A prominent human-rights group says Canada is failing to address long-standing abuses, delivering a rebuke of what it calls the federal government’s inadequate climate policy and violations of the rights of Indigenous people and immigration detainees.
Human Rights Watch says more than two dozen First Nations remain under long-term drinking water advisories, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to bring that number down to zero.
The New York-based rights group also says Canada’s border agency continues to operate without independent civilian oversight, detaining some asylum seekers for months or years. The Liberal government has introduced legislation to ensure a dedicated review of the agency, but it remains before Parliament.
The criticisms levelled in the group’s annual “World Report” extend to Canada’s climate change policy, as well.
The report censures the government for its G20-leading public financing of fossil-fuel projects and inadequate measures to support First Nations in adapting to the impacts of climate change.
Human Rights Watch had encouraging words, though, for Canada’s support for LGBTQ people, highlighting the federal government’s recent commitments to a national action plan to strengthen rights at home and abroad.
The report, released Thursday, says 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 report says.
The federal government says 137 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted since November 2015, with initiatives underway to address the remaining ones.
In a statement provided to The Canadian Press, the offices of the Crown-Indigenous relations and Indigenous services ministers thanked Human Rights Watch for its work and said the government is working “to make the transformative changes needed in decolonization.”
“Access to clean drinking water is fundamental, and we continue to make progress on our commitment to lifting all remaining long-term drinking water advisories in First Nation communities,” the joint statement said.
“We know there is more to do.”
A spokesman for both departments, Randy Legault-Rankin, said the government is reviewing the report’s findings and listed federal programs and investments that are underway to address concerns over drinking water, children’s well-being and violence against Indigenous women.
“Supporting Indigenous communities as they choose their path to rebuild their nations is critical to reconciliation and renewing our relationship,” he said.
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,” the report adds.
Despite a new federal emissions reduction plan, Human Rights Watch notes the government continues to permit oil and gas pipeline expansions, including on First Nations land.
“Plans to increase fossil-fuel production disregard the government’s human-rights obligation to adopt and implement robust climate mitigation policies,” the report says.
“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.”
In a statement, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault welcomed the report’s findings, saying the government is hard at work implementing a range of measures to achieve Canada’s 2030 target of reducing emissions 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels.
Guilbeault listed several actions the government has taken since 2015, from carbon pricing to making it easier for Canadians to switch to zero-emission vehicles.
The government has also introduced a national adaptation strategy to tackle “in a comprehensive way” the effects of climate change, which includes participation from Indigenous groups, he said.
“We have started to bend the curve of greenhouse-gas emissions, but we have much more to do to ensure the planet is livable for generations to come.”
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 Human Rights Watch report notes.
However, the Liberal government has “not taken adequate steps” to ensure that Canadian authorities exercise meaningful oversight of Canadian extractive companies operating abroad, it says.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2023.