Following the mission he conducted May 6-16, 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, presented his country report on Canada to the United Nations' Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday.
The report contains the findings and recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food in a clear, digestible 21-page document, which the civil society organization Food Secure Canada hopes will catalyze Canadian society and affect policy at all levels of government.
"We think it's extremely important that we engage in a national conversation in the right to food, but much more than a national conversation, we want national action and we want a national food policy," said Food Secure Canada Executive Director Diana Bronson.
In collaboration with partners across the country, Food Secure Canada stirred up impressive national attention yesterday by hosting a webcast in 50 communities across every province and territory in Canada.
The events connected civil society directly to Geneva, where Oliver De Schutter presented highlights and answered questions about his report to the UN Human Rights Council, a 47-member body composed of government representatives from the international community.
The importance of United Nations monitoring
Canada has a standing invitation to independent experts to monitor the country's human rights situation, and the Right to Food mission conducted in May 2012 was an acceptance of the 2009 invitation to De Schutter by Canada's Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.
The Canadian Right to Food Report will help to inform the upcoming April 26, 2013, scrutiny of Canada's Human Rights record as it appears before the United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group. Similarly, De Schutter's report may inform Canada's 2013 review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the body of independent experts monitoring States' compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
Canada behind in economic and social rights protection
Olivier De Schutter's report contains five subsections both commending Canadian civil society and government for many progressive and positive actions toward realizing the Right to Food, while also criticizing shortcomings and putting forward many recommendations for improvement through both a legal and policy framework.
The subsections are: food availability and agricultural policies; food accessibility -- protecting access to food for the poorest; food adequacy and quality of diets; food aid, development cooperation and foreign policy; and Indigenous peoples. (We'll have more detailed analysis of the report's subsections tomorrow on rabble.ca.)
While De Schutter suggested that Canada is behind in economic and social rights protection, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canadian Human Rights Act could be used to protect the Right to Food.
Indigenous peoples and 'Nutrition North': Transparent, inclusive process lacking
During his visit, Olivier De Schutter consulted with aboriginal groups and communities in Québec, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta, including the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Inuit Circumpolar Council-Canada and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. His presentation during the March 4 webcast highlighted the important support to Indigenous peoples made by Canada on the international stage through its Statement of Support on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in November 2010.
Importantly, the report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food includes an entire section devoted to Indigenous peoples in Canada (who comprise over three per cent of the population) and their disproportionate vulnerability pertaining to food insecurity, diet-related illness and lack of access to land and traditional foods, which are indescribably significant in their cultural significance and relationship to health:
Ongoing land claims across the country have implications for the right to food and access to country foods among aboriginal Canadians. Yet, under international law, indigenous peoples have the right to possess and control their traditional lands and resources.
De Schutter suggested the Nutrition North Canada program is insufficiently monitored to ensure that retailers pass on appropriate subsidies to recipient communities. However, more fundamentally, he is "concerned that Nutrition North Canada was designed and is being implemented without an inclusive and transparent process that provides Northern communities with an opportunity to exercise their right to active and meaningful participation."
Embarrassing response of Canadian government
Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, joined the live webcast organized by Food Secure Canada to share his deep disappointment with the response of the Canadian government to De Schutter's presentation, which was delivered by the Canadian Ambassador at the UN in Geneva, Elissa Golberg.
"We were hoping we might see something more constructive from the government this time around," said Neve.
This may come as no surprise to anyone who followed the Right to Food mission last May. The response of Canadian politicians to De Schutter's visit and the May 2012 Report was an embarrassment, trivializing human rights as "core services" (Hon. James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, May 7, 2012), insisting on deflecting attention from the problem by pointing to other countries' food insecurity (Mr. Deepak Obhrai, May 18, 2012; Mr. Ryan Leef and Hon. Leona Aglukkaq, May 16, 2012) and conflating the right to food with food bank services (Ms. Chris Charlton, May 15, 2012), which De Schutter and countless Canadian activists recognize as a symptom of systemic problems rather than a human rights protection measure.
The constant refrain by Canadian officials, echoed in Monday's Canadian government response is: "Canada is very proud of the many programs and services it offers to Canadians. They serve the needs of all Canadians."
"While we didn't see the kind of stunning and disgraceful personal attacks that happened last time or the blatant repudiation of the nature of Canada's universal human rights obligations," said Neve, the Canadian government's response "did not at all recognize and acknowledge that food insecurity is a real and pressing human rights concern across Canada, that action is needed, that there are recommendations in this report that provide the way forward."
On Food Secure Canada's Facebook page, where the conversation between citizens continues, long-time food activist Cathleen Kneen writes, "I suppose defensiveness and half-truths are better than bully-style personal attacks. And frankly more than I expected from this government, which clearly could not care less about the real health and welfare of its citizens."
Needed: More participation and a national Right to Food Strategy
Through both his report presented to the UN Human Rights Council and his summary presentation to Canadian civil society, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food strongly recommended several actions to move the Right to Food forward in Canada, which can be read in full in the report.
Most significantly, he consistently called for a national Right to Food Strategy, which should be a priority on the domestic agenda, substance for national debate and critical to developing synergies between municipal, provincial and federal levels of government.
Significantly, Dr. De Schutter continually reminded listeners that nothing can be done for those most affected by food insecurity without giving them ways to participate in designing the policies that affect them.
"Government needs to listen to what people have to say," remarked De Schutter, and currently "there is insufficient participation."
It was exactly this process of consultation and participation that informed the development of Food Secure Canada's Resetting the Table: A People's Food Policy for Canada, which echoes many of the recommendations that Dr. De Schutter has put forward in his report.
Food Secure Canada, as the national voice for the food security movement in Canada, calls on all levels of government to engage in action to move a National Food Strategy and policy forward under its commitments to Zero Hunger, Healthy and Safe Food, and a Sustainable Food System.
This report marks the beginning of a series of opportunities for both conversation and action to further the human right to food in Canada, and civil society may use the international influence of the UN Special Rapporteur's mission, report and recommendations to put increased pressure upon government officials.
"No international pressure shall be a substitute for what you can do domestically," De Schutter pronounced in his closing webcast remarks to Canadians -- which was viewed from Baffin Island to Victoria to St. John's yesterday afternoon.
"Food is a human right and it belongs to each and every one of us," Food Secure Canada's Bronson affirmed. "Please get in touch with your MPs."
Now, it's over to us.
You can read the full UN Report in English or French, and watch a debate between the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP about a National Food Policy on CBC. Ready to take political action? Write or visit your MLA or MPP. Write or visit your MP and send a message through facebook or twitter to your MP to make the conversation public. You can read Olivier De Schutter's reports on missions to Madagascar, Cameroon, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and on Women’s Rights and the Right to Food, all presented March 4, 2013 to the UN Human Rights Council alongside the report on his mission to Canada.
Hannah Renglich holds an MA in Natural Resources and Peace from the UN-mandated University for Peace and a bilingual BA in International Studies from Glendon College, York University. For the past seven years, Hannah has worked with food security organizations as well as on ecological farms and community gardens, feeding her interests in food sovereignty and environmental justice. Hannah is fascinated by the power of co-operation and the facilitation of social consciousness, and motivated by the potential of small differences to fuel impactful change. She sits on the boards of the Carrot Cache, the West End Food Co-op, and REAP-Canada, as well as the advisory councils of Urban Produce and Nourishing Ontario. She writes and teaches about food justice and building a culture of peace through food through the PeaceMeal project. While getting acquainted with the world, Hannah is trying to find a way to apply her energy toward the development of hope and human agency, while gleefully coordinating the Ontario-wide network of Local Organic Food Co-operatives.