By Janet Keeping, Leader, Green Party of Alberta
The passing of Nelson Mandela, one of recent history’s greatest advocates for freedom and human rights, weighs heavy on the heart. But it also presents an opportunity to consider what it means to respect human rights and dignity as Canadians and Albertans – not just in South Africa but right here at home.
Do we honour Mandela’s legacy when we let children in foster care die? When the government denies the public access to information about those deaths? When seniors rot in dirty diapers in publicly-funded facilities and the companies operating those institutions face no consequences, neither losing their contracts nor facing criminal charges? When government makes it illegal to call for organized action to protect workers’ rights? All these human rights abuses are occurring in Alberta as I write under a provincial government led by Alison Redford a self-styled “human rights lawyer.”
The litmus test for whether a society respects human rights is how it treats the vulnerable – the poor, the very young and very old, the sick, the incarcerated, Aboriginal people, and so on. The powerful have the means – by definition, they have the power – to protect themselves. But those who cannot adequately fend for themselves need the protection afforded by clear rules which are consistently enforced. Words alone – whether passionate political rhetoric or written into legislation – are not enough. At the end of the day, human suffering is averted when we act – actually do things – to protect people from harm.
How are we doing in Alberta these days on that score? Pretty poorly, it would seem. It isn’t just that the kids and old folks in care of the provincial government are being neglected, some of them to the point of dying, but we have a government that doesn’t want us to know that these human catastrophes are taking place.
Unless their families divulge their names and personal circumstances, of course the public doesn’t need to know victims’ personal details, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have ready access to the facts about what is being done to our fellow Albertans in our name by the provincial government. We should know, because if we don’t, how do we act so as to protect them from harm?
Consider this example. About two years ago a 14 year-old boy living in a Calgary foster home was convicted of sexually assaulting a much younger child living in the same foster home. The victim was four or five at the time of the conviction; he was three when the sexual assaults started. How this horrific abuse could take place, not in a large institution, which would be unforgiveable enough, but in a home, was a natural question. When journalists inquired, for example, how often the particular foster home had been inspected, they were told by provincial government officials that information could not be divulged in order to protect the privacy of the children in care there.
What nonsense! Revealing the address of the foster home could perhaps harm the children still living there. But the children’s privacy could not be violated if we were told how often and how recently the particular foster home had been inspected. That is precisely the kind of information we need to hold the government to account.
We have a right to know such things but more urgently we have a duty to try to get this information because we can’t protect the rights of children in foster care – a vulnerable group if there ever was one – without it. A government that does its best to conceal what is being done (or not done) in our names is not a government that respects human rights (or the legacy of Nelson Mandela to make the point explicitly) even if the premier calls herself a human rights lawyer.
As Nelson Mandela knew so well, there will be no freedom without effective protection for human rights. Protection for the traditional civil liberties, such as freedom of expression, is also necessary. It is no surprise that a favourite tool of every repressive government is the banning of speech. And thus we see the true colours of the current provincial government with this fall’s adoption of Bill 45 which creates several speech-related offences around the encouragement of strikes in the public sector. Another classic was adoption of section 11.1 of the Human Rights Act a few years ago which needlessly stifles the discussion of religion, human sexuality and sexual orientation in Alberta schools.
It’s always hard to stomach hypocrisy but with Premier Redford going to South Africa to attend events marking Mandela’s death, it’s particularly galling. The respect afforded human rights is always to be measured by what a person does, not by what he or she says, and what this premier and her government do on the human rights front is shameful.
This opinion piece first appeared on the Troy Media website: www.troymedia.com