The right to food in Canada

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Soup kitchenWhat would you say about hunger in Canada if the United Nations were to ask?

Canadians had to think hard about that question, and so did I when I was asked to speak before Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, during his visit to Canada in May.

Mr. De Schutter was on an eleven day mission to Canada, his first to a developed country, in order to map out Canada’s compliance with our international human rights commitments. He met with families on social assistance who find it hard to feed their children healthy food. He visited inner city neighbourhoods in Ontario and Quebec. And he traveled to remote aboriginal communities in Manitoba and Alberta.

You may remember from press reports that the UN envoy urged Canadian governments to put an end to the need for almost 900,000 Canadians to visit a food bank each month. He decried the fact that in such a wealthy nation, one in ten families with a child under six is unable to meet their daily food needs. “This is a country that is rich but that fails to adapt the levels of social assistance benefits and its minimum wage to the rising costs of basic necessities, including food and housing,” De Schutter said.

At least initially, federal government Ministers refused to meet him and discuss his findings. After his press statements however, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney angrily suggested De Schutter was wasting the UN's money by visiting a developed country. Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq then met with De Schutter, but strongly objected to his remarks on food issues facing aboriginals. “He’s ill-informed,” Aglukkaq told reporters; “In the Arctic, the food security issue is not about access to (food). It’s about fighting environmentalists trying to put a stop to our way of life.”

Is food a basic right of all, or not?

Not only is “freedom from want” and the right to food enshrined in 1948’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not only did Canadians help draft that crucial document, but we have also ratified it. Canada has also ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. But how do nations ensure that a signatory complies with these important charters? Mr. De Schutter’s mission to Canada was in keeping with the international community’s monitoring of the progress signatory countries have been making in operationalizing these important commitments.

Something to chew on…

Non-profit agencies, many of them church-related, have been speaking out long before Mr. De Schutter’s visit. They realize that the issues of food security and hunger are directly related to poverty.

When we met, I knew I didn’t have to remind Mr. De Schutter of the UN’s own guidelines document that reads, “…poverty signifies non-realization of human rights so that the adoption of a poverty reduction strategy is therefore not just desirable but obligatory on the part of States that have ratified human rights instruments.”

However, many Canadians may not know that when Canada’s performance on human, economic and social rights was last reviewed by the UN, Citizens for Public Justice called upon Canada to develop a poverty reduction strategy. The UN’s Human Rights Council then encouraged Canada to do exactly that. But in June 2009, the federal government specifically rejected this recommendation, and its attendant responsibility. Ottawa stated that poverty reduction was “a provincial responsibility.”

Food Secure Canada argues that “A Canada with no food policy is like not having a national health care policy.” Obviously Canada cannot be compared to countries in the Global South, where over 900 million people suffer food insecurity. But, while different, nutrition-related problems exist here too. While a quarter of Canadians are considered obese, we are the only G8 country without a nationally-funded school meal program. Stats Can reports that close to two and a half million Canadians are moderately or severely food insecure.

A national food policy would be an integral part of a federal poverty reduction strategy. Most Canadian provinces already have poverty reduction plans. Premier Redford has promised to initiate one in Alberta, leaving Saskatchewan and British Columbia as the only laggards. But federal leadership could help invest in proven programs and reward best practices. It is time we all encouraged our federal government to live up to its word.

Joe Gunn serves as Executive Director at CPJ.

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