On October 15, 2013 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, James Anaya, issued a statement at the end of his nine-day visit to Canada. Anaya’s report will be presented at a later date to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Anaya has been in the position since 2008.
Anaya cites three issues which lead him to conclude that there is a crisis related to Indigenous people in Canada: “…Canada faces a crisis when it comes to the situation of Indigenous peoples of the country. The well-being gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada has not narrowed over the last several years, treaty and Indigenous claims remain persistently unresolved, and overall there appear to be high levels of distrust among Indigenous peoples toward government at both the federal and provincial levels.”
The statement notes that while Canada ranks high on most indices of human development, many Indigenous people in the country do not share in the benefits. There are poor on-reserve housing and high suicide rates, especially for Indigenous youth. Indigenous women are more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women and Indigenous peoples face disproportionately high incarceration rates. The lack of adequate housing is a particular problem, because it is so closely linked to poor health outcomes, family violence, unemployment and flight from the community to the city, thereby depriving the community of the talents and skills they take with them.
While Professor Anaya credits important steps toward reconciliation that have been taken by the federal government beginning with the 2008 formal apology for the residential schools, he also speaks to the very “disturbing phenomenon of Indigenous women missing and murdered at the hands of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous assailants.” True reconciliation and a healing of the damaged relationship between Indigenous peoples and the federal government will not come about without communications taking place between the two. Anaya reminds us that Canada is a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and that it should “provide a common framework within which the problems that I have outlined here in a preliminary fashion can be addressed.”
A new federal agenda
What should the federal government be doing to improve well-being, deal with claims, and improve relationships, the three major issues identified by Anaya? Here in brief is our outline of the 10 major issues that the federal government needs to address if it is to make significant improvements in conditions, claims and relationships with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
1. Start from the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The UN Declaration promotes the individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples within their diverse culturally-specific and socio-economic contexts, and maintains that states should operationalize the standards outlined in an active partnership with Indigenous peoples. The federal government needs to engage in a meaningful reconciliation process within the context of Indigenous treaty rights and the Constitution. This partnership has to be rooted in good faith, mutual trust and respect.
2. Indigenous women
The Canadian government must continue its efforts to deal with the gender inequities within the Indian Act and ensure that it complies with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A first step is to establish a national public inquiry into the over 500 missing and murdered Indigenous women that fully includes Indigenous peoples and engages in a process that allows them to voice their concerns. The disproportionate impact on Indigenous women of violence, discrimination and poverty needs to be addressed as a public issue. A comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach needs to be undertaken with Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to address these issues, incorporating prevention and intervention strategies at the community, provincial and federal levels.
3. Long-term development of a reconciliation commission
The development of a long-term reconciliation commission for Indigenous peoples is needed to continue the efforts made to address the impacts of government policies on the individual and collective lives of Indigenous peoples on all levels. A commission would undertake the task of ensuring that the reconciliation objectives outlined in the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Indigenous Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other government processes are reviewed and evaluated in partnership with Indigenous peoples. This commission would establish a plan to effectively implement reconciliation between the federal government and Indigenous peoples and should consider establishing a special process which goes beyond compensation for the survivors of residential schools.
4. First Nations education
As an alternative to current proposed legislation, the federal government should institute a consultation process with First Nations people to collaboratively develop education legislation. Funding must be provided that is equivalent to what other Canadians receive, and educational models must be congruent with First Nations cultural, community and governance models while strengthening First Nations languages and cultural identities.
5. A new construction program of on-reserve housing
Too many houses on reserve are overcrowded and inadequate, without the services other Canadians expect. The wide-spread issues of mold must be addressed to ensure that houses are healthy for occupants. Housing plans must also address community infrastructure and environment issues, such as the needs for clean water and appropriate sewage systems. A comprehensive program of housing construction on reserve needs to be implemented in consultation with Indigenous communities to meet urgent housing needs. A fund to support the construction of on-reserve housing is a very high priority.
6. Reduce the gap in health and social services
The federal government needs to increase the funding of social and health services on-reserve to reduce the gap in services on and off reserve. Providing equitable funding for on-reserve health and social services operationalizes the declaration of Indigenous rights principles to help address the socioeconomic and health disparities of Indigenous peoples and improve their well-being. The jurisdictional disputes need to be resolved between the federal and provincial governments to ensure that Indigenous people actually receive the services they need.
7. Resource development
The federal government needs to work with Indigenous peoples to develop a jointly agreed comprehensive plan for resource development. A resource development plan must include details of how funds generated will be used to invest in on-reserve economic development and to improve the living conditions of community members.
8. New resources to negotiate land claims
It is now over 135 years since the founding of Canada on land which was inhabited by Indigenous people. Many Indigenous groups have been waiting for far too long to settle claims, both large and small. It is past time for the federal government to put serious effort and resources into settling outstanding claims. Funding needs to be equitable and sufficient for claims processes to be completed in a manner that allows for First Nations peoples to have adequate land claims settlements that will provide for economic self-sufficiency.
9. Regular meetings for both consultation and joint decision-making
Just as the federal government conducts regular meetings with provincial counterparts, it must move to set up a series of permanent forums for the discussion of major issues with Indigenous leaders. This is the place to discuss movement toward sharing governance of Indigenous affairs with Indigenous organizations so that slow but meaningful steps are taken toward Indigenous self-governance.
10. Privatization on reserve
The current government has supported the development of private property on reserve. Privatization of land means the termination of lands held in trust for First Nations. Termination of trust lands means the end of the reserve system which has worked to preserve First Nations cultures.