Is Canada Doing Enough to Promote Human Rights?

Perhaps you’ve never really thought about human rights. Maybe you've pondered it in general or abstract way, but maybe never in the context of Canada’s role in ensuring human rights. With the recent media focus on the refugee crisis and the upcoming Canadian election, human rights was the topic for this year’s Keith Davey Forum on Public Affairs. This event really got me thinking.

The Keith Davey Forum on Public Affairs is a public event at the University of Toronto, hosted by the Association of Political Science Students, The Department of Political Science and Victoria College. This event was initiated in the 90s in honour of the former Canadian senator, and addresses a new question every year based on the changing issues of modern day politics and society. There are usually two guest speakers with a moderator to ask those difficult questions we all love to hear academics debate on. This year’s speakers were Lloyd Axworthy, our former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Professor Charli Carpenter, from the University of Machusetts-Amherst. Professor Wendy Wong, who works across institutions like the Trudeau Centre for Peace and the Munk School of Global Affairs served as the moderator.

Lloyd Axworthy began his introduction with a point I try and keep in mind as I continue my political science degree: “Our job in political life was to burn brighter.” Our, as in Canadians and our government. This was an inspiring opening for students, but of course, politicians always bring us back to reality. 

Axworthy continued by telling us that, from his point of view, Canada has severely and substantially withdrawn from the field of human rights. Our contribution is less because nobody listens to us and we don’t listen to anybody. We do not communicate effectively. He says that we had a voice, and that we were listened to. We mobilized ideas such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), but we have since grown silent.

The next guest speaker, Professor Charli Carpenter, said that she could not adequately weight in on this question as an American. However, she was able to compare her home to ours. Using empirical data and a touch of humour, she demonstrated how America constantly lags behind Canada in pretty much every field when it comes to foreign aid and human rights help.

But she threw out another great question that may made me rethink our position as first in this so-called race: what metric system do we use to measure Canada’s human rights contribution? If we are comparing our ideals and reputation against our past and present self, then – you'd better brace yourself, we’re doing less now than we have done in the past.

These cynical viewpoints mean a lot when we think about our values through a whole country’s perspective, because every single individual is what makes up this country. Our actions are what will push our country in whichever direction we choose (think voting day!). At this point in the forum, I was left feeling concerned about what to do next. But the speakers did not leave it there. Because, as stated before, our goal – and maybe not even just in political life, but life as a citizen itself – is to burn brighter.

Lloyd Axworthy finished on a very strong thought. We need to go back to the values of the Charter of Rights – the founding document in Canada that showed we care, we value and we respect each other.

Charli Carpenter presented concepts such as “moral entrepreneurship,” grounding his arguments in morality and practicality to show that these two things put together are what lead us to simple, yet brilliant ideas like using private airplanes to get refugees out of war torn zones and how to make that happen

Both emphasized the point that we need to start mobilizing. Leadership implies that the leader is willing to do what he or she is asking of others. Humanitarian intervention can be peaceful. We can find a better way to organize peacekeepers. We can find better ways to start up Canadian diplomacy once again. Yes, we’re lacking in leadership at the moment. But with two superpowers (arguably the United States and Russia) butting heads, it is up to the middle powers (again, arguably countries like Canada) to stand up, to inspire and to take a leadership role. And it starts with us.

So, they asked, what will you do?  

The inspiration and faith put into us by generations older and younger, into each other and into those who are beyond our borders can only begin with ideology. I never realized that an hour and a half of my afternoon could be so moving. If anything, to be sitting with people who just want to do good things, and who are willing to put forth the work and effort is enough to take from this forum. And that’s why I recommend this event. No matter what it is – and it will be something – whatever you take away from this forum will leave you thinking about the great potential you have to make this world a little better.