By Sarah Schmidt, Postmedia News May 2, 2012 OTTAWA — Canada has the dubious distinction of being the first wealthy nation in the world to face a probe by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food.
The 11-day mission begins Saturday, and will take Olivier De Schutter to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg and Edmonton, as well as remote aboriginal communities in Manitoba and Alberta. Until now, the independent expert appointed by the UN's Human Rights Council has been dispatched to countries such as South Africa, Cuba and Lebanon to probe those nations' records on ensuring people have access to food.
Canada, well known as a major food exporter, is the first developed country facing a probe since the UN created the position in 2000, and the report on the mission, to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council, will be part of Canada's official international human rights record.
In addition to examining the challenges facing aboriginal people, De Schutter, a professor of law based in Belgium, will probe food supply chains in Canada and government policies and programs that affect the right to food. He will be meeting with aboriginal leaders and non-governmental organizations, as well as federal officials at Health Canada and in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. While in Ottawa, he will also meet with NDP leader Thomas Mulcair.
"What we can say about Canada is that our food system is broken," said Diana Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada, a non-profit that lobbies for better public access to nutritious and sustainably-produced food.
"There are two million Canadians in this country who regularly lack access to sufficient food. People who are living on government assistance often have to choose between paying the rent and paying for food, and that means they often can't make healthy food choices."
Bronson said she believes the dire situation in aboriginal communities puts Canada offside of its commitment under the UN's International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to make sure people have physical and economic access to adequate food.
"When we're lacking clean water on reserves across the country and food prices in the North are so notoriously high that people cannot afford to give milk to their kids, we're not realizing the right to food, we're not realizing the obligations under the covenant, so that's what (the Special Rapporteur) is going to be looking at here," Bronson added.
De Schutter's mission, characterized by the NDP's aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder as "shocking," comes after the Conservative government tabled a federal budget that included targeted cuts to aboriginal health initiatives.
In addition to eliminating funding for the National Aboriginal Health Organization, forcing it to shut its doors for good at the end of June, the Assembly of First Nations already has laid off staff involved in developing health policies and programs after the government reduced its funding by 40 per cent.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who represents Nunavut in the House of Commons and represented the district of Nattilik in the Nunavut Legislative Assembly before entering federal politics, has defended the cuts, saying the government's priority is to protect primary health-care services in aboriginal communities.
Canada is the first developed country to get a visit from the UN's Special Rapporteur on the right to food, who will report his findings to the UN Human Rights Council. Here is the list of the UN official's previous visits:
South Africa (2011)
Occupied Palestinian Territories (2003)