Protest in solidarity with the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en peoples in Toronto, Canada – February 22, 2020. Photo: Jason Hargrove / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Last September, during his annual address to the United Nations General Assembly, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the UN for its inaction on state violations of human rights, stating that “there are few consequences for countries that ignore international rules […] few consequences for places where opposition figures are being poisoned while cyber tools and disinformation are being used to destabilize democracies.” His statement was taken as a thinly veiled attack on both China and Russia.
More recently, this attack was followed up with the imposition of Canadian sanctions against Chinese officials, justified as a response to the state-sponsored violations against the Uyghur people.
Canada enjoys presenting itself as a beacon for peace and human rights. In a recent statement, Trudeau claimed that “Canada has been a consistently strong voice for protecting human rights and advancing democratic values.” Not only does this statement whitewash Canada’s enduring colonial relationship to Indigenous communities, but it also paints a false portrait of a country that actively undermines the rights and freedoms of people throughout the world.
Trudeau actively exploits this misleading portrayal. The Canadian prime minister presents himself as a champion of diversity and as someone deeply concerned with injustice. His speeches almost systematically refer to inclusivity, equity and justice as core values embodied by his government. Yet, his administration has not strayed from the neoliberal and militarist agendas set forth by his right-wing predecessors.
While the Trudeau brand can and must be criticized for its flagrant appropriation of human rights discourses, it should also be seen as a form of governance that is particular to neoliberalism — one which should cause us to question the limits of a rights-based approach in thinking about collective liberation, in particular in a settler colonial state like Canada.
Canada regularly mischaracterizes itself as a state concerned with upholding human rights. The image of UN peacekeeping forces — themselves regularly accused of humanitarian crimes — is presented as proof of Canada’s benevolent involvement in world politics. Canada’s “peacekeeping” role in the Suez Crisis, Balkan conflict and Rwandan genocide are touted as examples of this benevolence. In fact, if we actively look at some of the major global political events of recent years and the role Canada played in them, the hypocrisy of this carefully constructed narrative easily comes into view.
For a start, Canadian weapons manufacturers are supplying arms to Saudi Arabia for use in the war in Yemen. Since 2015, Canadian weapons have been used by Saudi forces to terrorize and slaughter Yemeni civilians. Several groups and parties have voiced their opposition to Canada’s arms trade with the Saudi regime, yet Trudeau’s government refuses to prevent the sale of deadly weapons to the Kingdom. In fact, the number of weapons sold has doubled in the last year, exacerbating a war that has been particularly devastating for Yemeni girls and women. This is distinctly at odds with an administration that prides itself on its supposed “feminist” values and frequently evokes its commitment to women’s rights — Trudeau having famously vaunted the gender equity of his cabinet appointments. Apparently, the liberal government’s feminism extends only to Western women and not to Saudi and Yemeni women and girls.
Canada is also a notorious and steadfast supporter of Israel. Trudeau’s government has remained conspicuously silent on the international crimes perpetrated by Israel. In 2020, Canada opposed the International Criminal Court’s probe into Israeli war crimes — that year alone, Israeli forces reportedly murdered 27 Palestinian civilians, including 7 children. With Israel’s most recent onslaught of violence against Palestinians in May 2021, Canada, like all other Western states, presented a meek and ambiguous response to the humanitarian crimes perpetrated by Israeli forces. This response has notably focused on the rockets fired by Hamas, without explicitly calling out Israeli state violence, despite the significant discrepancy in casualties caused by Israel’s bombardment.
Trudeau has also drawn condemnation for appointing influential Israeli lobbyist Irwin Cotler — who typically regards criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic — as Special Envoy to combat anti-Semitism. There is growing worry within the Canadian left that this appointment might translate to state-sponsored censorship, as public figures seek to avoid the kinds of accusations previously leveled at Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.
Canada is further complicit in the crimes perpetrated by Canadian mining companies abroad. Canadian firms have been guilty of human and environmental abuse on at least three continents. These firms are known to contract private security to brutalize and intimidate local community members who oppose their destructive activities. Closer to home, these companies are responsible for the devastation of ecosystems throughout Canada. More abhorrent still is the fact that this destruction is largely taking place on Indigenous land. This government is complicit in the continued pillaging of native lands as it shirks the commitments made through the historical ratification of treaties with First Nation peoples.
The severity and extent of these human rights abuses recently forced the Canadian government to create the position of Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE). This has, however, remained a largely symbolic gesture, as the post has been described as “powerless” by international rights advocates. As such, Canadian mining firms continue to violate human rights and the environment in their quest to appropriate resources.
Canadian firms continue to monopolize land for resource extraction, thereby dispossessing local communities. A report published by Canadian Dimension shows that Canadian companies are rushing to exploit lithium reserves in Mongolia, an area with great geopolitical significance, given its proximity to both Russia and China. In their pursuit of this resource, Canadian mining companies are wreaking havoc on Mongolian ecological systems and intimidating local activists who oppose their activities.
It was recently reported that Haiti, one of the world’s poorest, most vulnerable and exploited nations, had not received a single dose of any of the COVID-19 vaccines. Other countries in the Global South have faced significant delays in vaccine deliveries, meaning that inoculation campaigns are advancing at a snail’s pace. In contrast, most Western nations have now managed to vaccinate upwards of 10 percent of their respective populations, with vaccination campaigns rapidly accelerating as deliveries increase. By May, close to 50 percent of Canadians had received their first dose of the vaccine.
Of these Western nations, Canada is the only one that has elected to avail of the COVAX program, an international initiative designed to promote the equitable distribution of resources. By drawing from this limited pool of available vaccines, Canada is effectively appropriating doses which should have been earmarked for poorer nations. This appropriation comes in addition to bilateral agreements concluded with private vaccine manufacturers. Accordingly, Canada has contributed, along with other Western nations, to the monopolization of an essential resource. This vaccine “double-dipping” has rightly drawn condemnation from Médecins Sans Frontières and OXFAM.
Canada’s actions are made even more onerous by the fact that Canada has already secured more than enough doses through its private bilateral agreements. By taking from COVAX, Canada is signaling that it places its own pandemic recovery above global equity. Only an extremely privileged and wealthy nation could get away with behaving with such a blatant disregard for global health outcomes. This gesture of naked self-interest again shows the banal conceit of Canadian claims to universal rights in any sense.
Canada’s record on human rights is hardly any better at home than abroad. Few are aware that Canada’s model of social and political segregation served as inspiration for the South African apartheid state. As writer and Indigenous activist Mike Krebs states: “The Indian Act (enacted in 1876 and still prevailing to this day) enshrined completely unequal rights, relations, and — over time — vastly disparate living conditions between Indigenous peoples and Canadian settlers.”
Having first disposed the First Nations peoples of their ancestral lands, Canada is today responsible for the serial neglect and abuse of Indigenous communities. The extent of this institutional abuse is hard to overstate; for decades, Canada pursued a policy of cultural genocide against First Nations peoples. With the explicit aim to “kill the Indian within the child,” Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families and interned in residential schools. These state institutions were the sight of overwhelming violence and cruelty.
The recent discovery of a mass grave at the Kamloops Residential School confirms what many have suspected for years; that the brutality and negligence led to the deaths of thousands of children. The Canadian government’s policy not only destroyed Indigenous identities, but in countless cases, it also murdered the child.
Conditions on First Nations reservations — the land distribution system installed by European colonizers and upheld to this day — demonstrate the stark disparities between majority settler Canadian society and Indigenous communities. Reservations are notoriously under-resourced and often lack basic and essential infrastructure. Many communities lack access to such basic necessities as clean potable water and electricity. Public health is also poor, meaning that life-expectancy on a First Nations reservation is 15 years lower than elsewhere in Canada.
The UN and many NGOs have repeatedly called out Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people. Trudeau’s government has in fact spent $100 million on court battles with Indigenous nations over the last year. Despite these facts, this government continues to portray itself as an advocate for reconciliation and justice.
The very concept of human rights merits scrutiny and deconstruction. Indeed, a concept that is so easily instrumentalized and appropriated by neoliberal imperialist powers ought to be the object of critical analysis. Our understanding and pursuit of human rights hinges on a Western-centric and individualistic notion of human well-being and self-actualization. This conceptualization lends itself to a vision where human dignity is disaggregated from collective existence, one that obfuscates the complex interdependence inherent to human societies. We depend on others not only for socialization but also for support, care and solidarity. As the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, our well-being is intimately tied to the actions of others – from the wearing of masks to protect others from the virus to those who worked tirelessly to care for the sick.
Moreover, the current perception of human rights foregrounds state, institutional and bureaucratic power as the guarantor or enforcer of the conditions of human dignity. The very fact that human rights need be enforced ought to push us to question the forces and systems that structure society. Contrast this to Indigenous conceptions of humanness, where value and dignity are rooted not in individual rights, but in notions of collective responsibility and accountability.
The Western conception of rights inherently separates the individual from others by defending them against outside imposition, whereas Indigenous perspectives do not desegregate them from collective existence. This latter conception inherently favors solidarity as no individual is seen as existing outside of the group. Considering the collective and existential challenges we face, we would do well to learn from these alternative conceptualizations.
Canada’s track record at home and abroad shows a clear and selective negligence with regards to human rights. In fact, Canada’s attitude to human rights is analogous to its attitude to the climate crisis: in both cases the public officials rely on sophistry to disguise their inactions or, worse, their continued support of exploitation and abuse.
Canada has chosen to single out China in a naked attempt to disguise economic and political aggression as concern for human rights. China is increasingly seen today as an economic rival to the US and its transatlantic allies — the fear of which is evident from the number of US military bases established strategically in the Pacific.
The Chinese government is undoubtedly responsible for violating the rights of many, if not most, of its citizens. As Joe Clark has stated, “The huge economic growth in China in recent decades has involved the creation of a level of wealth inequality that rivals that of the West.” Let there be no mistake, however, that the driving force behind these sanctions is economic growth and rivalry, not inequity and oppression.
There is no doubt that the current Canadian government is willing to toe the line in relation to US imperialist aims. An official memo from the US State Department shows that Canada has committed itself to an America First doctrine of foreign policy. As such, it ought to come as no surprise that Canada has joined US efforts to undermine China through the imposition of sanctions.
Yet, Canada continues to project this image of pacifism and benevolence — a fictitious image largely upheld by the mainstream press. Consequently, Canada’s own history of human rights abuses remains serially overlooked. The facts cited above, to which we could add incidents like the infamous Somalia Affair in 1993 — where Canadian forces displayed outrageous systemic cruelty and racism, ultimately killing a detained Somali teenager — or the many allegations of prisoner abuse perpetrated by Canadian forces in Afghanistan are rarely, if ever, present in public discourse.
Trudeau’s posturing echoes the duplicity of other Western leaders — such as Barack Obama, Joe Biden or Emmanuel Macron — who present themselves as progressives despite their championing of neoliberal and militaristic agendas. In an era of increasing authoritarianism, their inclusive and rights-based rhetoric contrasts significantly with the aggressive brand of politics espoused by right-wing leaders. The carefully crafted image they project is troublingly effective at masking the reality of their policies and actions.
The Canadian establishment may stick to this fabricated image, but Canadian citizens and the rest of the world should not. A critical assessment of Canada’s record on human rights is essential, particularly when the government so explicitly adheres to US foreign imperialism.
There can be little hope of accountability and redress without first dismantling this false narrative. By presenting himself as a champion of human rights and causes such as climate change, Trudeau has convinced many that he espouses progressive change. Further, there are many more who, despite not buying into Trudeau’s claims, are pacified by his lack of belligerence. Trudeau, however, is far from harmless. As shown above, many of the policies pursued by his government are no different from the policies pursued by the previous neoconservative government of Stephen Harper — in some cases, they are in fact worse. While Harper drew much criticism and condemnation from critical observers in and outside of Canada, Trudeau has largely been given a pass thanks to his deceptiveness.
On the one hand, this lack of criticism and accountability is allowing Trudeau’s government to advance their imperialist and neoliberal agendas largely unchallenged. On the other, their unwillingness to follow through on the progressive policies that drove their election is pushing more and more people to the right — as is the pattern in so many cases elsewhere. It would not be shocking to see the populist right rise to power in the next Canadian elections; indeed this trend is already emerging on a provincial level.
It is no stretch to imagine how catastrophic this would be both domestically and internationally, particularly given that Canada is one of the worst contributors to the climate crisis. The solution lies in the offer of a bold political alternative capable of drawing in the Canadian public, one founded on solidarity with global efforts to address the climate crisis and the building of a just and equitable future for all. Despite the government’s failings, community and Indigenous activists are driving necessary social and ecological changes.
From British Columbia to New Brunswick, First Nations groups are fighting for their rights and for the conservation and stewardship of their ancestral lands. In major cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, tenant rights groups are fiercely campaigning to end the enduring housing crisis caused by an over-inflated housing market. Many municipalities are, moreover, opposing the Federal government’s attempt to privatize their resources, while others have successfully re-municipalized services.
Nevertheless, bold transformative changes are still needed. Trudeau is blatantly unable to deliver this change and this needs to be said. Critical voices are needed to call out his fake progressivism and to dispel the myth of Canadian pacifism. Only in so doing, can we create conditions for a just transformative movement.