On May 12, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, released a disconcerting report about the situation of Aboriginal people in Canada. The document reveals the ongoing human rights injustices facing Aboriginals and the chronic inequality that plagues Canadian society.
During his visit in October 2013, Anaya met with Aboriginal communities and government officials in six provinces to develop a comprehensive evaluation of the current situation. While Anaya commended Canada’s sound legal framework, he found no improvements in the lives of Aboriginals since the previous visit of the UN Special Rapporteur in 2004.
Canada became the first country to extend constitutional protection to indigenous peoples thirty years ago. Despite considering itself at the vanguard of rights of Aboriginals, this perception is far from reality. Canada has failed its Aboriginal peoples, leaving both sides ensnared in a broken relationship.
Socio-economic disparities between Aboriginals and non-indigenous Canadians remain wide. In 2005, the average Canadian earned $30,000 while the median income for a First Nations (a term for Canada’s Aboriginals which excludes the Inuit and Metis) person was a modest $20,000. First Nations living on reserves were the poorest among the three of Canada’s Aboriginal groups, surviving on a paltry $12,000.
There is also an acute lack of services available to Aboriginal communities, particularly in remote areas. Government provisions for infrastructure, health, education and other basic amenities are inadequate. There is a housing crisis, particularly on reserves: A startling 45 percent of First Nations people live in buildings which require major repairs. Half of the water supply systems used by Aboriginal people pose medium to high health risks. The situation is dire, to the point that Aboriginals’ life expectancy is up to 14 years less than other Canadians.
Canada is home to a highly educated population. One quarter of all adults hold a Bachelor’s degree; this slips to 6.5 percent among Aboriginals. Adolescents with indigenous origins are nearly three times less likely to finish high school. The current government has attempted to address this in a new bill. However, its contents caused such disagreement that the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations resigned recently, leading to the halt of the proposed legislation.
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Most disconcerting are the social effects of rampant inequality. The statistics are staggering: Aboriginals are seven times more likely to be murdered and twice as likely to be the victim of violent crime. Substance abuse is rampant and children are eight times more likely to be taken into government care. Indigenous peoples represent 23 percent and 33 percent of the inmates in men and women’s prison facilities, respectively, despite making up only three percent of Canada’s population. The incarceration rate of Aboriginal women has mushroomed by 80 percent in the past decade, perhaps linked to the strict minimum sentences introduced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The current situation is particularly bleak for Aboriginal women. Over 1,200 indigenous women and girls have vanished in the last 30 years and the response of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has been lacking. In British Columbia, as many as thirty women disappeared in 17 years along Highway 16, now called the “Highway of Tears”. The report recommends that Canada organise a national inquiry on the missing women, a call that the government has so far rejected as unnecessary despite the pleadings of Aboriginal groups.
Other concerns highlighted include the violation of treaty rights. If the government aspires to change policies that impacts Aboriginal peoples, it is obliged to involve them in the decision-making process. However, the current leadership has ignored or limited involvement of indigenous groups. In 2012, five acts alone were altered without consultation, sparking the Idle No More movement and reinforcing the mistrust often expressed towards the government.
This report is a monumental testament to the current dismal status of Aboriginals in Canada. However, if the government had its way, such a document would have never been published. It took Anaya one year and three requests to receive permission to undertake an official visit to Canada to assess the human rights situation, indicating that he was not welcome.
This is only one episode in a long and troubled history of oppression. Staring from the 19th century to 1996, over 150,000 Aboriginal children were seized from their parents and sent to residential schools. Such institutions were part of an aggressive plan of assimilation to annihilate indigenous languages and cultures to be replaced by English and French languages, Christianity and “Canadian” customs. Many children died in these prisons and suffered abuse at the hands of administrators and teachers. The effects of this policy are still felt today and most likely for generations to come.
The current relationship between the Canadian government and Aboriginal peoples is broken. Most government leaders and policies provide only lip service to the inequality and discrimination faced by Aboriginal peoples. In modern national politics, so-called Canadian interests, those of the general population, and Aboriginal interests, are portrayed as divergent instead of being mutually beneficial for the entire country.
According to Forbes magazine, Canada is the 14th wealthiest country in the world with an average GDP per capita at $39,171. It is a travesty that part of the Canadian population lives in abject poverty while their traditional lands hold abundant natural resources. Yet the government ignores this terrible situation while profiting from mineral and oil reserves taken from their land. As the Aboriginal population continues to grow five times more rapidly than the rest of Canada’s ethnic groups, this disparity has the potential to create a social time bomb. If the government continues to neglect their concerns, it does so at its peril.
Kait Bolongaro is a journalist, photographer and a Master’s student of Journalism and Political Science. Her research interests include politics, environmental issues, migration and education.