Canada has been put to shame in the last few weeks. It may not be shame on the scale of a bad showing in Olympic medals, but some of us are concerned.
This month, a United Nations committee scrounged to find a few positive things to say about Canada's performance to improve equality between women and men, before blasting us for our shortcomings and breaches of international undertakings.
Its report is highly critical of Canada's record on women's human rights and it asked Canada to report back in one year on steps taken to address inadequate social assistance rates across the country and the failure of law enforcement agencies to deal with the disappearance of Aboriginal women and girls.
Then we find out that the Swiss-based World Economic Forum has dropped Canada, who had been ranked 14th in the world for equality between the sexes in 2004, to 31st place in its 2007 ranking of 130 countries. The survey measures what gains individual countries have made in closing their gender gaps: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; political empowerment and health and survival.
Then the Conference Board of Canada's Report Card on quality of life, was, let's say, less than flattering. The Report Card "tells the story of a country moving to the back of the class because of its under-performance in almost all subjects". Our child poverty rate and our declining "life satisfaction" did us in. On the gap in income between women and men, the Conference Board said Canada is second worst out of 15 peer countries. We were also put to shame because of our low voter turnout, assault rate and youth suicide rate.
Canada appeared for review before the United Nations' Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women Committee, and again, as in 2003, Canada did not come out of it looking good. In fact, in failing to take any initiative towards meeting the 23 recommendations put before us by the committee five years ago, we came out of it looking like a contrary child who just can't get enough bad attention.
The committee told Canada it needed to address its inadequate legal aid for family law and poverty law; the over classification of federal women prisoners and absence of an external oversight mechanism; the high rates of child apprehension, particularly from Aboriginal women; lack of child care; lack of adequate and affordable housing options; and cancellation of the Court Challenges Program.
What must Canada do to keep up with the other countries -- let alone deliver on the promise of equality to Canadian women? According to the United Nations committee, the federal government must use its leadership and funding power to set standards and establish a mechanism for implementing the Convention in all parts of Canada in a transparent manner. Canada should also establish minimum standards for social assistance.
On the positive side, the committee did say it welcomed Canada's efforts to combat human trafficking, applauded parental leave for fathers is possible -- noting that at least in Quebec the number of men using this option has greatly increased -- and welcomed the new Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Status of Women.
Ironically, the United Nations committee recognized Canada's sustained leadership in international forums to promote the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. But at home, not so much.
At the most basic level, Canada is failing in its obligations as a signatory to the Convention 28 years after signing on. Thumbing its nose at its commitment to establish and maintain public institutions aimed at protecting women against discrimination, the federal government recently overhauled the mandate of Status of Women Canada, removing "equality" and restricted its purview of action.
Equality-seeking groups who do any kind of advocacy, lobbying, or other work to make change are ineligible for funding from the federal government. The Harper government also removed Canadians' most valuable tool in responding to rights infringements -- the Court Challenges Program -- that, ironically, was one of the few feathers in Canada's hat at the 2003 review.
The government has not acted on the committee's recommendation that legal and other mechanisms be introduced to ensure compliance with the convention at all levels of Canadian governance. Nor has it moved on the question of implementing gender-based impact analysis assessments of programs, policies, and legislation.
The gendered income gap (which is currently at 25 per cent) and poverty rates in Canada still weigh heavily against women, and especially lone mothers, Aboriginal women and women of colour. Nationally, 36 per cent of Aboriginal women, 57 per cent of African-Canadian women, and 38 per cent of lone mothers live in poverty.
Immigrant women remain grossly under-employed. Incarcerated women offenders continue to be over-classified, with Aboriginal women in particular falling overwhelmingly subject to this practice in addition to being grossly over-represented within the prison system.
The federal government has no pay equity law, there is still no national child care plan, and a comprehensive social housing strategy is absent. Those were three areas that were points of concern raised during the 2003 U.N. review, and if anything, we are further away today from seeing these become a reality than we were then.
This is not the Canada that Canadians want. Do our leaders know we care about this?
n Elsie Hambrook is Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Her column on women's issues appears in the Times & Transcript every Thursday. She may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org