St. James Town report informs UN on Basic Human Rights violations in downtown Toronto
The St. James Town L.E.A.D project report on basic human rights and health, presented to the UN on May 1st, demonstrates that the problems of poverty are increasing in Toronto’s most diverse community. The report provides a case study of in-depth evidence that Canadian governments are not complying with the human rights obligations set out in the covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ratified by Canada in 1976. The “Local Empowerment and Access to Democracy” project, a community-based research project, worked with residents to assess human rights conditions and community health in this high density community of approximately 30,000 people. The L.E.A.D project held 21 focus groups involving youth, immigrants, refugees, seniors, people with disabilities, women, gay people, men, and Aboriginal people, as well as community meetings, a town hall and dinners every month for a year to collect local evidence. Focus groups were conducted in 14 of the languages most commonly spoken in St. James Town.
The Communities’ Issues:
Priority health and human rights concerns identified by residents include: lack of an adequate standard of living, precarious income security, and barriers to accessing quality healthcare and education. Residents from all walks of life talked about the effects of poor quality housing, terrible maintenance, lack of space for community activities, cuts to local services, being overworked and underpaid, and the increasing racism, substance abuse, and violence in their community causing fear.
Many highly qualified residents spoke of the pain of struggling long hours in demeaning jobs just to make ends meet. Parents are concerned they have too little time left over to properly raise their children. The youth are afraid for their safety, believe that their options are very limited, and do not want to have to struggle like their parents. Many become involved with crime as they see no alternative.
Seniors are upset about losses of programs and benefits occurring over the past 15 years, and the lonely isolation they face – a condition they share with many other residents. Concerns of women included being unable to escape domestic violence, the need for space and time to assist each other and build community, and the need for better opportunities for their children. Many long term residents stated that conditions in St. James Town have become far worse in the past decade.
The majority of immigrants said that life is more difficult in Canada than they expected and that they had more time for family and leisure in their home countries. One participant stated: “Meeting the basic living standard is not the purpose why we came to this great country. Most of us had a good job and better life before we came here and we found that our living standard got worse.” (quote from the Chinese focus group report).
In many of the sessions, there were comments that no one had ever asked them about their well-being before. All the groups also spoke of the need for more community interaction and better, more accessible social programs in this long neglected neighborhood. In most of the focus groups, people said they had no idea who to talk to about their concerns for their children, their rights, or their community. “It is easy to cover up the problems of poverty when there is democratic process open to those who suffer from it” remarked Miriam Gheba community resident and project facilitator.
As the UN once again calls Canada to account for failing to respect its ESCR obligations, it is time to confront the reality that a decade of neglect has caused serious harm to human rights in Canada. As Josephine Grey says, “ In an era of budget surpluses and economic growth, governments need to recognize their accountability to human rights and develop meaningful solutions such as national standards for social programs, ensuring livable incomes and providing decent housing. Canada has the capacity to lift communities like St. James Town out of the inequity that creates despair, encourages crime, and violates basic human rights. The residents of St. James Town are challenging governments to wake up to reality and work with the community to repair the damage caused by a decade of neglect, we are not going to go away until we see positive changes in our community”.
For questions or comments please call:
Josephine Grey, Project Director (LIFT) at:
416-827-7119 or leave a message at 416-597-9400
The St. James Town L.E.A.D. Project is a joint effort by LIFT (Low Income Families Together) and Ryerson University and is funded by Wellesley Central Health Corporation, and supported in kind by TCHC and the Wellesley Community Centre. The aim of L.E.A.D. is to engage St. James Town residents in human rights education and a collective process to create a safer and healthier community. Using the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), L.E.A.D trained community residents to facilitate focus groups with other residents to examine human rights conditions and identify the changes needed for a healthy community.
A SUMMARY OF THE UN REVIEW
(Excerpted from the committee’s official release)
Introducing the (Canadian) reports was Alan Kessel, Legal Adviser of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, who said Canada was proud of its record of achievement in the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights. Canada was at the forefront of promoting human rights internationally and domestically, and its efforts had paid dividends. The Federal, Provincial and Territorial Governments worked both collaboratively and independently to address human rights issues in Canada. Over the past number of years, Canada had developed a number of innovative programmes that addressed the complexity of implementation of human rights in its vast territory to numerous, widely-dispersed communities.
During the discussion, which was held over four meetings, Committee Experts raised questions pertaining to, among other things, the lack of implementation of the previous recommendations and observations of the Committee, some ranging as far back as 1993; the high levels of poverty in the country; the lack of a unified implementation of the Covenant and its provisions on a Provincial and Territorial level; issues related to unemployment, in particular with regards to certain groups of the population; the high levels of child poverty; domestic violence and measures used to combat this; access to free education; and free access to education with regards to tuition fees.
Other members of the Canadian delegation included representatives of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Health Canada, Human Resources and Social Development Canada, Canadian Heritage, Status of Women Canada, Department of Justice, the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations Office at Geneva, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Ontario, and the Government of Nunavut.
The first day, an Expert noted that the previous conclusions and recommendations of the Committee did not seem to have been fully taken into account by the Canadian Government, and this as far back as a meeting in 1993, for example with regards to security of tenure for tenants. Food security, the problem of homelessness, low expenditures on social housing were also ongoing problems that had been mentioned in previous recommendations, and which had not been addressed, along with several others. Recommendations from 1998 had also been neglected, and some situations had actually become worse, in particular the extent of poverty and the concomitant lack of food security. The reduction in social assistance levels, cuts to social programs, the lack of national standards on social assistance and the suffering of disadvantaged and marginalized groups were all significant problems.
The fundamental problem, the Expert said, was that the Government did not consider economic, social and cultural rights to be justiciable, and yet the Committee had, in 1998, reiterated that these rights should not be downgraded to principles and objectives, and urged the Government to take concrete steps to ensure that the Provinces and Territories were made aware of their legal obligations under the Covenant and that economic, social and cultural rights were enforceable. There had been no progress in economic, social and cultural rights, but in fact, regression, the Expert said, with regards to poverty, housing, social assistance benefits and childcare. There also seemed to be a misunderstanding by the State party on disadvantaged groups and its duties in their regard.
Immigrant Muslim women were over-represented in the precarious job sector, another Expert said, asking to what extent the Federal and Provincial Governments had a plan of action to protect those women. Another Expert took up the issue of food security and food banks, as the delegation had admitted that there was a problem in this regard. There was a correlation between lack of food security and children being taken into care, as well as one with lack of security of housing, and he asked whether this was recognised, as a high number of children, in particular Aboriginal and African-Canadian children were taken into care. Another Expert raised questions related to the right to health, access to medicines, and what the Government was doing in order to realise equal access to healthcare facilities.
Canada was taking steps to progressively implement the rights in the Covenant, and had not regressed, as had been implied, Mr. Kessel said. Canada had clearly addressed the rights in the Covenant, and was working on the outstanding issues with which it was faced. In future sessions, it would welcome discussion of its best practices, as well as its challenges, which would contribute towards the implementation of the Covenant in other places. The comments of the Committee would be examined carefully. Canada was among only six countries which were up to date with reporting to the human rights bodies of the United Nations. The outstanding issues that remained would be given answers in the shortest possible period of time.