A new report — penned by United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples James Anaya — claims that things aren't getting better for Canada's First Nation populations.
The report, a summary of findings from Anaya's official visit to Canada in October, paints a picture of "distressing socio-economic conditions" a "gap in educational achievement", and and a housing situation that "has reached a crisis level".
"Despite positive steps [by federal and provincial governments in recent years], daunting challenges remain. Canada faces a continuing crisis when it comes to the situation of indigenous peoples of the country. The well-being gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada has not narrowed over the last several years, treaty and aboriginals claims remain persistently unresolved, indigenous women and girls remain vulnerable to abuse, and overall there appear to be high levels of distrust among indigenous peoples toward government at both the federal and provincial levels.
"The numerous initiatives that have been taken at the federal and provincial/territorial levels to address the problems faced by indigenous peoples have been insufficient. Aboriginal peoples’ concerns and well-being merit higher priority at all levels and within all branches of Government, and across all departments. Concerted measures, based on mutual understanding and real partnership with aboriginal peoples, through their own representative institutions, are vital to establishing long-term solutions."
That little has changed since 2004 -- the last time a UN Rapporteur made a visit to Canada -- shouldn't really surprise anyone.
What should grab all of our attention — especially government — is some of the statistics articulated by Anaya.
Even for the most cynical of observers, the statistics — all summarized in one report — are daunting.
- Of the bottom 100 Canadian communities on the Community Well being Index, 96 are First Nations, and only one First Nation community is in the top 100.
- There are approximately 90 aboriginal languages spoken in Canada. Two-thirds of these languages are endangered, severely endangered or critically endangered, due in no small part to the intentional suppression of indigenous languages during the Indian residential school era.
- Although indigenous people comprise around 4% of the Canadian population, they make up 25% of the prison population. This proportion appears to be increasing. Aboriginal women, at 33% of the total female inmate population, are even more disproportionately incarcerated than indigenous individuals generally and have been the fastest growing population in federal prisons.
- The housing situation in Inuit and First Nations communities has reached a crisis level, especially in the north, where remoteness and extreme weather exacerbate housing problems. Overcrowded housing is endemic. Homes are in need of major repairs, including plumbing and electrical work. These conditions add to the broader troubling water situation in First Nations reserves, in which more than half of the water systems pose a medium or high health risk to their users.
- The Native Women’s Association of Canada has documented over 660 cases of women and girls across Canada who have gone missing or been murdered in the last 20 years, many of which remain unresolved.
For one of the richest countries in the world, those statistics should be a national embarrassment.
[ Related: VIDEO - Shawn Atleo's surprise resignation ]
Anaya does provide several recommendations to the Harper government, including more funding, better coordination with regard to delivery of services, more consultation with indigenous authorities (especially when it comes to pipelines and resource extraction) and measures to deal with outstanding land claims.
He also joins the almost unanimous chorus of voices asking the Harper government for a "comprehensive, nation-wide inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal woman and girls."
In a statement to media, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt sounded like he was open to at least some of Anaya's suggestions.
"Our government is proud of the effective and incremental steps taken in partnership with aboriginal communities," he said.
"We are committed to continuing to work with our partners to make significant progress in improving the lives of aboriginal people in Canada. We will review the report carefully to determine how we can best address the recommendations."
Not surprisingly, the opposition parties and First Nation groups have a very different narrative of Aboriginal-government relations.
"The Conservative record is a dismal one. Study after study, report after report find that investments are needed to improve the quality of life for indigenous peoples in Canada, especially in housing, child welfare and education, yet this government continues to let funding trickle out," NDP Aboriginal Affairs critic said in a statement emailed to Yahoo Canada News.
"The Rapporteur also noted the lack of trust many indigenous people feel toward this Conservative government. Continuing to ignore calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women only increases that distrust because people honestly don’t understand why they continue to ignore what amounts to a public safety emergency."
The UN report comes on the heels of the Idle No More protests and last week's announcement, by the Harper government, that a $1.9 billion FN education funding package was being put on hold thanks to internal First Nation strife and the abrupt resignation of Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn Atleo.
These certainly aren't the best of times for Canada's First Nations.
(Photo courtesy of the Canadian Press)
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