A message to our politicians: take a stand on human rights

And they’re off! After months of speculation, the news many have been expecting finally materialized on Sunday when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Canadians will be heading to the polls on Sept. 20.

For my part, this is the first federal election since 2000 that I’m neither working on nor running in. Having exited the political arena less than a year ago, this is a poignant moment for me as a “recovering politician.” The frenzy that would’ve previously taken over my life with Sunday’s announcement is strangely missing. But what of the more than 1,500 candidates now taking to the front lines of Canadian democracy? Win or lose, they’re in for a 36-day roller coaster ride. But the most important question will only be answered in time: will it lead to a better future for our country?

Due to COVID-19 restrictions and the emergence of a fourth wave, candidates must find new ways to connect with voters as traditional door-knocking, larger rallies and town halls will be scaled back to manage risk. Despite these challenges, it’s imperative for politicians to go beyond slogans and sound bites to ensure a meaningful debate of vital domestic and international issues facing Canadians. Now more than ever, we ignore them at our peril.

To be sure, doing justice to these issues requires far more than this newspaper column. Without ignoring the critical importance of climate change, housing affordability and the public health response to COVID-19, to name but a few, I hope the defence of human rights, in Canada and abroad, has a central place in this campaign.

In Canada, the alarming rise in xenophobia targeting minorities underscores the need for all candidates to address racism in all its forms. They must tackle how hate is finding its way into our lives through the internet and social media. In the face of growing bigotry, harassment and even violence, Black, Jewish, Muslim and Asian Canadians are increasingly under threat.

Disturbingly, the generations-long human rights abuses perpetrated against Indigenous peoples continue. With a badge of dishonour, we stand by knowing that many communities lack clean drinking water, children don’t have access to proper education and mental health crises are skyrocketing. In recent months, the shocking discovery of thousands of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at former residential school sites have reminded Canadians of this shameful chapter in our history.

While we struggle to reconcile our nation’s past with the challenges of the present, we know safeguarding freedom and defending democracy doesn’t stop at Canada’s borders. Our prospective MPs should lead the way in taking a stand against the most egregious acts of persecution carried out abroad, especially in the Middle East and China.

Recent images of the Taliban recapturing Afghanistan underline a stark failure by the West. Twenty years of advancing the rights of women and girls there, a central focus of Canada’s engagement, now hangs in the balance. The Taliban’s penchant for misogyny and cruelty signals a shockingly dark road ahead.

Iran’s recently elected president, Ebrahim Raisi, is a war criminal with blood on his hands who reinforces the brutality of the country’s leadership. At home, the regime’s repression of its citizens, (women, LGBTQ, human rights defenders and others) is matched by its malign actions abroad. Notoriously, Tehran’s strong support of terrorist proxies — Hamas and Hezbollah — has led to deadly violence against civilians in Israel, Gaza and Lebanon.

China, true to form, persists with abhorrent human rights abuses on multiple fronts, including its genocide of Uyghurs and its brutal crackdown of democracy in Hong Kong. Most concerning to Canadians is the plight of three compatriots imprisoned by Beijing — Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig arbitrarily detained and prosecuted, and Robert Schellenberg given a punitive and unjust death sentence.

Defending human rights must be front and centre in the election campaign now underway. Candidates should recognize it as a unique opportunity to give voice to those who need it most — those suffering from hate, discrimination and injustice at home and abroad.

As a former member of Parliament and chair of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights, my message to those who will be elected on Sept. 20 is simple: carry these human rights issues with you when you enter Parliament in October. Remember their importance as core to your role as a Canadian parliamentarian. Look for opportunities to work with good people on both sides of the aisle. Seek them out.

Those suffering from human rights abuses deserve parliamentarians of all stripes working together to make Canada and the world a better place. If they do that, this snap election will have been well worth it.