James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples has completed an official, eight-day visit to Canada on October 15 with a press conference where he reported on his initial observations. He had harsh words for Canadian government policy. "From all I have learned, I can only conclude that Canada faces a crisis when it comes to the situation of indigenous peoples of the country," he said.
“Canada consistently ranks near the top among countries with respect to human development standards, and yet amid this wealth and prosperity, aboriginal people live in conditions akin to those in countries that rank much lower and in which poverty abounds.”
Anaya presented a list of immediate recommendations to the federal government. He will prepare a lengthy report of his findings that will be presented to the UN’s Human Rights Council next year.
Anaya’s main recommendations are described in the only substantive news article on his press conference to be published in Canada, in the print edition of the Ottawa Citizen. His immediate recommendations include:
- Granting an extension to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that is examining the history of the residential school policy that dates back more than one century. He says the extension should last “as long as may be necessary”. The Commission’s mandate expires on July 1, 2014, but its work has been obstructed and delayed because the federal government has refused to divulge extensive documentation about residential schools.
- Slowing a “rush forward” with planned legislation this fall to reform the Aboriginal education system. He says there is “profound distrust” among First Nations over the proposed First Nation Education Act. It will set standards for teaching staff, curriculum and students. Aboriginal leaders are concerned the act will impose standards that disregard Indigenous language and culture and that education funding will not be increased. They want immediate increases to education funding, but Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt says there will be no funding increases considered until the new act is passed.
- Establishing a public inquiry into the cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women, whose numbers are estimated at more than 600. The federal government has flatly rejected this, and is ignoring calls from international organizations and provincial governments on the matter.
- Treating the housing situation on First Nations reserves and Inuit communities “with the urgency it deserves”. He says housing conditions are unacceptable and it is “abundantly clear” that funding for aboriginal housing is “woefully inadequate.”
- Adopting a much less “adversarial” approach to dealing with aboriginal land claims and treaty disputes.
- Recognizing that “resource extraction” should not occur on lands subject to aboriginal claims without “adequate consultations” and the “free, prior and informed consent” of the Aboriginals affected.
Anaya noted that one in five Aboriginal people in Canada live in homes in need of serious repair. Many homes are also seriously overcrowded and contaminated with mould.
He noted that the suicide rate among Inuit and First Nations youth on reserve territories is more than five times greater than other Canadians, a situation he termed “alarming”. Aboriginal women are eight times more likely to be murdered than non-Aboriginal women, and Indigenous peoples face disproportionately high incarceration rates.
According to a report earlier this year by Howard Sapers, director of Canada’s Office of the Correctional Investigator, Aboriginal people in Canada comprise four per cent of the population but nearly 25 per cent of the country’s prison population. He found nearly a 40 per cent increase in the aboriginal incarcerated population between 2001-02 and 2010-11. Aboriginal inmates are sentenced to longer terms, and spend more time in segregation and maximum security. They are less likely to be granted parole and are more likely to have parole revoked for minor problems.
Anaya spent one day in each of the western Canadian provinces. He visited First Nations communities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. In Winnipeg, he was greeted with a ceremonial dance by hundreds of Aboriginal people. The greeting took place in the largest intersection of the city center, at the intersection of Portage and Main streets.
In British Columbia, he spent an entire day meeting individuals and delegations at the Musqueam First Nation territory in the Vancouver region.
This CTV Television News report detailed his visit to Pukatawagan in northern Manitoba. There, he observed first-hand the difficult housing conditions that are typical in many First Nations communities. (Incredibly, some 2,000 residents of several First Nations communities in Manitoba that were flooded out of their homes in the spring of 2011 are still living in exile in motel accommodations in Winnipeg.)
One indication of the apparent intent of federal and provincial governments to ignore Anaya’s recommendations for consultation on resource extraction projects, including oil and natural gas in Alberta and British Columbia, is their mad scramble revealed in recent news reports to override opposition to shipping tar sands oil to the BC coast for export. The Globe and Mail is reporting the relentless push of the federal government for pipeline approval, while the Vancouver Sun reports yesterday the incredible threat by an Alberta/BC government working group that if tar sands pipelines are not approved, then large quantities of bitumen will flow to the coast via rail.
All the more poignant, then, James Anaya’s observation at his press conference that if meaningful consultation with Aboriginal Canadians does not begin to take place, “the path forward is going to be a rocky one.”
You can read James Anaya's preliminary report to the Canadian government following his official visit to the country on his UN Special Rapporteur website. Find it here.