Op-Ed - This year, on Human Rights Day, we ask: What will Canada’s future Prime Ministers have to apologize for?

This weekend, the world will be celebrating the International Human Rights Day. In 1948, after bearing witness to some of the most inhumane tragedies of modern times, the nations of the world reacted in the only way they saw fit — to codify its promise to humanity the core values of equality, justice and human dignity. And so was written the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was not an apology, per se. But it was an acknowledgement of the horrors that had occurred, and a promise that they would never happen again. 

Yet the principles enshrined in the Declaration remain unfulfilled for far too many in the world. And I dare we conclude, far too many here in Canada as well. This is a message that can be difficult to hear or believe.  After all, we have a government that recently acknowledged the devastating impacts of its historic persecution and discrimination against  LGBTQ2 communities.  The apology, last week, was historical in its importance and joins other apologies that were too long in the waiting — apologies to Indigenous Peoples for residential schools and systemic abuse, to Japanese Canadians for internment, and to Chinese Canadians for historical discrimination.  

Yet apologies are just that: a recognition of past wrongs. But what about future wrongs, or even current ones? What about the actions needed today to avoid the apologies of the future?  Who will be the recipient of a future apology, 10, 20 or 30 years from now?

The apology of the future might be to the descendants of people who migrated to Canada seeking a better way of life, only to be held as prisoners in our immigration detention centres. 

The apology of the future might be to the families of Indigenous women and girls, whose disappearances or murders went unchecked, uninvestigated, undocumented by federal police. 

The apology of the future might be to the adult-survivors of our child welfare system on First Nations reserves—the grown children who had to be separated from their families and raised in foster care because of inadequate funding and support. 

And perhaps, the apology of the future that we must work most urgently to avoid, might be to the Indigenous peoples across Canada, adults and children alike, who are living in poverty and isolation, without adequate housing or drinkable water.  

And so, this Sunday, as we celebrate and recognize the advances that have been made in the nearly 70 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration, let us remember that the work for human dignity and equality is not over. The work to avoid a future apology is far from over for too many.  

Part of this important work is about realizing that human dignity and equality can take the form of a clean glass of water or a house that isn’t condemned with mold. That access to adequate housing is, as Prime Minster Trudeau recently acknowledged, “a fundamental need — a human right.” We at the Canadian Human Rights Commission, could not agree more with the Prime Minister’s assertion, which the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the Right to Housing,  Leilani Farha, called a “a truly historic moment.” 

What anyone in a modern city would consider a fundamental human right — the right to safe housing and clean water to drink — is being denied to too many Indigenous people in Canada.  Many reasons have been cited to justify this reality — the communities are too far, the infrastructure required is too complex, the money required is too substantial. However, I would argue that one of the most significant reasons why solutions are slow in coming is that far too many people still do not see these issues as human rights

If Canada wishes to continue being among the world’s leaders in human rights, and if we want to avoid the future apologies of tomorrow, we need to ensure that everyone has access to human rights protections — that everyone has a voice —  living up to the promise that was born of the Universal Declaration.  We must continue to push ourselves as a country in expanding our understanding of human rights, and help us avert an apology, before it’s too late.