Canada: A Teflon State?

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.

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Canada’s “War on Contraband Tobacco”

The security implications of contraband tobacco and the consequences of the changes to Canada’s Criminal Code introduced by Bill S-16.[1]

Contraband products represent about 15% of Canada’s tobacco market and hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit revenue, lost legal earnings and lost taxes. Existing measures have contained the potential security dangers that derive from contraband tobacco, and have kept smoking rates in Ontario and Quebec, where much of the illicit products are consumed, in tune with the declining trend in the rest of the country. In other words, things are not great, but they may well be as good as can be. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Well, the Harper government appears keen on doing just that.

The measures contemplated by Bill S-16 flow directly from the kind of thinking that led to the disastrous War on Drugs: punish them all, from the smallest violator to the global drug kingpin. As you may know, the results have not been great, especially for impoverished users everywhere and especially for impoverished people in producing and transit countries. Now that a growing movement towards softening drug laws is developing, not just among potheads and academics but also among the American, Canadian and European public, as well as the US’ and Latin America’s political establishment, Canada’s government under Stephen Harper is moving backward with no solid evidence to support its stand. Following a hardening of the regime against drugs with Bill C-10, Bill S-16 now completes the turn of this country’s crime policy towards a hard line on law and order, when what evidence we have points exactly in the opposite direction: crime is declining.

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The importance of a word: Taking the “culture” out of Canada’s “cultural genocide”

On April 26th, Paul Martin, Canada’s Prime Minister from 2003 to 2006, announced that he believed that Canada committed cultural genocide. He was referring to the systematic abuse perpetrated against Canada’s Indigenous populations by the residential school system that was meant to civilize these groups.

I strongly disagree with this assessment. Canada did not commit “cultural genocide.” Based on the definition of the crime provided by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Canada committed genocide, not “cultural genocide.” The Genocide Convention is a widely accepted and respected international treaty. Its legitimacy has been acknowledged by 142 states via either accession, succession, or ratification. Furthermore, its terms have been used in practice to prosecute those suspected of the crime thus cementing the Convention’s status as a respect-worthy piece of international law.

According to the Convention, which was ratified by Canada in 1952, “genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

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The Uncertain Future of Idle No More

Proclamations that the Idle No More movement is a fast growing and widely supported cause seems reasonable given the solidarity protests being held across Canada and outside its borders. There are reasons, however, to doubt this claim.

Idle No More is a social movement protesting the unjust treatment of First Nations, Metis, and Inuits by Canada’s federal government. The movement gained attention in November 2012 when Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation began a hunger strike protesting a housing crisis in her community and the enactment of Bill C-45, a piece of federal legislation that, according to activists, undermine Canada’s environmental protection laws.

Between November 2012 and January 2013, Idle No More quickly attracted support in pockets across Canada, the US, Australia, and Sweden. The movement and the peaceful protests held in its name made headlines in the Canadian press and were hot topics across social media platforms. In combination, press and social media exposure gave the movement considerable presence in the minds of many Canadians and led to claims that Idle No More enjoyed rapidly growing support.

Those celebrating the growth of the movement, however, failed to note that Idle No More never gained the attention (let alone the support) of major news sources outside of Canada or the major human right international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). Only one US newspaper reported on the movement (the Tampa Bay Times). The New York Times and the Washington Post, in contrast, remained silent on the issue. Looking at newspapers outside of North America, only two UK sources and one New Zealand newspaper reported on Idle No More. Perhaps more telling of the inability to movement to gain traction outside of Canada, however, is the lack of reporting on the issue by human rights INGOs. Human Rights Watch makes no mention of it. Amnesty International, in contrast, reported on the movement once but only once.

Given that Idle No More has yet to penetrate the reporting of some of the most respect news source and human rights INGOs I feel it is only fair to ask: how truly successful has the movement been in gaining international support? I believe the answer to that question is: less successful than existing supporters would like to think.

This unflattering assessment, however, leads to another question: is the modest success of Idle No More typical of how transnational social movements start? In theory, international social movements do have modest beginnings: budding domestic movements attract the attention of larger, more powerful actors outside state borders. In combination, the smaller domestic actors and larger international actors pressure the target government to reform. It is unclear, however, if the theories that advance this causal argument (there are many) is relevant to Idle No More. The above argument is the result of research on states transitioning out of conflict or transitioning out of autocracy/anocracy towards democracy. Canada is doing neither.

In sum, at this point, growing interest in Idle No More seems questionable, particularly outside of Canada’s borders. The lack of international attention, however, does not mean that the goals of the movement are not worth pursuing nor does it mean that these goals cannot be reached through domestic activism alone. But if Idle No More wants to gain considerable support outside of Canada, it must find away to gain the attention of the key media outlets and human rights INGOs. Additionally, the movement must be realistic about the progress it has made thus far.

Stephanie Soiffer

Ph.D. Candidate