• Canada's relations with aboriginals in 'crisis'
Oct 16, 2013

Canada is facing a "crisis" over its treatment of aboriginals and the Harper government needs to take urgent steps to build trust with its indigenous peoples, says a United Nations human rights envoy.

The message came Tuesday from James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, who wrapped up an eight-day factfinding trip to Canada with an impassioned news conference near Parliament Hill.

In a sharply worded statement, he called on the Conservative government to grant an extension to a commission studying the residential schools saga, move more slowly on plans for a bill to reform aboriginal education and establish a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. He said Canada has been a world leader on human rights and was one of the first countries to extend constitutional protection to aboriginals.

"But despite positive steps, daunting challenges remain," he said. "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 the "well-being gap" between aboriginals and nonaboriginals has not narrowed in recent years, treaty claims remain "persistently unresolved" and there is a high level of "distrust" among aboriginals toward the federal and provincial governments.

"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."

He said 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 - more than five times greater than other Canadians - is "alarming", he said "One community I visited has suffered a suicide every six weeks since the start of this year. Aboriginal women are eight times more likely to be murdered than non-indigenous women and indigenous peoples face disproportionately high incarceration rates." Amid all this, he said governments are taking steps to address the problems, but they have fallen short.

Anaya said Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government must spend time truly consulting aboriginals. "If that doesn't happen, the path forward is going to be a rocky one."

The Harper government has had a history of treating UN emissaries with disdain and it was critical of Anaya last year when he spoke out against living conditions at a Northern Ontario reserve.

Anaya met last week with Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, who issued a written statement Tuesday which did not address his specific recommendations. Instead, Valcourt pointed to Anaya's compliments of Canada and insisted that the Conservative government is preoccupied with the "well-being" of aboriginals and is taking "effective incremental steps" to make progress for them.

In the wake of his tour of Canada - he met federal politicians in Ottawa and travelled to several provinces where he met aboriginals - Anaya will prepare a report that will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in September of 2014.