Moving Forward: A Vision for Strengthened International Human Rights Implementation in Canada

Federal, provincial and territorial Ministers responsible for human rights met in Gatineau, Quebec between December 10 and 12, 2017, to discuss key priorities of their governments in relation to the implementation of Canada's international human rights obligations. Statutory human rights laws, commissions and tribunals are key instruments and institutions for fulfilling the human rights that Canada has endorsed in international human rights treaties, and for providing remedies when those rights are violated. Representatives from human rights commissions were present at this historic meeting.

A small group of Indigenous organizations and civil society groups were invited to attend.  This is their joint statement.

Almost seven decades ago Canada joined other states1 in adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, agreeing that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.  The Declaration and other principles of international law, make it clear that these universal human rights principles are binding on all levels of government within a country.  That is why this meeting of federal, provincial and territorial Ministers responsible for human rights in Canada is of such importance.

Despite obvious human rights advances in Canada over the 69 years since the Universal Declaration was adopted, there remain many significant and glaring gaps and failures.  Those shortcomings have been repeatedly highlighted over the years in examinations of Canada's human rights record carried out by treaty-monitoring committees, independent experts and other governments, through the many human rights review processes states have developed within the United Nations and Inter-American human rights systems.  Important, constructive recommendations for reform have been made to Canada.  But Canada's record of taking up those recommendations and thus complying with the country's international human rights obligations has been inconsistent at best and an abject failure at worst.  International bodies have consistently called on Canada to develop a better approach.

Indigenous peoples organization and civil society groups have, on many occasions, called for a strengthened and improved system for ensuring effective international human rights implementation in Canada.2  We have always stressed it is important to improve the protection of human rights domestically and also to demonstrate strong global leadership in a world desperately in need of countries prepared to meet their international obligations.

Without action by … [federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for human rights] … the inter-governmental coordination needed to ensure that Canada's international human rights obligations are meaningfully and consistently implemented will remain elusive …

We offer the following recommendations as to key principles and concrete action we hope you will commit to in agreeing to close Canada's international human rights implementation gap.

1.      Recognize that you are Canada's international human rights implementation leadership team

-        Take responsibility for ensuring a whole of government approach to international human rights implementation.

-        Establish an inter-governmental working group at deputy ministerial level tasked with developing a new legal framework for international human rights implementation in Canada, in close consultation with Indigenous peoples organizations and civil society groups.

-        Agree to meet again in December 2018 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and report on progress towards a new model.

-        Commit to meet regularly going forward.


2.      Embrace the following six principles at the heart of a new human rights-based framework for international human rights implementation in Canada

-        Recognize and respect the rights of Indigenous peoples, guided by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

-        Adopt an intersectional feminist approach to upholding human rights.

-        Apply a racial equity impact lens and a disability-based inclusion lens to Canada's international human rights implementation framework.

-        Commit to substantive equality to address systemic discrimination and marginalization.

-        Address intersecting forms of sexism, racism, ableism and other forms of discrimination.

-        Acknowledge that the fulfillment of economic, social and cultural rights is a threshold requirement for the enjoyment of civil and political rights, particularly for those groups that are most disadvantaged, and that all human rights are universal and interdependent.

3.      Provide a genuine and meaningful role for the following groups and institutions in implementing international human rights in Canada

-        Indigenous peoples organizations, including Indigenous women's organizations

-        Civil society groups, especially those working directly with marginalized and subordinated communities and groups 

-        Parliament and legislatures

-        Federal, provincial and territorial human rights commissions and tribunals

4.      Ensure that accountability and access to justice and effective remedies are the hallmarks of Canada's approach, at all levels of government, to international human rights implementation

-        Canada must recognize that access to justice and effective remedies is critical for all human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights.

-        In addition to ratifying the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Convention against Torture, Canada should ratify the optional complaints procedures for the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

-        Collect and publish data disaggregated with respect to sex and gender, Indigenous, racial and ethnic identity, disability and other characteristics relevant to identifying, understanding and addressing patterns of human rights abuse.  

-        Establish mechanisms for ongoing inter-governmental coordination at a level of authority that allows for accountable decision-making.

-        Regularly report publicly on implementation, against timelines and benchmarks.

-        Institute an independent oversight body to report on Canada's progress toward meeting its international human rights obligations.


1.      The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

2.      Empty Words and Double Standards: Canada's Failure to Respect and Uphold International Human Rights, 2012,; Promise and Reality: Canada's International Human Rights Implementation Gap, 2008,


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