UN official: Aboriginal peoples in Canada still suffer human rights deficit
“The most jarring manifestation of these human rights problems is the distressing socio-economic conditions”
Though Canada was a global leader in putting Aboriginal rights into its 1982 constitution, the country’s indigenous peoples still suffer from alarming human rights problems, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, said in a report released May 12.
“The most jarring manifestation of these human rights problems is the distressing socio-economic conditions of indigenous peoples in a highly developed country, Anaya said.
That includes housing conditions in the North, where overcrowded housing is endemic among Inuit and First Nations communities, his report said.
“Overcrowding contributes to higher rates of respiratory illness, depression, sleep deprivation, family violence, poor educational achievement, and an inability to retain skilled and professional members in the community,” Anaya said.
He acknowledged recent federal spending on social housing construction in Nunavut, the last of which was a $100 million fund, announced in 2013, to build 250 new units in the territory.
“Still, severe housing shortages persist for Inuit communities,” Anaya said.
Although health conditions for Aboriginal people have improved “somewhat” over the past 10 years, big gaps still exist between the health status of Aboriginal peoples and that of non-Aboriginal Canadians.
“The health situation is exacerbated by overcrowded housing, high population growth rates, high poverty rates, and the geographic remoteness of many communities, especially Inuit communities in the north,” he said.
In the administration of justice, he pointed out that while Aboriginal people comprise only about four per cent of Canada’s population, they are disproportionately represented within the prison system.
He said Aboriginal inmates account for 25 per cent of male inmates in Canadian prisons and 33 per cent of female inmates.
At the same time, he pointed out that Aboriginal women and girls suffer disproportionately from violent crime, referring to the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s estimate of 660 cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women over the last 20 years.
This past May 1, after Anaya had finished his work, the RCMP issued a report that produced a higher number: 1,186 Aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered over the past 30 years.
Terry Audla, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said May 12 that he welcomes the report and that its recommendations are a step in the right direction.
“While the report focuses heavily on First Nations rather than Inuit specifically, Anaya echoes the voices of Inuit, Métis and First Nations in calling for targeted funding in critical areas, particularly to address overcrowded housing,” Audla said.
ITK board member Sarah Leo, the president of the Nunatsiavut government, met with Anaya this past October as head of an Inuit delegation.
“She spoke about the extreme housing shortage across Inuit Nunangat, and how that single issue cuts across an array of social policy areas, from the spread of communicable disease to physical abuse to school attendance to the ability of individuals to participate in the developing economy,” an ITK statement said.
The main spokesperson for the Assembly of First Nations, regional chief Ghislain Picard, also said he welcomes Anaya’s report.
“First Nations fully agree that Canada must bring much more attention and action on the issues facing our people, issues that affect all Canadians,” Picard said.
And the AFN leader said there is a groundswell of support for a national public inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and that the federal government must act now to create one.
Betty Ann Lavallée, the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, said she agrees with Anaya’s report, especially the sections that call attention to the housing crisis among Aboriginal peoples, whether on or off reserves.
“We also agree that the government should ensure sufficient funding for services for indigenous peoples, both on and off reserve, including in the areas of health, education and child welfare,” she said.
Anaya, a law professor at the University of Arizona who specializes in human rights law, visited Canada between Oct. 7 and Oct. 15, 2013, when he met with a variety of federal and provincial officials and Aboriginal organizations.
He also researched public domain information produced by agencies such as the Auditor General of Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Statistics Canada.
His report is expected to be discussed at the upcoming UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, which is scheduled for Sept. 22 and Sept. 23 at the UN General Assembly in New York City.