UN to Examine Canada’s Record on Right to Food

On January 21, about 50 non-governmental and Indigenous organizations gathered with representatives of nine federal government departments in Ottawa for the first human rights consultation of its kind in close to a decade. Nowadays the tone of Canada’s engagement with the UN - and with civil society groups - is cooperation rather than condemnation.

Is the fundamental human right to food a reality in Canada?

The January consultation was an opportunity for human rights advocates, including Food Secure Canada, to provide their evaluation of the government’s performance in advance of Canada’s review before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). Professor Emeritus Graham Riches prepared a commentary for Food Secure Canada on the Government’s report. 

Food is a human right and Canada has an international legal obligation to respect it. Countries who have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, must guarantee progressive improvement on the realization the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food. 

“The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.” General Comment 12 (CESCR)

It requires the possibility either to feed oneself directly from productive land or other natural resources, or to purchase food, and includes various elements (availability, accessibility, adequacy). 

Source: Household Food Insecurity in Canada, 2013 by PROOF

With four million Canadians currently experiencing some level of food insecurity including 1.15 million children, Canada is bound to come under critical scrutiny by the expert committee. Food insecurity levels are twice as high among minority and indigenous populations, and have reached crisis proportions in the North.

Source: Household Food Insecurity in Canada, 2013 by PROOF

In addition, the overt hostility of the Government of Canada shown to the UN human rights system, and notably to Olivier De Schutter the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food when he came in 2012, will require some careful diplomacy, similar to the “Canada is back” operation at the Climate Change COP21 in Paris last year.

Is Canada back on track with human rights?

During his visit in 2012, Olivier De Schutter was undiplomatically dismissed by several Government ministers at the end of his official mission to Canada after he expressed concerns about the government’s failure to address widespread hunger in so affluent a country as Canada.

Food Secure Canada is hopeful that the tone and the substance of Canada’s engagement with the UN will be different this time around. Like many other organizations, FSC wrote a letter to the Committee underlining our concerns and sharing our optimism about the new opening for a national food policy that will recognize food as a fundamental human right. In addition, we suggested the committee examine the very thoughtful recommendations that were put forward by the UN Special Rapporteur four years ago.

Although Olivier De Schutter’s mandate as Special rapporteur on the right to food finished in 2014 (he was replaced by Hilal Elver), he now sits on the UN Expert Committee that will be reviewing Canada’s record!  It will be great to have such expertise on the Committee, in addition to many Canadian NGOs who are making the trek to Geneva to testify. 

Based on the Eat Think Vote's survey responses during federal election campaign, Canada’s new government does appear to have a genuine interest in tackling the obstacles to accessible, healthy sustainable food in Canada. 

Food Secure Canada will be working with the Social Rights Advocacy Centre and Canada Without Poverty, amongst others, to ensure that food is not forgotten.

Some ways you can get involved with us: