Human rights during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond

On June 18, 2020, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation held its second Emergence webinar, which focused on human rights issues amid the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.


Hosted by Robert Steiner, 2019 Mentor of the Foundation, the panel discussions featured Christian Nadeau (2019 Fellow), Margarida Garcia (2004 Scholar), The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin (2020 Mentor) and Mary Anne Chambers (2018 Mentor) as panelists. Carlo Charles (2019 Scholar) and Robert Leckey (2003 Scholar) provided closing remarks.



Collective Action for Human Rights and Dignity

Margarida Garcia remarked that, by restricting our freedom of movement and association, the COVID-19 pandemic has given us a glimpse of prisoners’ deprivation of liberty, which most people are indifferent to in normal circumstances. She expressed the hope that the experience of confinement and the pandemic in general will feed the collective will to make the world more just and equitable and to demand reform of the penal system.


Christian Nadeau highlighted that the majority of health care workers who have been on the front lines treating people who have contracted COVID-19 often come from more vulnerable groups, including many who are immigrants. Similarly, Mary Anne Chambers observed that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on different populations. Specifically, she pointed to the fact that African Americans, people of color and First Nations communities suffer from numerous inequities which have led to the effects of the pandemic being more acute for them.


Mary Anne Chambers also pointed to the way in which policies are sometimes developed without proper social considerations because dominant economic interests are prioritized. She stressed that as we emerge from COVID-19, we must examine what we have valued and undervalued as a society.


While such inequities and racism have been addressed in the media, it is not enough to spark the necessary structural changes, according to Christian Nadeau. He underscored that racism is a systemic and institutional problem that must be perceived as a collective issue rather than an individual one, stressing the need for social transformation.


In his closing remarks, Carlo Charles emphasized that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed structural inequalities which call for government and civil society to adopt a pluralistic post COVID-19 vision which he said will require “uncomfortable conversations about institutional racism.”


The justice system and rights

Asked about access to justice in the context of the pandemic, The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, who is a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, observed that despite the judicial system’s lack of resources, there has been a rapid effort to use technology to provide justice for urgent cases during the COVID-19 crisis. She said that COVID-19 has led to a realization that “we have to ramp up our system and spend more on justice.”


Again in the context of the pandemic, she underscored that individuals’ fundamental rights are strongly protected in Canada, but can be limited for the sake of upholding the public interest. She observed that the COVID-19 crisis has revealed the fault lines based on race in our social structures, which were always there but not being addressed. She said that going forward “we have got to take this seriously”.


Robert Leckey reminded us that the socio-economic issues discussed in the webinar are not new; COVID-19 has simply laid bare many of the inequalities that people in society across different demographics have been facing for many years. Moving forward, it is important to demand changes to our legislation and to value the basic needs of people alongside economic objectives.