Canada does not have a pristine human rights record. Many First Nation, Metis, and Inuit communities are struggling through a housing crisis and are enduring limited access to food, potable water, health care, and education. Furthermore, the government has failed to atone for a long history of discriminatory policies against these groups.
Indigenous groups within Canada demand that these issues be remedied. Unfortunately, these demands, to date, have either been met with half measures or overlooked altogether.
An often-heard argument in the literature on human rights reform is that when domestic groups are unable to convince their government to better respect human rights they can appeal to more powerful transnational actors to help pressure the target state to change. Based on this argument, it would seem that the next step for Indigenous groups in Canada would be to reach out to key international actors in the field of human rights including international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), and other states.
In general, there are few impediments preventing Indigenous groups in Canada from appealing to international actors. Unfortunately, gaining the support of the international community may be more difficult for human rights activists in Canada than activists in developing, war-torn, or powerful states.
Canada’s near perfect respect for the freedom of speech and the freedom of association suggests that Canadian activist groups are free to approach both the Canadian government and international human rights actors with their concerns. Empirical findings, however, suggest that although Canadians are able to make their voices heard it is likely that few are listening.
Ron, Ramos, and Rodgers, for instance, find that Amnesty International – one of the biggest and most influential human rights INGOs – is most likely to report on human rights violations in powerful states, states that are strongly disrespectful of physical integrity rights, and/or states that are foreign aid recipients. Canada is none of these things and, therefore, Canadian issues are unlikely to be added to the agenda of the most influential transnational human rights advocates. While these transnational actors may recognize the cause as being worthy of attention, human rights advocacy is a competitive business and the sad truth is that certain issues are prioritized over others in the pursuit of institutional goals. In other words, the support of transnational actors does not always go towards the most worthy issues.
Unfortunately, there is good reason to believe that these findings regarding INGO agenda-setting apply to the demands made by Indigenous rights groups in Canada. A month ago, the UN sent Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya on an 8-day fact-finding mission to Canada in response to the UN Human Rights Council’s adoption of the Universal Periodic Review of Canada. Both James Anaya and the Periodic Review found Canada’s rights record lacking on issues that were of greatest concern to First Nation, Metis, and Inuit groups (among others).
However, despite a published report and a visit by a UN Special Rapporteur there was only superficial coverage of the report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and there was no coverage of James Anaya’s visit at all. Similarly, Idle No More – an Indigenous-led rights-focused protest movement that caught a lot of press coverage in Canada since its founding in November 2012 – has been completely overlooked by Human Rights Watch. Amnesty International, in contrast, reported on the movement once but only once.
Furthermore, the reporting in the media outside of Canada, which is likely both a cause and the effect of the lack of interest shown by the INGOs, displays the same pattern of disinterest. No non-Canadian print news sources mentioned the Universal Periodic Review of Canada or James Anaya’s visit. Similarly, over the past year, only 8 non-Canadian print news sources reported on Idle No More.
In sum, the demands of Indigenous-led rights-focused groups within Canada seem to be falling on deaf ears both domestically and internationally. These demands have not attracted the attention and support of the powerful international players that, according to theory, are need to pressure Canada into improving its respect for human rights. That said, there are many questions that need to be answered at this point, the most fundamental of which is: what are these groups to do? Should they continue trying to attract the attention of powerful international actors or should they direct their limited resources towards pursuing their cause domestically? Unfortunately, while the academic literature suggests that these groups face an uphill battle, it offers no reasonable recommendations about how to get international actors to pay attention and lend their support to the cause.
By Stephanie Soiffer, PhD Candidate, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs