Canada: Beacon of Progress?

by Nathan Olsen

In comparison with its boisterous neighbour, Canada is often seen as a country full of well-meaning, polite and respectable people. This comparison tends to refer to America and Canada’s different political climates as well; Canada, with its universal healthcare and tighter gun control, puts the rest of North America to shame in terms of progressive policy. However, simply because Canada has a better record comparatively speaking doesn’t mean that it is the beacon of progress some people make it out to be. To demonstrate this point, I’ll be looking at Canada’s promotion of human rights in contrast to its treatment of indigenous women.

This past Monday, Canada launched a new $10 bill emblazoned with the face of civil rights activist Viola Desmond. Famous for her arrest due to refusing to leave a whites-only section of a theatre in 1946, Desmond’s life and legacy is very much one worth celebrating. On the other side of the $10 bill is a picture of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, the only museum of its kind in the world – dedicated to preserving and educating people about the fundamental importance of human rights both throughout history and in the present day. It seems, then, that Canada is a world-leading country when it comes to both the political progress it has achieved and its recognition of people and institutions whose purpose has been to establish and enshrine human rights at the core of political debate.

However, the political situation in Canada is not quite as rosy as it seems. Amnesty International and other prominent human rights advocacy groups have recently brought otherwise ignored issues into the national and international spotlight. One such issue is the coerced sterilization of indigenous women. Around sixty women have pursued a class action lawsuit against doctors and officials working in Saskatchewan, seeking some form of compensation for the violation of their human rights. As The Guardian reports, ‘the women allege their fallopian tubes were tied, burned or cut in public hospitals when the women were unable to give sufficient consent…some of the complainants have said they were told they would not be allowed to see their new-born child unless they agreed to the procedure’. This is not new, with allegations dating back to at least 2015, yet the emerging lawsuit brings further coverage of the issue as well as the hope of justice for the victims involved. Similar issues have been found in Mexico, Chile and Peru yet the fact that such human rights violations are being perpetrated in Canada – a country that prides itself on the advocacy of human rights – shows that developed, Western countries also have human rights issues to deal with. In light of these recent developments, alongside Canada’s historically poor record with regard to the treatment of indigenous peoples, Canadian politicians can come across as hypocritical. Money with activists on and museums dedicated to idealistic notions appear fairly hollow when human rights violations are being perpetrated in your own country against your own people.