value, restricted access to civil legal aid, inadequate protection from gender discrimination afforded by human rights laws and the inadequate enforcement of those laws
Protection of Women
- cuts to social assistance rates, social services and programs have had a particularly harsh impact on women, in particular single mothers, who are the majority of adults receiving social assistance
- significant reductions in provincial social assistance programs, the unavailability of affordable and appropriate housing and widespread discrimination with respect to housing create obstacles to women escaping domestic violence. Many women are forced, as a result, to choose between staying in a violent environment, on the one hand, and homelessness and inadequate food and clothing for themselves and their children, on the other.
- the gross disparity between Aboriginal people and the majority of Canadians with respect to the enjoyment of Covenant rights. The Committee is deeply concerned at the shortage of adequate housing, mass unemployment and the high rate of suicide, especially among youth in the Aboriginal community. Another concern is the failure to provide safe and adequate drinking water to Aboriginal communities on reserves. Almost a quarter of Aboriginal household dwellings require major repairs
- the direct connection between economic marginalization and the ongoing dispossession of Aboriginal people from their lands
Cuts in Services and Benefits
- successive restrictions to employment insurance benefits have resulted in a dramatic drop in the proportion of unemployed workers receiving benefits to approximately half of previous coverage, in the lowering of benefit rates, in reductions in the length of time for which benefits are paid and in the increasingly restricted access to benefits for part-time workers. Part-time, young, marginal, temporary and seasonal workers face more restrictions and are frequently denied benefits, while many low-income families are ineligible to receive any benefits at all
- the replacement of the Canada Assistance Plan by the Canada Health and Social Transfer entails a range of adverse consequences for the enjoyment of Covenant rights by disadvantaged groups in Canada. The Government of Canada stated in 1993 that the Canada Assistance Plan set national standards for social welfare, required that work by welfare recipients be freely chosen, guaranteed the right to an adequate standard of living, among other benefits. In contrast, the Canada Health and Social Transfer has eliminated each of these features and significantly reduced the amount of cash transfer payments provided to the provinces to cover social assistance
- at least six provinces in Canada (including Quebec and Ontario) have adopted “workfare” programs that either subject the right to social assistance to compulsory employment schemes or reduce social assistance entitlement. In many cases, these programs constitute work without the protection of fundamental labour rights and labour standards legislation
- significant cuts to services on which people with disabilities rely, such as cuts to homecare and attendant care, special needs transportation systems and tightened eligibility rules for people with disabilities. Programs for people who have been discharged from psychiatric institutions appear to be completely inadequate
- the minimum wage is not sufficient for a worker to have an adequate standard of living, which also covers his/her family
- concern that twenty percent of the adult population in Canada is functionally illiterate
- loan programs for post-secondary education are available only to Canadian citizens and permanent residents and that recognized refugees and others are ineligible for these loans. The Committee also views with concern the fact that tuition fees for university education in Canada have dramatically increased in the past years, making it very difficult for those in need to attend university in the absence of a loan or a grant
It should be noted that this is only a partial list of the many concerns discussed by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in their concluding observations.
Suggestions and Recommendations made by the UN Committee:
- Canada should establish an official poverty line and establish social assistance at levels which ensure the realization of an adequate standard of living for all
- federal and provincial agreements should be adjusted to ensure that services such as mental health care, child care and attendant care, shelters for battered women and legal aid for non-criminal matters are available at levels that ensure the right to an adequate standard of living
- Canada must implement a national strategy for the reduction of homelessness and poverty. Governments must reinstate or increase social housing programs for those in need, improve and properly enforce anti-discrimination legislation in housing, increase shelter allowances and social assistance rates to realistic levels, provide adequate support services for persons with disabilities, improve protection of security of tenure for tenants and prevent affordable rental housing stock from being converted to other uses
Legal and Program Reform
- Canada should consider reestablishing a national program with designated cash transfers for social assistance and services which include universal entitlements and national standards, specifying a legally enforceable right to adequate assistance for all persons in need, a right to freely chosen work, a right to appeal and a right to move freely from one job to another
- Canada’s National Child Benefit Scheme should be amended so as to prohibit provinces from deducting the benefit from social assistance entitlements
- Canada’s Employment Insurance Program should be reformed so as to provide adequate coverage for all unemployed workers i.e.. sufficient benefits for a period of time that would fully implement their right to social security
- governments should review their respective “workfare” legislation in order to ensure that none of the provisions violate the right to freely chosen work and other labour standards, including minimum wage
- the Government of Canada must take additional steps to ensure the enjoyment of economic and social rights for people with disabilities
Protection of Women
- Canada must adopt the necessary measures to ensure the realization of women’s economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to equal remuneration for work of equal value
- a greater proportion of government budgets should be directed specifically to measures to address women’s poverty and the poverty of their children, affordable day care, and legal aid for family matters. Measures that will establish adequate support for shelters for battered women, care giving services and women’s non-governmental organizations should also be implemented
- Canada must take urgent and concrete steps to ensure respect for Aboriginal economic and property rights. The resources must be adequate to achieve sustainable Aboriginal economies and cultures4
- the Government should develop and expand adequate programs to address the financial obstacles to post-secondary education for students, without any discrimination on the part of citizenship status
- governments should give a higher priority to measures to reduce the rate of functional illiteracy in Canada
The UN Committee states that economic and social rights should not be downgraded to “principles and objectives” in the ongoing discussions between the federal government and the provinces and territories regarding social programs. The Committee consequently urges the Federal Government of Canada to take concrete steps to ensure that the provinces and territories are made aware of their legal obligations under the Covenant and that these rights are enforceable through legislation and policy measures and the establishment of proper monitoring mechanisms.
The UN Committee report concludes with a request to the Government of Canada that “[Canada] ensure the wide dissemination of its present concluding observations and to inform the Committee of the steps taken to implement those recommendations in its next periodic report.”
For this reason, the Halton Social Planning Council and Volunteer Centre shares with you the concerns raised by this international body about changes to our social welfare and educational systems that offend the Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Sources: UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Articles 16 & 17 of the Covenant, Dec. 4, 1998.
Malcolm Shookner, Ontario Social Development Council, Dispatch From Geneva, Nov. 1998.
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