Throne Speech lacks transformative human rights vision

Responding to the much-anticipated 2020 Throne Speech, Amnesty International welcomed several vital commitments and ambitious program announcements while, at the same time, expressing disappointment that the government failed to craft and deliver a transformative human rights agenda for the country, at a time of both crucial need and tremendous opportunity.

“The 2020 Throne Speech is wide-sweeping and includes numerous bold spending and program promises, several of which might truly be transformative of Canada’s economy and social policies in many areas.  This was an unprecedented moment to ground that transformation in a full and unwavering recognition of and commitment to the country’s national and international human rights obligations, particularly those dealing with economic, social and cultural rights, and unfortunately that did not occur,” said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English Branch. “The phrase ‘human rights’ appears only once, linked to standing up for the rule of law internationally.  That does not come close to capturing the crucial importance, relevance and practical value of human rights in addressing the enormous challenges that Canada and the world face at this time.”

Amnesty International had written to the Prime Minister well in advance of the speech, laying out seven key areas the organization hoped would be reflected in the Throne Speech.

  1. Recognize and uphold economic, social, and cultural rights as the essential framework to a just, safe, and transformative recovery. 

There is no reference to economic, social, and cultural rights in any way, including in areas such as the promises regarding the National Housing Strategy, where it is of essential relevance.

  1. Honour your promises to bring forward legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and fully fund the creation and implementation of a National Action Plan to implement the Calls to Justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

While there is a commitment to bring forward legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples before the end of the year, which is long overdue and would be very welcome, promises have been made before and not kept. There is nothing concrete with respect to the Calls to Justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, other than to ‘accelerate’ work to create a National Action Plan, without any specific timeline, process, or commitment to ensuring the process is led by Inuit, Métis, and First Nations women, girls, and two-spirit people.

  1. Commit to concrete action to address systemic racism in Canada, including a ban on carding, street checks and racial profiling by all police and security agencies under federal jurisdiction, strengthening implementation of the federal Anti-Racism Strategy, and initiating consultations towards wider reforms such as options for defunding police.   

This was a chance for a strong commitment to demonstrate leadership in working towards a nationwide ban on carding, street checks and racial profiling by police and security agencies. While there are indications of several legislative, policy and resourcing changes that will be pursued, there is nothing to suggest that truly fundamental reforms to policing to address systemic racism are being considered. 

  1. Implement a feminist pandemic recovery plan which builds upon the Safe Restart Agreement and includes establishment of a fully-funded national childcare system to provide high quality, accessible, affordable, inclusive and high quality childcare for every family in Canada.

The commitment to “accessible, affordable, inclusive and high quality childcare” and to a “feminist, intersectional response to this pandemic and recovery” guided by a “task force of experts whose diverse voices will power a whole-of-government approach” is encouraging.  We look forward to more details and the development of this plan. 

  1. By the end of the year, adopt legislation and policy, consistent with human rights obligations, that reflect current scientific, Indigenous and international best practices and knowledge to mitigate the global climate crisis, which will ensure a viable future on this planet for future generations and all species, and limit the global temperature increase by 2030 to no more than 1.5oC .

The commitment to “immediately bring forward a plan to exceed Canada’s 2030 climate goal” is crucially important, particularly since the current goals are wholly inadequate. We look forward to seeing the plan and an assurance that it is strongly reflective of Indigenous best practices and knowledge and incorporates a human rights framework.  Also encouraging is the promise to “legislate Canada’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050”; however that is an overall global goal for 2050 and as a wealthy nation in the Global North which has been a major source of carbon emissions, Canada must endeavour to meet that goal much sooner.   

The commitment to “zero-emissions vehicles and batteries” and the reference to the fact that Canada has many of the required natural resources, such as nickel and copper, is a clear illustration of the need for accompanying human rights commitments, given the human rights violations and failure to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples in particular that are associated with the mining of such resources around the world, including in Canada.

  1. Put in place effective implementation and oversight of Canada’s human rights obligations, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was no commitment to advancing the proposal supported by more than 300 organizations and experts across Canada earlier this year for strengthened human rights oversight of the government’s COVID-19 response.

  1. Commit to consistent and unconditional respect for international human rights in all of Canada’s bilateral and multilateral relations.

There were only vague and general references to international affairs. Amnesty International looks forward to hearing more specifics about the promise that Canada will “invest more in international development”, particularly in the light of Canada’s longstanding low levels of funding in this area. There are no specifics with respect to the assurance that Canada will “continue to stand up for human rights and the rule of law”, including no references to arms sales to Saudi Arabia, no mention of obligations with respect to refugee protection and no update regarding the need to provide investigative powers for the recently established Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise.  

“A Throne Speech is, we recognize, primarily about high-level aspiration. And the government’s aspirations, for instance, with respect to implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples, instituting a national childcare program and strengthening the country’s climate targets are all crucially important. It is nevertheless disappointing that Canada’s aspirations are not explicitly and confidently framed in terms of human rights. Human rights are the guarantors of justice, equality, and dignity.  They also provide the road-map for economic and social systems that are sustainable and stable,” said France-Isabelle Langlois, Directrice-générale of Amnistie internationale Canada francophone. “The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare both the injustice and instability society faces when human rights are not taken seriously.  This was a crucial moment and missed opportunity to change course.”