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Ed Broadbent: Canada has ‘ignored’ social and economic rights for decades

Speaking at the 2022 Progress Summit, former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent said successive governments in Canada have neglected its legal obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Canada acceded to the covenant in 1976 – obligating governments across the country to ensure all have the right to adequate food, housing, clothing and free education “to the maximum of its available resources.” Yet, there has been no enforcement standard.

“The covenant is legally binding and yet it has been ignored systematically by our federal government,” Broadbent said. “The provinces all signed on, the federal government signed on. It’s supposed to have the force of law but there’s no enforcement mechanism attached to it. So we adopted it, governments signed on to it and then went to sleep for 40 years.”

Amnesty International Canada Secretary General Ketty Nivyabandi said that’s led to “significant gaps” across Canada.

“Canada is obligated as a state to realize these basic rights which includes the right to housing, the right to education, the right to work, the right to unionize, the right to healthcare. And, what you’re seeing in Canada is that although there are a number of rights that are indeed provided, when it comes to the practice and who actually has access to these rights it’s a very different story and often it's an impoverished story, it’s a racialized story, it’s an indigenized story as well.

“Housing for instance, the same and healthcare, and to a large extent education as well is excluding largely racialized communities, immigrant communities and Indigenous communities,” Nivyabandi said.

Despite Canada signing onto this convent in 1976, many of these oversights are reflected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom – introduced by the government of Pierre Trudeau in 1972.

“He did not believe in collective or group rights,” Broadbent said. “There was no debate in the charter because they just weren’t going to be there.”

While political pressure did lead the government to add provisions regarding Indigenous rights to the constitution as Section 25, many of Canada’s other social and economic obligations were neglected.