As a wealthy country we are neglecting our duty to those who need help both here and abroad
December 19, 2008Lloyd Axworthy We all know the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. A miserly old man is confronted by the sorry reality that his life of so-called respectability actually hides a selfishness and indifference to the plight of others. Ultimately he tries to make amends. It's time for our own reality check. This season has brought depressing evidence that in 2008 Canada became Scrooge-like in its behaviour. Even with the recent economic downturn, Canadians continue to live in one of the wealthiest industrialized countries in the world with a historic reputation for leadership and multilateral co-operation on all sorts of global issues. It is, therefore, natural that we continue to sustain certain myths about Canada as a country that takes care of its most vulnerable citizens and that plays a leading and progressive role in international affairs. Not so! We like to believe that Canada is a country that invests in and protects its children, but in a recent UNICEF report comparing early childhood education and care in the 25 most affluent countries of the world we learn that Canada is tied for last place with Ireland, meeting only one of the 10 benchmarks that set minimum standards for securing the rights of children. Canada has a child poverty rate of more than 10 per cent, is failing to provide essential child health services, and has no national plan with a focus on disadvantaged groups. One need only compare our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to the realities faced by aboriginal children in this country to see just how far we fall short of our commitment to protect the fundamental rights and inherent dignity of all children. In the midst of our affluence, it is estimated that 5 million Canadians live in poverty and more than 300,000 experience homelessness every year. We live in one of the top countries on the United Nations Human Development Index, a comprehensive measure of life expectancy, educational attainment and income. But when these indicators are applied solely to aboriginal Canadians, we fall somewhere between Samoa and the Dominican Republic. Many indigenous communities suffer from a chronic shortage of safe water and adequate housing. Fewer than 40 per cent of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students graduate from high school compared to nearly 90 per cent of the non-aboriginal population, and fewer than 10 per cent of aboriginal peoples between the ages of 25 and 34 have a university degree. And despite the glaring urgency of these basic deficiencies, Canada continues to be one of the only countries in the world that has not signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We are neither playing a constructive role on climate change, nor acting as good stewards for future generations. Canada was recently singled out as a "spoiler" in the negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poland. At a time when President-elect Barack Obama is promising to put the United States back on the progressive side of climate change negotiations, it appears that Canada plans to follow the example of his predecessor by sabotaging concerted action to address the single most significant threat to global well-being in our time. Is Canada an exemplar for effective peacekeeping? Our troops are engaged in a deadly war in Afghanistan. We honour their sacrifice, but we must ask to what end? All reports point to a failure of strategy and tactics: Afghan civilians are increasingly unprotected, the poppy fields are flourishing, and the territory under Taliban control is expanding. Yet nothing is done to change our approach. We just hunker down, suffer casualties and wait to get out in 2011. In the meantime, we avoid UN humanitarian commitments. When Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked us to play a larger peacekeeping role in the Congo, we said no, rejecting a chance to protect the vulnerable citizens of a beleaguered country where the systematic use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war is terrorizing tens of thousands of women and girls and destroying communities. We currently rank 52nd in the world for UN peacekeeping contributions (with only 175 Canadian personnel currently deployed), putting us behind countries such as Slovakia, Fiji and Togo. As the halfway mark for meeting the Millennium Development Goals passes, our foreign aid budget remains stuck at half of the UN target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income, a target Canada reaffirmed its commitment to in 2005 but has yet to set a timetable for achieving. And there is little in the way of focused efforts to deal with shared global issues such as endemic poverty, drug trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children. At the same time, we are becoming increasingly complicit in the sale of small arms around the world, nearly tripling our sales between 2000 and 2007, sometimes to nations with abysmal human rights records. In response to government secrecy and inadequate reporting on the export of these weapons, which serve to fuel violent conflict and war, the 2008 Small Arms Survey ranked Canada well below the United States, France and the United Kingdom on small arms trade transparency. In this interim period before Parliament resumes at the end of January there will be federal-provincial strategy meetings and budget consultations. Governments at all levels should use this time to think about how things can be turned around. The many myths about Canadian virtue and progressiveness do not have to remain fantasies. Perhaps this holiday season is a good time to wake up from our dream and, like Scrooge, begin to deal with the reality that we are not fulfilling our role to effectively regard the pain of others either at home or abroad.