UN expert calls for substantial change in Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples

By Craig Benjamin, Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The United Nation’s top expert on the human rights of Indigenous peoples says Canada is facing a “crisis” which must be addressed.

James Anaya visited Canada this month as part of a fact-finding mission. At a press conference to conclude his visit, the Special Rapporteur said,

“The well-being gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada has not narrowed over the last several years, treaty and aboriginals claims remain persistently unresolved, and overall there appear to be high levels of distrust among aboriginal peoples toward government at both the federal and provincial levels.”

The Special Rapporteur went on to note that while “Canada consistently ranks near the top among countries with respect to human development standards… aboriginal people live in conditions akin to those in countries that rank much lower and in which poverty abounds.”

Some of the specific examples raised by the Special rapporteur included:

• “At least one in five aboriginal Canadians live in homes in need of serious repair, which are often also overcrowded and contaminated with mould.”

• “The suicide rate among Inuit and First Nations youth on reserve, at more than five times greater than other Canadians, is alarming.”

• “Aboriginal women are eight times more likely to be murdered than non-indigenous women.”

• “For over a decade, the Auditor General has repeatedly highlighted significant funding disparities between on-reserve services and those available to other Canadians.”

Like his predecessor, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, who carried out a research mission to Canada in 2004, Professor Anaya noted that while Canada has taken some important steps to address Indigenous rights, these measures have failed to fundamentally change the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada. He said that government measures “are insufficient, and have yet to fully respond to aboriginal peoples’ urgent needs, fully protect their aboriginal and treaty rights, or to secure relationships based on mutual trust and common purpose.”

The Special Rapporteur was originally scheduled to make a longer visit to Canada but the federal government changed the arrangements so that he would not be in Canada while Parliament was sitting.

Certainly, there is a stark contrast between the Special  Rapporteur’s concluding statement on Tuesday and the federal government’s Speech from the Throne on Wednesday.

The government has promised that it will work with First Nations to “to develop stronger, more effective, and more accountable on-reserve education systems,” “renew its efforts to address the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women,” and ensure that Indigenous peoples “have every opportunity to benefit” from the development of natural resources.

While these are all important directions, nothing in the Throne Speech indicated any willingness to give the rights of Indigenous peoples greater priority than in the past, dedicate the resources needed to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, or fulfill Canada’s obligation to advance such initiatives with the full participation of Indigenous peoples.

As the Special Rapporteur noted, “Aboriginal peoples’ concerns and well-being merit higher priority at all levels and within all branches of Government, and across all departments. Concerted measures, based on mutual understanding and real partnership with aboriginal peoples, through their own representative institutions, are vital to the long-term resolution of these issues.”