Changing the face of human rights
Though the theme of the evening was serious, the Raging Grannies lit up the stage at River’s Edge Community Church last month, with their multicoloured hats, graceful frills and scathing yet funny lyrics about living in poverty in a rich society.
Part of Solidarity Week, which focuses attention on anti-poverty strategies, the event was organized by the N.D.G. Senior Citizen’s Council, the N.D.G. Community Council, the N.D.G. Food Depot and Concordia University’s People’s Potato.
The Grannies preceded activist Vincent Greason, a public legal education expert and human rights researcher at the University of Ottawa.
Greason says poverty should be regarded as a human rights issue because it violates the right to housing, health, work, education and an adequate standard of living, all of which are enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, signed and ratified by Canada and Quebec in 1976.
Greason said the concept of human rights came into being in the wake of the Holocaust—“the greatest human rights violation”—and that they are the birthright of every human being.
“Pre-World War II, there was no mechanism for other countries to intervene” in human rights violations, Greason said.
“By signing on to the International Convention, our governments agreed to play by the rules of the game.”
Every five years, Greason said, states must submit a report to the United Nations, where non-governmental experts issue recommendations. This process allows NGOs, organizations and individuals to participate in pointing out problems and creating change.
The last time Quebec and Canada went before the UN was in 2006, when they received a series of criticisms and recommendations.
One recommendation from the UN was that Canada and Quebec establish a formal measure of poverty, so the UN can assess our anti-poverty measures. According to Greason, 20 per cent of Canadians are living in poverty.
Quebec has adopted a measure of poverty, the market-basket measure, which defines as poor a single person living on $18,000 a year. The UN’s measure, the low-income cutoff, places that figure at $22,000 a year.
“If we know what our rights are, we can defend them. If we don’t know our rights, we’re going to lose them,” Greason said.
Canada was also criticized because only 39 per cent of people who lose their jobs have access to employment insurance benefits. The UN Committee noted that Quebec’s minimum wage, $9.65, cannot provide workers and their families an adequate standard of living. Ontario and New Brunswick have higher minimum-wage rates, but they also are insufficient, Greason said. To reach the UN’s low-income cutoff, minimum wage would have to be $10.88.
“If we had a human-rights-based approach to fighing poverty, what would it look like?” Greason mused.
“Right now we’re doing social management, not human-rights policy here in Quebec.”
A human-rights approach to combating poverty, according to Greason, would include increasing seniors’ pensions.
“Seniors on public pensions are light-years away from an adequate standard of living.”
It would include increasing benefits to injured workers and strengthening the right to unionize, Greason said, citing cases involving Walmart, Couche-Tard and McDonald’s, where attempts to unionize were quashed.
Canada and Quebec were criticized on hunger, as 2.3 million Quebecers suffer from food insecurity and 40 per cent of clients at food banks are children. The UN committee was concerned with the lack of decent housing in Canada and Quebec and the rate of homelessness, affecting between 100,000 to 250,000 Canadians.
Canada and Quebec will next appear before the UN in June.
“Human rights is one tool we have in our toolbox that will allow us to push forward our social struggles. They are useful because our governments have signed on to a series on engagements, so they are accountable and we can embarrass them,” he said. “I invite you to conceive of human rights as a social project, something to be attained, something to strive for. Imagine, if all the human rights in the international conventions were actually realized, what a wonderful place this would be—it would put the Grannies out of work.”
The NDG Senior Citizens’ Council has started two programs reaching out to baby-boomers (age 50-65). Boomer Connections are monthly get-togethers that provide an opportunity for learning and sharing, and Boomer Café is a drop-in centre open Mondays from 11 am to 4 pm, designed to give boomers a chance to meet and support each other. Computer use and Internet access are free. 514-487-1317.