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U.N. says Canada in crisis over treatment of aboriginals

Special rapporteur on indigenous issues says 1.4 million people suffer from ‘well-being gap’

Canada faces a crisis when it comes to the living conditions and rights of its indigenous peoples, according to a new report prepared by a United Nations envoy.

James Anaya, a law professor and the U.N.’s special rapporteur on indigenous issues, said the relationship between Canada’s indigenous people and the government seems to have grown more strained over the past decade.

“Despite positive steps, daunting challenges remain. Canada faces a continuing crisis when it comes to the situation of indigenous peoples of the country,” reads the 26-page report, which was released on Monday.

“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.”

Canada’s Conservative government and indigenous peoples have been at odds over natural resources, land rights and autonomy in recent years, sparking national protest movements like Idle No More.

Anaya visited Canada for nine days in October.

In the report, Anaya underscored the need for the government to make improvements on issues like education, land rights and housing shortages, particularly in northern communities. He noted a “well-being gap” that still separates the country’s 1.4 million indigenous people (more than 4 percent of the population) from the rest of the country.

Missing or murdered women

Anaya called on the government to hold a national inquiry into almost 1,200 cases of aboriginal women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered in the past 30 years.

Activists have been trying to draw attention to the issue for years. Opposition politicians have also joined the chorus. 

On Monday a group of aboriginal drummers gathered in Canada’s capital to press for an inquiry once again at a protest “honoring our missing sisters.”

Canadian police confirmed at the beginning of May that it had compiled a list of 1,026 deaths and 160 missing-person cases of indigenous women — several hundred more than previously thought.

Anaya said the the federal government “should undertake a comprehensive, nationwide inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal woman and girls, organized in consultation with indigenous peoples.”

He also urged the government to honor indigenous land rights as it seeks to develop the country’s natural resources and build more pipelines to carry bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands.

“Resource development projects, where they occur, should be fully consistent with aboriginal and treaty rights and should in no case be prejudicial to unsettled claims,” the report said.

The report pointed out indigenous people are the youngest and fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population, making them key to the country’s future. Anaya said the government should make improved funding for education in indigenous communities a priority. Efforts to introduce a revised education plan collapsed earlier this month amid criticism that First Nations groups had not been properly consulted.

“The government should work with indigenous peoples to enhance education opportunities for them and in particular should consult with indigenous peoples,” the report said.

Canada’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt acknowledged in a statement that challenges remain when it comes to improving the lives of indigenous people. But he said that “many positive steps have been taken.”

He noted Canada was praised in the report for its steps toward reconciliation in the aftermath of government-funded residential schools, which for more than a century stripped many indigenous people of their language and culture. He also said the government has acted to improve housing and education among indigenous groups.

“Our government is proud of the effective and incremental steps taken in partnership with aboriginal communities,” Valcourt said.

“We will review the report carefully to determine how we can best address the recommendations.”

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