Groups take concerns about free expression in Canada to UN

Every four years, each United Nations member state stands for a review of its human rights record at a Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Canada is up for its next review in 2013.

Every four years, each United Nations member state stands for a review of its human rights record at a Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Canada is up for its next review in 2013.

Five Canadian organizations – Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), Centre for Law and Democracy, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), Lawyers' Rights Watch Canada (LRWC), and PEN Canada, have announced a submission to this review that raises concerns about Canada’s record on free expression.

“Internationally, Canada is generally regarded as a healthy and well-functioning democracy, with a strong record on human rights,” the submission says. “To a large extent, this reputation is well deserved…. Nonetheless, there are important areas where Canada’s legal framework fails to give full effect to internationally protected human rights.”

Specifically, the submission points to concerns about:

Protecting confidential sources: Canada has no statutory rules protecting journalists’ confidential sources, and should enact legislation creating a strong presumption in favour of protection, the paper recommends.

Mistreatment of journalists: Causes for concern include numerous reports of police deleting journalists’ photographs at the G-20 summit demonstrations in Toronto and the arrest of blogger Charles Leblanc while covering demonstration in Saint John in 2006. Public officials and police should be trained to respect freedom of expression and journalists’ rights.

Defamation: The sections of the Criminal Code that criminalize degamation should be repealed, the paper recommends, all provinces should pass laws to prevent what are known as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) and corporations should be able to recover only actual financial losses in defamation cases.

The right to information: The groups say Canada’s Access to Information Act, seen as a world leader when passed in 1982, is now years behind newer legislation in other countries, and calls for consultations aimed at bringing it into line with international standards. It also says public authorities should improve their compliance with the spirit of the law, and Canada should recognize a freestanding constitutional right to information.

Whistleblower protection: Citing the  cases of Richard Colvin, who raised concerns about Afghan prisoners being handed over to torture, and Health Canada officials who were dismissed after raising concerns about drug safety, the paper says the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner should be given more powers, the scope of the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act should be expanded to cover the entire public sector – including the RCMP, armed forces and CSIS – and senior government officials should respect the spirit of the act and not launch politically motivated attacks on whistleblowers as some did in Colvin’s case.

Access to the internet: The groups say Bill C-30, which requires internet service providers to collect large amounts of data about their customers and make it available to police without a warrant, should be scrapped, or amended to require warrants for any online surveillance. It also calls on the government to expand internet access and use among rural First Nations communities.

Restrictions on freedom of assembly:  “The actions of officials and police officers during protests in recent years have called into question the strength of Canada’s commitment to freedom of assembly,” says the paper. It refers particularly to “kettling” of protesters at the G-20 summit in Toronto and to treatment of demonstrators during student protests in Montreal this year. It recommends repeal of Ontario’s Public Works Protection Act (used to arrest demonstrators at the G-20) and Quebec’s new Bill 78, and says no Canadian government should pass laws “unduly restrictive of freedom of assembly.” It also calls for an end to kettling and enhanced training for police and other officials.

The Ottawa Citizen reported on the submission Friday.