“If what you’re saying is true, then how can we explain Canada’s image as a leader on human rights?” This was the question posed to me by a member of the highest UN body for combatting racism taking part in the review of Canada’s compliance with an international treaty on racial discrimination.
This came after my comments about how Canada’s use of incarceration as a drug-control measure has resulted in Black and Indigenous people being disproportionately charged, prosecuted, and incarcerated for drug-related offences.
On Aug. 31, the Committee released a report stating its concerns over the continued racist impact of Canada’s drug policies — the first time a UN human rights body has ever drawn the link between the criminalization of people who use drugs and racism in its recommendations to Canada.
To rectify this, the expert body urged Canada to re-examine its drug policies and provide evidence-based alternatives to incarceration for dealing with non-violent drug offences, including by implementing the 2015 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which called on governments to eliminate the overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples in custody and to amend the Criminal Code to allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences.
In Geneva earlier this summer, the Canadian delegation explained that it has taken steps in reversing the previous government’s approach to drug policy — and credit is due for the progress made. Canada, however continues to wage a war on people who use drugs by relying heavily on criminal law to deal with drug use, maintaining mandatory minimum sentences for many drug offences, and throwing people who use drugs behind bars — where essential health services are sorely lacking. And this war has been disproportionately waged against racialized groups in Canada.
According to just one set of data from the Toronto police, Black people with no history of criminal convictions were three times more likely to be arrested for possession of small amounts of drugs than white people with similar backgrounds. In Canada, Black and Indigenous women are also more likely than white women to be in prison for drug offences — a staggering 53 per cent of Black women in federal prisons are serving sentences for a drug-related offence.
When people who use drugs are treated as criminals, they are also alienated from vital health services. This, too, has a disproportionate impact on racialized communities. Nearly half of new HIV infections among Indigenous people, for example, are attributed to injection drug use — more than four times the estimate for the population as a whole.
And in prison, where Indigenous and Black people are overrepresented, those incarcerated are denied access to needle and syringe programs despite more than two decades of evidence of the success of such health services in numerous prisons in multiple countries — and despite rates of HIV and hepatitis C behind bars that are many times higher than they are in the wider community, and higher still among Indigenous prisoners.
Importantly, the Committee recognized this human rights violation and called on Canada to implement key health and harm reduction measures, which include needle and syringe programs across all prisons — something we have advocated for 25 years, and which is also recommended by the Correctional Investigator of Canada, the Canadian and Ontario Medical Association, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and various UN agencies responding to HIV.
Whatever reputation for respecting and supporting human rights Canada may have in some quarters internationally, the reality is much still needs to change — including when it comes to punitive drug laws that are profoundly damaging that disproportionately harmful to racialized communities.
Recommendations from a growing body of health and human rights experts to consider decriminalizing drugs other than cannabis, including to help stem the country’s ongoing opioid overdose crisis, have been roundly rejected, and a record number of people who use drugs continue to die across the country. The Committee’s report — a sobering reality check on racism in Canada — offers yet another very real reason to turn that around.
In Geneva, on the day of Canada’s review, the Committee member had asked me why the evidence presented before the UN by civil society contrasted so sharply with its global standing as a human rights leader.
I explained that, while there have been encouraging signs of a sorely needed new approach to drug policy by the federal government, there has been no overhaul, no watershed moment, and no paradigm shift — at least not yet.
In five years, the next time Canada is reviewed by the UN anti-racism body, I hope to have a better answer.
Nicholas Caivano is a lawyer and policy analyst with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.