Canada’s treatment of First Nations rapped by United Nations committee

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Canada's record of dealing with aboriginal people has come under more criticism, this time from a United Nations panel.

Members of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, made up of human-rights experts, questioned why Canada has not made more progress in closing the gap between First Nations communities and the rest of the country, Postmedia News reported.

"This problem should not continue the same way as it has in the past,'' Noureddine Amir, vice-chairman of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, said at the panel's meeting in Geneva. "How long will this be ongoing?'

The panel's scrutiny comes amid news reports of the housing crisis at the Attawapiskat, in northern Ontario, and concerns of a health crisis among large numbers of aboriginals addicted to OxyContin.

The committee this week was conducting an examination of Canada's record on combating discrimination and heard from several aboriginal groups, including the Assembly of First Nations.

Catrina Tapley, a senior Citizenship and Immigration Canada official, appeared before the panel and acknowledged that mistakes had been made in the past, Postmedia reported.

But Tapley also talked about programs by federal and provincial governments aimed at helping First Nations, including a focus on jobs.

"Increasing aboriginal participation in the economy is the most effective way to improve the well-being and quality of life of aboriginal people in Canada,'' Tapley said in prepared remarks.

"The government of Canada recognizes that its relationship with the aboriginal peoples of Canada is unique and that it has an important role to play in helping to ensure that communities are healthy, vibrant and self-reliant."

While acknowledging Canada has a generally strong human rights record, its dealings with First Nations are a blemish.

"We would be lying if we said everything is perfect,'' said panelist Jose Francisco Cali Tzay, a political activist who fled to Canada from his native Guatemala several decades ago.

"I am struck that despite being sixth in terms of development of the countries of the world, the indigenous peoples (in Canada) are in 66th place.''

Panelist Anwar Kamal, a former Pakistani diplomat who served in Ottawa in the 1980s, pointed to "alarming statistics" showing aboriginal people are vastly over-represented in Canada's prisons, compared with their percentage of the population. He also criticized the level of federal funding for programs.

"It has been noted that growth in funding for aboriginal programs has been limited to two per cent while the population is growing much faster than that,'' Kemal said.

Postmedia reported the UN committee will table a final report with recommendations that would be included in future assessments of Canada's human rights record.