'A bizarre waste of time': Officials grilled over 'discrimination' against blacks, Chinese and natives
Allegations that Canada discriminates against blacks, Chinese and aboriginal Canadians were discussed yesterday by the United Nations committee on the elimination of racial discrimination.
UNITED NATIONS - Canada yesterday appeared before a United Nations committee on the elimination of racial discrimination to defend itself against allegations that racial injustices persist against black, Chinese and aboriginal Canadians, and that immigrants do not earn as much as people born in the country.
At the same hearing in Geneva, committee members told Canadian officials Ottawa was wrong to resist giving the UN the power to rule on individual complaints of racism in Canada.
Forty-one countries, including Australia, France and Germany, have handed the committee jurisdiction over individual complaints. But the United States and the United Kingdom are among countries that, like Canada, prefer domestic courts to deal with allegations of racism.
"This is the old story of [the balance between] freedom of expression and the suppression of hate propaganda," said Kurt Herndl, a retired Austrian diplomat who serves on the 18-member committee as co-ordinator for reports on Canada.
Canadian officials noted, however, that committee rulings on cases brought by individuals from other countries have leaned farther toward suppressing free speech than Canada is ready to tolerate, even though Canada itself is moving in that direction with progressively tougher anti-racism laws.
"We would prefer to see, at this stage, individual complaints handled through Canadian human rights tribunals and commissions," said Norman Moyer, an assistant deputy minister with Heritage Canada, who headed the Canadian delegation.
The committee meets twice a year to review the anti-racism record of up to a dozen of the 162 countries that have adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, enacted in 1969.
It grilled Canada, which ratified the treaty in 1970, after receiving 200 pages of government reports about Ottawa's performance, and numerous other submissions from human rights and community activist groups.
Canada has some of the toughest anti-racism laws in the world, but submits to such grillings because it "believes that the world community will be gradually moved along if we and other countries support the processes," Mr. Moyer said.
He echoed Sheila Copps, Minister of Canadian Heritage, by adding that Canada also learns from the criticism of others.
"It allows us to look at our work objectively and to improve our initiatives," Ms. Copps said in a press release.
Other commentators feel Canada and the UN could be spending their time more productively.
"It seems like a bizarre waste of time, when so many people of so many colours and ethnic groups are being oppressed in so many places, for the UN to be scrutinizing a country that clearly lives under the rule of law," said Fred McMahon, director of the Centre for Trade and Globalization Studies with the Fraser Institute in Vancouver.
The committee highlighted allegations of increased discrimination against black Canadians, who number about 525,000 among Canada's 30-million population.
The Canadian delegation said the government had begun meeting with members of the black community to "explore their special circumstances."
A problem of prejudice against the Chinese remained unresolved, the committee continued, referring to a head tax imposed by Canada on Chinese immigrants at the end of the 19th century. Some survivors are suing the government for compensation, prompting the Canadian delegation to tell the committee the issue was before the courts.
Several committee members spoke out about land rights for aboriginal Canadians. The delegation said government grants help natives fund land-claims research.
The committee charged that, since Sept. 11, people with Middle Eastern names have been apprehended and mosques have been destroyed.
However, arrests on the scale seen in the United States did not occur in Canada. Though unacceptable, the level of violence was also limited. Arab and Muslim groups reported an accumulation of 120 hate incidents against their communities in Canada by March, including 10 death threats, 13 cases of physical violence and 12 attacks on mosques and Islamic centres. No mosques were destroyed but anti-Muslim sentiment was believed to be behind the destruction of a Hindu temple in Hamilton, Ont.
The Canadian delegation said the committee's observation that anti-racism laws differ from province to province was to be expected. Canada is a federation. "All governments in Canada are pulling in the same direction, just sometimes with slightly different working," Mr. Moyer said.
The delegation showed that immigrants entering Canada to fill job openings quickly earn as much as Canadians born here. Immigrants arriving as relatives of Canadian residents take a little longer to do so, while refugees take the longest.
Regis de Goutte, a French magistrate who serves on the committee, said Canada's recent laws limiting expression on the Internet showed it is ready to limit free speech. "That shows they have accepted there are exceptions to freedom of speech and so should allow individual complaints to be heard by the committee," he said.