Ermineskin Cree Chief Craig Mackinaw has said that many of the issues underlined in UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya’s recently announced report are the same ones First Nations communities have been raising with the federal and provincial governments for years.
James Anaya, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples for the UN Human Rights Council, visited Canada in October 2013 to meet with government officials and First Nations people across the country. His report, comprising his conclusions and recommendations, published Monday May 12, reinforces the position of the indigenous people of Canada on many of the issues that have been looked at.
The government spin on UN Special Rapporteur’s report on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada is that things are going well. Yet, First Nations leaders in Maskwacis feel more needs to be done before equality between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people is realized.
There are many details provided on the issues First Nations people in Canada face and the travails of discussions between the Federal Government and indigenous people. Anaya makes important recommendations that he feels will even the “well-being gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.”
“Treaty and aboriginals claims remain persistently unresolved, indigenous women and girls remain vulnerable to abuse, and overall there appears to be high levels of distrust among indigenous peoples toward government at both the federal and provincial levels,” states Anaya in his report.
Funding for a growing population
Mackinaw says some reserves are seeing a large number of youths compared to adults. In some cases, 60 per cent of the reserves are First Nations youths and he feels funding needs to be a priority. “We are locked in old formulas and the population’s getting bigger.”
Anaya’s recommendations are something he said he hopes the government will follow through with.
“The biggest challenges will be the lack of funding and lack of resources,” said Mackinaw.
Minister’s response shows no promises
Bernard Valcourt, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development said in a press release that Canada’s diverse and multicultural society has been a leader in the protection of human rights.
“While many challenges remain, many positive steps have been taken by the Government of Canada to improve the overall well-being and prosperity of aboriginal people in Canada,” said Valcourt.
Anaya’s report, however, states that “It is difficult to reconcile Canada’s well-developed legal framework and general prosperity with the human rights problems faced by indigenous peoples in Canada that have reached crisis proportions in many respects.”
“We will review the report carefully to determine how we can best address the recommendations,” the minister said.
Anaya does praise Canada for providing constitutional protection to indigenous peoples’ rights in 1982, but says there is a long road ahead.
Housing has reached crisis levels in some areas
Living conditions for First Nations people in Canada are not ideal when compared to non-indigenous Canadians. Anaya was clear in his opinion of the current state of affairs. “The most jarring manifestation of these human rights problems is the distressing socio-economic conditions of indigenous peoples in a highly developed country,” he states.
The Community Wellbeing Index in Canada shows that 96 of the bottom 100 communities are First Nations and only one First Nation community is in the top 10.
“However, it does not appear that Canada has dedicated higher resources to social services for indigenous peoples,” says Anaya.
Anaya says the housing situation for Inuit, especially in the north, has reached crisis levels. He recommended immediate action to rectify the problems plaguing people who must deal with harsh weather.
Anaya was pleased to see legislation in June 2013 for on-reserve matrimonial property, the Family Homes on Reserve and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act, which protects aboriginal women if a marriage falls apart. This was part of a recommendation in 2004 from the previous Special Rapporteur.
First Nations people a large part of prison population
The numbers show concerning results; indigenous people make up approximately four per cent of the Canadian population, yet they comprise 25 per cent of the prison population. Aboriginal women make up 33 per cent of the female inmate population.
“Aboriginal children continue to be taken into the care of child services at a rate eight times higher than non-indigenous Canadians,” states the report.
Education a top priority for Mackinaw
Education for First Nations’ children has been a hot topic recently and Mackinaw sees this as one of the big challenges the federal government faces with the report. He did say work has been done to resolve some of the issues but he adds that more can still be done.
Mackinaw sees two big issues facing the federal government:
• Missing aboriginal women.
• Education and funding for it.
Mackinaw just returned from a trip to Ottawa discussing that very issue.
On the former, Anaya says a number of initiatives have been developed to address the severe problem of 660 cases of missing or murdered women or children.
He also praised the government for taking action with programs that aim to help aboriginal children’s education but says they reach a small number of children. And funding appears to be lacking for significant change.
However, in February the government did announce $1.9 billion in additional education funding set for 2015, including $500 million for infrastructure.
Indian Act binds the hands of First Nations communities
“It’s been on the table for years…A lot of us believe the treaty is stronger than the Indian Act,” said Mackinaw.
The report, describing the Indian Act as “a statue of nineteenth century origins,” blames the legislation for “notable episodes and patterns of devastating human rights violation… the imposition, at times forcibly, of governance institutions; and policies of forced assimilation through the removal of children from indigenous communities” among other human rights violations.
Anaya was unimpressed with an outdated Indian Act that appears to bind the hands of First Nations governments by requiring approval for any decisions from the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Band by-laws, funding for reserve programs and lease of land also must have government approval.
“Most glaringly, while there are some legislative alternatives to First Nations to opt out of the Indian Act regime on a case-by-case, sector-by-sector basis, these options are limited,” the report states.
Settlement agreements take so long that First Nations will see land they are negotiating turn into open pit mines or become covered with water because of dams.
Mackinaw feels there is some uncertainty over negotiations to change the Indian Act as federal elections are coming up in 2015 and many reserves are also going through elections this year. This may delay those negotiations. “That’s going to change many things.”
Co-operation between the Federal Government and First Nations chiefs is something Mackinaw hopes will occur. He feels if the two groups were to get together to try and solve the troubles, then they may be able to tackle Anaya’s recommendations.
“We’re just waiting on the government to look at the report and come back to us,” he said.
PONOKA NEWS STAFF