NAWL calls on Mr. Harper to respect International Law on Social and Economic Rights

In 1976 Canada ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Yet, despite having ratified this Covenant 30 years ago, little progress has been achieved for the most vulnerable groups in Canadian society.

Right Honorable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
House of Commons

Prime Minister Harper,

As you know, in 1976 Canada ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This Covenant commits Canada to promote the “progressive realization” of the right an adequate standard of living, including food, housing and clothing, the right to work, to health and to education, for example.

Yet, despite having ratified this Covenant 30 years ago, little progress has been achieved for the most vulnerable groups in Canadian society: women working full-time still earn on average only 71% of what men earn, women are more likely to be in part-time, temporary or multiple jobs, and they are less likely to have pensions and other benefits. Despite the sharp increase in employment rates of women, we still do two thirds of the unpaid domestic work in our families. Women make up a disproportionate number of poor Canadians, and in 2000, 36% of Aboriginal women, 23% of immigrant women, 29% of women of colour and 26% of women with disabilities lived in poverty. Women’s poverty has gender-specific consequences: poor women are less autonomous, and have more difficulty in escaping abusive relationships, and a weakened capacity to fully participate in social and political life.

Every four years, the federal government must report to the United Nations on the progress that it has made towards implementing the rights guaranteed in this Covenant. In August 2005 Canada submitted its fifth report to the United Nations Committee on Economic, social and Cultural Rights. In the Spring of 2006, NAWL and the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) jointly submitted our “alternative report” to the Committee, outlining the areas where the Canadian government has failed to respect the economic, social and cultural rights of women. On May 19 2006, the Committee released its Concluding Observations, and it made several recommendations to the federal government.

The Committee found that Canada’s human rights performance is deficient in crucial ways, and noted “the absence of any factors or difficulties preventing the effective implementation of the Covenant in the State party.” The message is clear: Canada has the necessary resources to fulfill Covenant rights and is not doing so.

The Committee noted with regret that Canada has not implemented the recommendations that it had made 1993 and 1998 and it strongly urged that the federal government address the following subjects of concern:

  • End discrimination against aboriginal women in matters relating to Indian Status, Band membership and matrimonial property;
  • Provide adequate child care services, so that women can exercise their right to work, and parents can balance work and family life;
  • Eliminate the exploitation and abuse of domestic workers who are under the federal Live-In Caregiver Program;
  • Establish social assistance at levels which ensure the realization of an adequate standard of living for all;
  • Adopt pay equity legislation;
  • Provide greater access and improved benefit levels to all unemployed workers;
  • Prohibit the claw-back of the National Child Benefit Supplement from parents receiving social assistance;
  • Address homelessness and inadequate housing through social housing programs, and ensure that women leaving abusive relationship can access housing and appropriate supports;
  • Conduct an overall assessment of the situation of African-Canadians in order to adopt a targeted program of action to realize their rights under the Covenant;
  • Ensure that civil legal aid be provided to poor people to defend their economic, social and cultural rights;
  • Expand the mandate of the Court Challenges Program to permit funding of test case litigation against provincial laws that violate constitutional equality rights;

NAWL believes that all of these recommendations are crucial, and their implementation will go a long way in promoting equality for women from different communities and regions across Canada. What makes them more important is that they not only reiterate recommendations made by this Committee made in 1993 and 1998, but they echo similar recommendations made to Canada by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 2003 and the Human Rights Committee in 2005. We are writing to urge you to direct your ministers and your officials to immediately implement these recommendations.

We also urge you to ensure that all of the Covenant rights be enforceable through legislation and policy measures, and that independent monitoring and adjudication mechanisms be established, as recommended by the Committee. Indeed, your government’s commitment to accountability measures must extend beyond domestic obligations to Canada’s international commitments.

In its pledge filed with the High Commissioner for Human Rights prior to election to the Human Rights Council, Canada promised to give “serious consideration to the recommendations of the treaty bodies.” We believe that serious consideration should begin with examination of the Committee’s Concluding Observations by a Parliamentary Committee, with full and open consultation with non-governmental organizations, including women’s organizations.

Finally, we also want to remind you that the Committee repeatedly stated that it is important to involve civil society – organizations such as NAWL and other equality-seeking groups- in the follow-up on its recommendations. We would like to assure you of our continued interest in doing so, and we would welcome the opportunity to meet with you and to discuss the role that NAWL could play in such an important process.

Yours truly,

Andrée Côté

Director of Legislation and Law Reform
National Association of Women and the Law

Honorable Bev Oda, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Status of Women
Honorable Vic Toews, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada
Honorable Jean-Pierre Backburn, Minister of Labour
Honorable Monte Solberg, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration
Honorable Diane Finley, Minister of Human Resources and Social Development
Honorable Jim Prentice, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development
Honorable James Flaherty, Minister of Finance