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Minister of Industry James Moore isn’t the first Parliamentarian to get it wrong, but given his recent comments, I’m happy to make him the fall guy. When will Parliamentarians brush up on their knowledge of Canada’s international human rights obligations and use this to get on with the business of doing their jobs?
In a media interview this past weekend, Minister Moore brashly questioned whether it’s his job to feed the hungry child of a neighbour (um, yes federal Mr. Minister!), and then, like a child himself -- presumably a well-fed one -- he pointed his finger across the jurisdictional divide at provincial governments, suggesting they are responsible for dealing with poverty.
Once the heat was turned up, Minister Moore did a 180, issued an apology and stated that, as a matter of compassion, addressing child poverty is perhaps everyone’s responsibility.
In the event that Minister Moore declines my twitter invitation to take a human rights course, he needs to know this: The Government of Canada is legally required to address poverty as a matter of human rights, not personal compassion. This is because it signed and ratified a number of international human rights treaties that are concerned with child poverty including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). When it did so, in 1991 and 1976 respectively, it legally bound itself to certain obligations, including ensuring that children wouldn’t have to live in poverty and go hungry in one of the most affluent countries in the world.
To meet this obligation in a federal state like Canada could very well mean sharing responsibility with the provinces and territories to accommodate Constitutional jurisdictional matters. But the division of powers does not absolve the federal government of responsibility. At a minimum, it means the federal government is responsible for monitoring and ensuring provinces and territories meet their international human rights obligations. And when they don’t, the federal government has to step in and do something to fix the problem and uphold human rights.
After blaming-the-victims and shirking responsibility in his interview, Minister Moore defended the government, stating that the Feds are helping out on the poverty file by -- wait for it -- creating more jobs. (It would only have been more predictable if he’d actually mentioned the Economic Action Plan.) The government’s insistence on job creation as a panacea to poverty is foolhardy at best.
It’s now well understood that having a job is not an answer to poverty: 1 in 3 children living in poverty have a parent working full time, all year. This is because many newly created jobs are minimum wage jobs, with little security and few benefits.
A person with a full-time minimum wage job falls well below the poverty line, regardless of the measure used, in some cases 21 per cent below. So rather than lifting people out of poverty, paid employment, when it’s low paying, often just keeps people poor.
Now, if Minister Moore knew his international law better (or at all), he’d have known that the creation of jobs can help Canada meet its human rights obligations to prevent and address poverty, but only if those jobs pay a living wage.
You see, Canada signed a treaty which says everyone has the right to "just and favourable conditions of work," which includes ensuring that all workers are remunerated so that they can provide a decent living for themselves and their families.
Under international law "decent living" means a living wage that considers the cost of shelter, food, clothing, transportation and child care among other household needs. In Canada the wage would be calculated based on this information alongside federal and provincial income supports.
The UN has told Canada on several occasions that this is the standard it has to meet in order to comply with its human rights obligations. Clearly Minister Moore and others within Parliament have not been paying attention.
Knowledge of Canada’s human rights obligations might also have kept Minister Moore from relying on his personal insensitivities and ideology to answer tough questions about child poverty in an affluent country.
Instead, his answers might have been informed by an understanding of the universality of human rights, which mandate the federal government to show leadership and to take constructive steps to ensure no child is poor in Canada.
With the wintery holiday season upon us, I’d recommend Minister Moore do some fireside reading beginning with Promises to Keep: Implementing Canada’s Human Rights Obligations, written by his colleagues on the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights. Not yet a bestseller, clearly.
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Leilani Farha is the Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty.
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