Canada appears to be dragging its heels in responding to a demand from a United Nations human-rights panel. It probably won’t be until December 2014 that the country will file its next report regarding its compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, an international treaty ratified in 1981.
However, when the CEDAW committee met in Geneva in 2008, the panel was so concerned about poverty and violence here that it asked Canada to report within one year—and not wait until its next scheduled report in 2014—about how it is dealing with these issues. The UN panel made the request when it released its observations on Canada’s treaty compliance on November 7, 2008.
According to women’s-rights advocate Shelagh Day, the report is due by the end of November. But the codirector of the Poverty and Human Rights Centre and member of the B.C. CEDAW monitoring group says she doubts that Canada has much to say.
“Partly what we’re expecting to see is something from Canada saying what they’ve done on these two very important issues,” Day told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “I’ve been watching carefully, and so has the B.C. CEDAW group, and so has the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action. We don’t see any action, and so it’s not clear to us that Canada is going to have anything to report.”
Jean Héon, a spokesperson for the Department of Canadian Heritage, informed the Straight that Canada’s interim report is currently being developed. He added that the department is working with federal, provincial, and territorial partners to submit the report in a timely manner.
In its observations, the CEDAW committee called on the federal government to establish minimum standards for social assistance as well as a monitoring mechanism to ensure that provincial and territorial governments are accountable.
It also expressed concern about cuts to social-assistance programs in many provinces that have affected vulnerable women.
If the latest report released by the First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition on November 24 is any indication, many women in the province aren’t getting the help they need.
B.C. had the highest child-poverty record in Canada for the sixth year in a row in 2007, according to the report, with a poverty rate of 43.7 percent among children living in families headed by single mothers.
Children with single moms are three times as likely to live in poverty compared to two-parent families. “Poor female lone-parent families were $12,600 on average below the poverty line in 2007,” the report stated. A single mom on welfare with a child aged two received $16,230, or $10,742 less than the poverty line, the report added.
The West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund gave the B.C. government a poor grade in its 2009 report card on how the province measures up to the CEDAW committee’s concern over social assistance.
“In fact, B.C. continues to have the highest overall poverty rate in the country at 21 percent, which includes disproportionately high numbers of women, children, and aboriginal people,” West Coast LEAF stated in its report. “With the economic crisis resulting in 47 percent more recipients of social assistance between September 2008 and May 2009, the government needs to work harder on ensuring equal access to sufficient social assistance for women and marginalized people.”
In conversation, Day noted that although B.C. receives federal fund transfers, the provincial government is in control of social-assistance programs. “B.C. is very much on the hook for this,” Day said.
The CEDAW committee also asked Canada to report back on the “reasons for the failure to investigate the case of missing or murdered aboriginal women”.
Furthermore, the committee wants the country to “determine whether there is a racialized pattern to the disappearances and take measures to address the problems if that is the case”. It was concerned that the cases of these women have “neither been fully investigated nor attracted priority attention”.
For her part, Day said that based on documentation by the Native Women’s Association of Canada as of March this year, 520 Native women have either disappeared or been murdered across the country since the late 1970s.
Twenty-six percent of these cases are in B.C. Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside and Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George in the Interior—the infamous Highway of Tears—provide the backdrop for the disappearances and murders of these women.
Day recalled that when the topic of Canada’s missing and murdered women is raised in international forums, UN people generally make associations to Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city across the Texas border, where hundreds of mostly poor women have been kidnapped and killed.
“They compare Canada with this phenomenon that they’ve seen in Ciudad Juárez,” Day said. “It is as though we’ve got a sort of epidemic of violence against aboriginal women.”