For most Canadians, it should come as no surprise to hear that First Nations communities have endured decades of suffering, and there’s no end in sight.
Seemingly endless reports detail terrible housing, inadequate education, family violence, addiction, over-representation in prisons, and now, tragically, the almost 1,200 women who have been murdered or vanished over the past 30 years.
So it’s not unexpected that some Canadians, including federal Conservatives, reacted defensively to a United Nations report on Canada’s inadequate attention to indigenous issues. But they would be wrong to dismiss the recommendations by UN watchdog James Anaya, who writes that aboriginal human rights problems in this country have reached “crisis proportions.”
Indeed, the UN special rapporteur’s findings should provide a useful focus for the federal government, if and when it decides to make another effort to come to grips with pressing First Nation issues.
Anaya rightly highlights immediate concerns, such as violence against women, poor education and the fact that aboriginal communities are among the country’s poorest. However resistant to outside advice Prime Minister Stephen Harper may be, he would be wise to take these findings on board.
Anaya’s most timely recommendation is for an inquiry into the murder, death or disappearance of some 1,186 aboriginal women, according to the RCMP’s most recent estimate. It’s the right call. While many, including the Star, have pushed for a federal inquiry into the fate of the women, Anaya’s voice is a powerful addition to that chorus.
An inquiry, he writes, could “provide an opportunity for the voices of victims’ families to be heard, deepen understanding of the magnitude and systemic dimensions of the issue and identify best practices that could lead to an adequately coordinated response.”
Unfortunately, the Harper government continues to refuse. A recent parliamentary committee report into violence against native women — penned by the Conservative majority — ignored repeated requests for a public investigation that could shine a spotlight on the role that police, prosecutors, social services, family and communities have played in the fate of native women.
And, as the Star’s Bruce Campion-Smith reports, opposition MPs used the UN report to again call for an inquiry. “This is not an aboriginal issue, it is not a women’s issue — it is an ongoing Canadian tragedy,” Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said in the Commons this week.
Perhaps the most sobering observation in the report deals with the distressing reality that little has improved on reserves since the last UN-sponsored investigation 10 years ago. Anaya found “no change” in the overall health and living conditions of many aboriginal people, and, using a wellbeing measurement, found that Canada’s bottom 100 communities include 96 that are aboriginal. However alarming, that’s not unexpected.
Anaya also highlights the contentious issue of education. At every level, Anaya writes, “indigenous people overall continue to lag far behind the general population.” Sadly, it’s true.
Regrettably, the Assembly of First Nations was so divided over a federal education bill that its leader, Shawn Atleo, resigned almost two weeks ago and the federal government put the legislation on hold. For the sake of the children, it must be possible to find a way forward.
Now, with no federal interest in the UN’s recommendation that Ottawa obtain First Nations’ consent for major resource projects, such as the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, it appears that once again, little will change.
The UN rapporteur has sent a strong message about the need for healthy transformation among Canada’s aboriginal people, and a much more positive relationship with government. If only there was consistent political will in Ottawa – and a constructive, effective partner to channel the voices of First Nations.