Harper ministers blast “patronizing” UN envoy for “ridiculous” right-to-food visit
"Canada has no excuse to have millions of people who cannot feed themselves adequately"
OTTAWA — The Harper government struck back at a United Nations envoy Wednesday, saying he was “ill-informed” and “patronizing” and had no business “lecturing” Canada about hunger and poverty.
The terse comments, delivered by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, came after Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, told Postmedia News that people shouldn’t be so “self-righteous” about how great Canada is, given how many families are unable to meet their daily food needs.
“It’s not because the country is a wealthy country that there are no problems. In fact, the problems are very significant and, frankly, this sort of self-righteousness about the situation being good in Canada is not corresponding to what I saw on the ground, not at all,” said De Schutter, pointing to up to 900,000 households and 2.5 million people in Canada who, he claims, are too poor to afford adequate diets.
Kenney shot back, saying De Schutter should butt out.
The UN “should focus its efforts on those countries where there is widespread hunger, widespread material poverty and not get into political exercises in developed democracies like Canada. We don’t think that’s a very intelligent use of their resources,” Kenney told reporters on Parliament Hill.
“I think this is completely ridiculous. Canada is one of the wealthiest, most democratic countries in the world. According to us, we believe that the UN should focus on development in countries where people are starving and we think it’s simply a waste of resources to come to Canada to give them political lecturing,” Kenney added.
De Schutter stood his ground when he faced reporters at the close of his 11-day mission to Canada, the first to a developed country.
“Well, of course it’s political. The right to food is about politics, it’s not about technicalities,” De Schutter said of Kenney’s analysis. “It’s a matter of principle and it’s a matter of political will. I think these comments are symptomatic of the very problem that is my duty to address and that my mission should indeed elicit such comments so that this becomes a national conversation at the highest level of government.”
The probe took De Schutter to Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg, where he held meetings about the challenges facing people on social assistance to pay for adequate housing and food. He also visited remote aboriginal communities in Manitoba and Alberta to see first-hand the living conditions, where people face very steep food prices and few economic opportunities.
“People are simply too poor to eat decently,” De Schutter said, concluding that Canada is not abiding by its international human-rights obligations and calling on Canada to develop a national food strategy “aimed at realizing the right to food.”
Aglukkaq, representing the riding of Nunavut, responded by calling De Schutter “ill-informed” and “patronizing” about the challenges facing aboriginals in Canada’s Arctic communities. She also said she was “disappointed” by her meeting with him and “insulted” that he “chose to study us, but chose not to visit us.”
The meeting, held after his news conference, was a last-minute addition to De Schutter’s schedule after the government said at the beginning of his mission that no cabinet ministers were available to meet him.
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair criticized the government’s response to De Schutter’s visit.
“We should be a model. Canada on the world stage has suffered enormously since the Conservatives came to power and this is another example,” he told reporters.
“I think Canada has no excuse to have millions of people who cannot feed themselves adequately. We are one of the richest countries in the world and it’s unacceptable that we have hundreds of thousands of elderly people who live in poverty and can’t feed themselves. It’s unacceptable that in a country as rich as Canada we have children who go to school on an empty stomach.
“Yes, it’s intolerable that there are still Third World conditions on our First Nations reserves like Attawapiskat.”
Liberal Interim leader Bob Rae added that the government should recognize the problem of poverty in Canada “rather than attacking the person who delivers the message.”
De Schutter’s final report, to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council next year, will form part of Canada’s official international human rights record.
Aglukkaq said that while she’ll review it, she pointed out that by “the United Nations’ own measure, Canada ranks sixth best of all the world’s countries on their human development index.”
with files from Tobi Cohen and Lee Berthiaume