Remarks at the 2023 Meeting of Federal, Provincial and Territorial Human Rights Ministers

Speaking Notes

Charlotte-Anne Malischewski

Interim Chief Commissioner
Canadian Human Rights Commission

Remarks at the 2023 Meeting of Federal, Provincial and Territorial

Human Rights Ministers

June 19, 2023
3:05 – 4:30 p.m. (Atlantic time)
7 minutes

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Thank you so much.

Good afternoon Honourable Ministers and fellow human rights advocates.

I'd like to begin by acknowledging this sacred territory of the Mi'kmaq people and the land and waters of what is now known as Halifax. And I extend this respect to all the various Indigenous territories represented by those joining virtually today.

I would also like to thank you for this opportunity to come and share some brief remarks at this important meeting.

In preparing for today, I was reflecting on the broad mandate of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, as Canada's National Human Rights Institution.

As you know, we wear many hats:

  • as a federal employer,
  • as a screening body of discrimination complaints against federal organizations,
  • as a regulator of several human rights laws in Canada,
  • as an international watchdog monitoring Canada's fulfillment of its human rights obligations,
  • and of course, as a human rights advocate.

The Canadian Human Rights Act endows us with the ability and responsibility to raise awareness and speak out on any matter related to human rights across all of Canada.

That's a big sky.

And at any time, there are countless human rights issues in need of attention in our country.

The challenge before the Commission is to focus our efforts and limited resources on key priority areas.

These include Indigenous rights and reconciliation, addressing systemic racism, protecting the rights of people with disabilities, and calling for the right to adequate housing.

To name a few.

But in the interest of time, I will focus my remarks today on an issue that we feel is equally urgent but often unacknowledged: the human rights of those in Canada who are deprived of their liberty in a variety of places of detention.

It's a human rights issue rarely in the spotlight, but it lingers there as a constant reminder of what Nelson Mandela referred to as the great measure of a country: how we treat those we detain.

Right now, in all jurisdictions across the country, there are many human rights issues facing people deprived of their liberty. These issues extend beyond the prison system.

I'm speaking about:

  • The use of solitary confinement.
  • The institutionalization of people with disabilities in inappropriate facilities due to a lack of adequate community-based supports.
  • The warehousing of older prisoners, where alternatives to prison would be more appropriate.
  • The disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on people unable to leave long-term care residences.
  • The detaining of people who have migrated to Canada in institutions intended for those convicted of crimes.
  • And the over-representation of Indigenous and Black children in modern-day institutions through the child welfare system.

What we are seeing, across the board, is the disproportionate effect these human rights issues are having on Indigenous peoples, Black and other racialized individuals, people with disabilities and in particular mental health disabilities, women, youth, individuals identifying as 2SLGBTQQIA+, and people experiencing homelessness.

Many of these people were already facing systemic barriers to equality and vulnerable circumstances prior to being detained.

Then once detained, they face continued systemic racism, violence, neglect, and abuse.

So what can Canada do? Where do we begin?

The Canadian Human Rights Commission is of the view that having transparent and independent oversight and accountability mechanisms in all places of detention lessens the risk of abuse and ill-treatment, reduces corruption, and restores dignity and human rights for those in the most vulnerable circumstances.

However, many of these places and the way they use detention are not currently subject to ongoing independent oversight.

This is why we believe that a concrete step Canada can take is to ratify the United Nations' Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

It's a long title so we know it as OPCAT.

Given the disproportionate representation of racialized people in many places of detention across Canada, ratifying OPCAT is a concrete measure that Canada must take. It will enhance efforts to advance anti-racism measures as it pertains to Canada's obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination — which we know is one of the themes being discussed here today.

We are not alone in our call for Canada to ratify OPCAT. This is something that other States, oversight bodies, stakeholders and international human rights experts have repeatedly called on Canada to do.

We believe that ratifying OPCAT would not only strengthen human rights protections in Canada, but would clearly demonstrate Canada's commitment to upholding its human rights obligations.

It's also the right time to do it.

Canada is currently seeking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. And in November, Canada will appear before the Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations.

There is an opportunity here for Canada to solidify its reputation as a human rights leader.

Ratifying OPCAT would be one of the strongest signals Canada could send at home and around the world that our country is serious about protecting the human rights of every...single...person.

Because the Canadian Human Rights Commission believes that every person deserves to be treated with dignity.

Every person matters.

That's the Canada we believe in.

Thank you.

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