Thursday, April 23, 2009

Being the sharp end of a stick

It felt a little bit like lining up at Tim Hortons, waiting in anticipation for that jolt of morning java.

Early this morning some 20 Canadians representing a range of civil society groups who are here at the Durban Review Conference entered from different sides of the massive UN building.

Everyone was very focused, but not on getting a Tim’s coffee. We were looking for the correct pathway in the maze known as Building A that would take us to the 6th floor.

We had a meeting with the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Kyung-wha Kang.

We figured, just because Canada has failed to send an official delegation to this important conference, should not hold us back from going to the top and telling the High Commissioners Office what we know to be happening in the struggle to eliminate racism and discrimination.

Our crew was warmly greeted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Our objective, given Canada’s official absence, was to share a few cases of the persistence of racism and discrimination in Canada.

Our crew filled a long boardroom table with representatives from the African Legal Clinic, Canadian Arab Federation, Canadian Council of Churches, Canadian Labour Congress, Council of Agencies Serving South Asians, and Independent Jewish Voices.

Margaret Parsons, from ALC outlined civil society groups came together from around the world to participate in workshops before the DRC began. She noted these events were useful and enriching but also difficult due to a shortage of resources and official connection to the DRC.

It was tough, because part of a strategy to try and tank this conference by colonial nations was to withhold thier funding obligations. Had member nations provided their obligatory funding to ensure comprehensive civil society participation the difficulties could have been overcome.

Member nations that opposed this conference either withheld or provided their funding commitments at the last possible minute, thus making organizing efforts for the victims of racism to be present and fully engaged in the process extra ordinarily difficult.

The High Commissioner herself had originally stated this fact to a briefing of all NGO’s who are here just yesterday. Chalk up yet another way to quash the efforts of civil society to contribute to eliminate racism.

After Margaret spoke, members from our crew gave examples of how racism persists in real terms in Canada.

Brian Barron, who is part of our delegation and from CUPE’s Aboriginal Senate, spoke about the situation for aboriginal communities in Canada.

His inputs are also on this blog. See Aboriginal Realities shared with UN High Commission

On behalf of the Congress I noted that all of us are struggling to resist government policies and programs that are embedding systemic racism in the workplace and social fabric.

For example, Canada has joined too many other OECD countries in changing their immigration policies to favour temporary vs. permanent residents. As of 2008, for example the number of migrant workers exceeded 250,000 while the number of permanent resident’s barely topped 240,000.

The result of a series of policy shift creates a disposable and largely racialized workforce. Close to 40% of migrant workers coming to Canada are from countries that are predominantly racialized.

These workers endure inadequate workplace protections, face fraud at the hands of unscrupulous employers/labour brokers and some are victims of human trafficking.

Others simply die on the job like 27 year old Chinese scaffolder, Liu Hongliang and 33 year old electrical engineer Ge Genbao.

Both were killed and 4 others injured in April 2007, when the roof of a massive oil container they were working on collapsed on a CNR /Horizon tar sands project.

Just this week and after two years, the Province of Alberta finally announced the company was now facing 53 charges under the provinces occupational health and safety Act.

The charges describe a situtaion where workers --in this case migrant workers from China, are placed in an unsafe workplace. I wonder if the migrant workers families will ever see justice….

We pointed out that migrant workers and newcomers without status are often trapped in vulnerable relationships with employers. Now that our economy is tanking, we are witnessing large and targeted deportations of migrant workers.

According to a post in the Bullet the very recent workplace raids of April 2-3, 2009 resulted in the arrest of nearly 100 refugee claimants, live-in caregivers, temporary workers and non-status people who have fallen outside of the strict and official compliance with immigration regulations.

41 of the nearly 100 arrested were tricked into signing waivers that removed their right to a hearing and a chance at protection from deportation. They were promised a quick return to Canada and deported on Sunday, 19 April.

At last count, 29 had been removed and many more were awaiting travel documents. It is extremely doubtful these migrants will ever be allowed back into Canada. The last time pressure tactics on this scale were used was during Project Thread in 2003 when 23 Pakistani men were picked up on terrorism charges that were never laid and most were swiftly deported.

That migrant workers are racialized and so easily disposed of, stands as very current example of why Canada would fail the test this UN Review conference is posing for it member nations.

We begin to talk about how we can work with the UN High Commissioner’s Office to hold Canada accountable.

The conference is winding down now, as is our meeting. The Deputy High Commissioner points out the UN office will be following up with those countries –ours included that chose not to participate and will be urging them to get them back to the table.

We agree to work on this project together.

Likely it will take more than the jolt a cup of coffee provides, in this case we will have to be the sharp of the stick to make things happen back home. So what else is new for activists?

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