Deplorable housing conditions in Attawapiskat First Nation, above, helped put Canada's poorest aboriginals on the international and United Nations radar.

U.N.: Canada Continues Discrimination Against Indigenous Peoples

Gale Courey Toensing
3/14/12

The federal government of Canada has not addressed the issue of persistent poverty among Indigenous Peoples, nor has it implemented the right to free, prior and informed consent before undertaking projects that affect them or their lands, a United Nations body has found.

Those critiques of the Canadian government’s failure to address continuing racial discrimination against the country’s aboriginal and minority populations were among two dozen “concerns and recommendations” cited by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). CERD monitors states’ compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, one of the six major international human rights treaties. Each U.N. member country is reviewed cyclically.

CERD released its concluding report on racial discrimination in Canada on March 9, following a review of Canada’s self-assessment and so-called shadow reports from more than three dozen First Nations and non-governmental organizations. Hearings were held at the U.N. in Geneva on February 22 and 23. Many of the recommendations in the new report were made previously and remain unaddressed since Canada’s last review, in 2007–2008.

Chief Perry Bellegarde of Little Black Bear First Nation, in the province of Saskatchewan, who was among the First Nations representatives to participate in the Geneva hearings, welcomed the report.

“I was pleasantly surprised because a lot of the points raised were issues we talked about in Geneva,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. Among the many issues raised by indigenous leaders was the discrepancy in the U.N.’s quality of life index (also called the human development index) between Indigenous Peoples and Canadians.

“Canada is rated number six, but if you apply the same statistics to Indigenous Peoples we end up being number sixty-three, so there’s a great socioeconomic gap between indigenous peoples and the rest of Canadian society,” Bellegarde said.

CERD recommended that Canada eliminate “the persistent levels of poverty among aboriginal peoples and the persistent marginalization and difficulties faced by them in respect of employment, housing, drinking water, health and education, as a result of structural discrimination whose consequences are still present.”

Other key issues that indigenous leaders raised were the lack of consultation and resource revenue sharing. The committee reported its concern that “aboriginal peoples are not always consulted for projects conducted on their lands or which affect their rights and that treaties with aboriginal peoples are not fully honored or implemented.”

CERD told Canada “to implement in good faith the right to consultation and to free, prior and informed consent of aboriginal peoples whenever their rights may be affected by projects carried out on their lands.”

Bellegarde said he was happy with CERD’s recommendation regarding treaties, which comprise Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution.

“And so the committee members quite pointedly asked Canada, ‘What mechanism do you have in place to implement Section 35 of your own Constitution?’ ” he said.

Canada must now develop a plan and a program to implement consultation and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in collaboration with indigenous peoples.

Perhaps most indicative of Canada’s intransigence in addressing racial discrimination is its continuing failure to provide the CERD with the information it needs to do its job.

“The Committee remains concerned at the absence in the State party’s report of recent reliable and comprehensive statistical data on the composition of its population including economic and social indicators disaggregated by ethnicity, including Aboriginal (indigenous) peoples, African Canadians and immigrants living in its territory, to enable it to better evaluate their enjoyment of civil and political, economic, social and cultural rights in the State party,” the report says.

First Nations leaders will write to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and various ministers to raise awareness of the CERD report to a national level, but will also elevate the issues into the international arena, Bellegarde said.

“Canada can’t continue to go around the world claiming to be a great promoter of human rights when it hasn’t been able to deal with this right in their own country,” he said.

The treaties were based on peaceful coexistence, mutual respect and working together, Bellegarde said.

“Unfortunately, we see a huge socioeconomic divide and that’s just not right in this rich country of the world called Canada,” Bellegarde said. “We need greater investments in education, in housing, so we can participate in the economy. That’s what this is all about—improving the quality of life so our children and grandchildren can have hope for the future.”

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