03/06/2013 05:32 EST | Updated 05/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Canada Must Respect the Right to Food

From personal attacks to commendable recommendations -- this is the legacy of a UN final report on the right to food in Canada. Prepared Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, following his mission to Canada last May, the report illustrates that current programs and policies are not enough to fend-off food insecurity felt by millions and calls for greater federal action.

De Schutter came to Canada to assess the level of food insecurity in the country and review Canada's efforts to fulfill the right to food. As a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, Canada is obligated to allocate a "maximum of available resources" to implement human rights including the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to food. Invited by the federal government, this was not only De Schutter's first official trip to Canada -- it was also his first trip to a developed nation. He was able to meet with political leaders at all levels of government, civil society and community groups, persons living in poverty, representatives from Aboriginal populations, and food producers in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta.

What De Schutter found is that while some local programs are beneficial, a lack of a coordinated plan has left too many hungry:

  • Almost two million people in Canada are food insecure; this includes 1 in 10 families
  • 59% of people on social assistance do not have enough money to eat
  • Off-reserve, 1 in 5 Aboriginal households are food insecure, three times the national average of 7.7%
  • Housing costs are a key contributor to food insecurity
  • The greatest food insecurity is in northern Canada; Nunavut is most shocking with 70% of people food insecure
  • Low minimum wages and social assistance rates are part of the problem

De Schutter also noted that considering Canada's wealth, "the current situation does not justify refraining from taking action that could guarantee the right to food." Canada has one of the lowest deficit to GDP and debt to GDP ratios, which De Schutter felt gives Canada, "the fiscal space to address the basic human needs of its most marginalized and disempowered."

The man did his homework.

On March 4 De Schutter presented this final report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Recommendations included developing a national food strategy, working with provincial/territorial, municipal and Aboriginal governments to better coordinate food policy, and monitoring the level of food security in Canada clearly so that programs can be more effectively implemented.

Reiterating his findings to the UN, De Schutter found support from Canadian human rights organizations that were in attendance. Bruce Porter from the Social Rights Advocacy Centre, presented a statement to the Human Rights Council in support of De Schutter's report:

"Canada has clearly failed to meet that obligation with respect to the right to adequate food. However, if Canada would agree to take its human rights obligations seriously, to engage in good faith with UN procedures and to take on board the Special Rapporteur's recommendations, these human rights violations can be ended."

The statement was signed by other Canadian organizations including Amnesty International Canada, Canada Without Poverty, the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation and Action Canada on Population and Development and Food Secure Canada.

Unfortunately the Canadian government is not on side with De Schutter and in their response to the report were on the attack making accusations about De Schutter's apparent "regrettable lack of understanding of Canada's constitutional framework". The Government also expressed "concern" about the Special Rapporteurs "unfounded criticisms" and stated that they felt De Schutter had gone beyond his mandate.

As an independent actor representing the United Nations and tasked with promoting the right to food, examining current obstacles to food security and providing recommendations to ensure everyone is free from hunger, De Schutter's report was a welcome assessment of Canada's issues in addressing hunger. Clearly the news was not easy for the federal government to hear, but one can't simply ignore reality.

In an interview with the Canadian Press De Schutter commented that he, "present[s] a mirror to the government. I look at the evidence. I go through the numbers. I listen to people. And I report to the government about what I've been seeing".

Special Rapporteurs help to ensure that human rights are respected by offering objective analysis and concrete solutions to all countries they visit. Canada has the opportunity to critically re-visit food policy through the lens of human rights by considering the recommendations made by De Schutter. Leading by example will not only benefit hungry people in Canada, but also show leadership on the world stage.