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Canada - UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food presents his report

    March 04, 2013

    The United Nations was presented today with a new report today outlining serious concerns regarding hunger and food insecurity in Canada, one of the wealthiest nations in the world. The report, written by independent expert, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, makes several concrete recommendations for strengthening protection of the human right to food in Canada. Human rights organizations present in Geneva, expressed deep disappointment that the government focused primarily on criticizing and dismissing the report and made no commitment to move ahead with any of the constructive recommendations.

    The report comes from De Schutter’s official mission to Canada, in May 2012. It represents his first visit to a country in the Global North – where serious levels of hunger and poverty are least expected.

    At the close of this ten day visit to the country, when De Schutter expressed serious concerns with the extent and depth of hunger and food insecurity in Canada, Canadian government officials made sharply critical and derisive remarks in the House of Commons and to the media. Members of the government, including ministers, ridiculed the Rapporteur for investigating issues related to the right to food in an affluent country such as Canada, rather than focusing exclusively on developing countries. 

    The government claimed it was concerned about the timing of press comments made by the Special Rapporteur. The relentless and personal nature of the attacks, however, suggests a defensiveness that goes beyond any such concerns.

    In response, an open letter was sent to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, expressing alarm and concern about the government’s treatment of the Special Rapporteur and response to his visit. The letter was signed by representatives of 139 organizations across the country as well as over 400 concerned individuals. 

    “We are deeply concerned that Canada showed no greater willingness today to recognize that widespread hunger and food insecurity in so wealthy a country is also a serious human rights issue,” said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English Branch, speaking from the United Nations in Geneva. “Right across the country there was and remains deep concern that the government’s reaction to Olivier De Schutter’s visit has belittled the concerns about protecting the right to food in Canada, misstated the nature and importance of Canada’s universal human rights obligations, once again used federalism as an excuse for shortcomings, and undermined the international human rights system.”

    “Canada’s obligation is to fulfill the right to food in accordance with its available resources,” said Leilani Farha, the Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty. “With 900,000 families relying on emergency food banks every month and four million people suffering from food insecurity in one of the richest countries in the world, Canada is clearly in violation of its international human rights obligations. It is inexcusable for the government to have suggested that the UN should not be concerned about that.”

    The Rapporteur presented his report on Canada to the Council today, making several concrete recommendations to improve Canada’s record on the right to food for the poorest communities in Canada, including indigenous peoples. Canada provided its official response to its peers at the Council.

    “The central recommendation offered by the Special Rapporteur is to develop a comprehensive rights-based national food strategy, which is the key to addressing food security concerns across Canada,” noted Bruce Porter, Executive Director of the Social Rights Advocacy Centre. “UN experts have called on Canada to develop similar strategies dealing with homelessness, poverty and violence against Indigenous women but the government has ignored these recommendations. Last week it voted against a bill that would have put in place a national strategy to address homelessness. It is time to recognize the value of such rights-based strategies in protecting vital human rights.”

    “We are very encouraged by De Schutter’s report and the links he draws between social assistance rates, minimum wage levels and hunger and food insecurity,” said Leilani Farha, Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty. “What remains to be seen is what governments in Canada do now. There are serious problems  with Canada’s  continued failure to implement UN level human rights recommendations. Today the government boasted that federalism boosts human rights protection.  Civil society groups however find that Canadian governments use jurisdictional confusion as an excuse for inaction and lack of leadership. ”

    “Today, in the open interactive dialogue session following the presentation of De Schutter’s report, the Canadian government continued its pattern of defensiveness towards legitimate human rights scrutiny by UN mechanisms instead of making a clear commitment to serious consideration and implementation of those recommendations,” said Sandeep Prasad, Executive Director of Action Canada for Population and Development. “Groups working daily to address hunger in communities across the country will be watching to ensure that the government takes decisive action to meet its international obligations to implement the human right to food. Canada has the capacity to solve this problem if it commits itself to implementing the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur.”

    Meanwhile, back in Canada, hundreds of people from all provinces and territories, including remote communities where food insecurity is as high as 70%, are gathering to hear from the Special rapporteur in an interactive webinar and to engage in a national conversation about the right to food.  Diana Bronson, Executive Director of Food Secure Canada which is coordinating this initiative, said "Our members care deeply about this report and we expect our government to take the recommendations seriously.  A national food policy is urgent to fix our broken food system and it is vital that all stakeholders are around the table to formulate one. De Schutter's report is an important contribution to moving that forward, and we intend to continue working towards that goal".

    Representatives of Canadian human rights organizations present in Geneva for the dialogue between Special Rapporteur De Schutter and the Canadian government are available for media interviews from Geneva. To arrange interviews:

    In Ottawa,  John Tackaberry  + 1 613 744 7667, ext 236
      Amnesty International Canada
    In Montreal,  Diana Bronson  +1 514 629 9236
      Food Secure Canada
    In Geneva, Leilani Farha   +1 613 302 7769
      Canada Without Poverty

    NGO Joint Statement in Geneva