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October 22, 2013

UN looking at Canada's Aboriginal conditions

Reuel S. Amdur

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James Anaya, UN special rapporteur on the rights of Aboriginal people, recently completed a nine-day visit to Canada.

Anaya will prepare a report in September 2014.  While he acknowledged that the government was taking some steps to improve conditions of Aboriginal Canadians, “these steps are insufficient.”  In fact, some of them are backward.  He noted our high standard of living, in contrast with Aboriginal “conditions akin to those in countries that rank much lower and in which poverty abounds.”

Here are some of the topics he touched on in a press conference in Ottawa.

--Anaya urged Ottawa to go slow on educational reform for Aboriginals, allowing for more consultation.  There has been considerable criticism in First Nations circles about a lack of consultation in the process.  Yet, the need for improvement is clear.  Around a fourth drop out before completing high school, and while close to half have post-secondary education, less than 10% of those complete university. 

--He supported the call for a national public inquiry into the cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.  Such an undertaking would respond to the demands of the Aboriginal community, but it is unclear what benefit might come of it, and it would be very costly.  Perhaps a more focused inquiry might serve to meet the demand.  Rather than a full public inquiry, the funds might better be spent in meeting more concrete needs: insuring clean drinking water on all reserves, along with basic sanitation, adequate housing, health care, and proper school facilities.

--Anaya spoke of violence, crime, unemployment, suicide, poor housing conditions, and health problems.

When it comes to crime, Aboriginals are incarcerated at a rate several times that for other Canadians.  Yet, the Harper government is moving ahead with its tough-on-crime agenda, which is also tough on Aboriginals.  Minimum sentences put more Aboriginals in prison longer.  Healing circles used as an instrument of full or partial diversion are being undermined.  Such circles use confession and shaming as essential elements, while still leaving incarceration as a potential option.  The minimum sentence laws get in the way of such circles.  Yet, such programs have proven results, while minimum sentencing does not.  Aboriginal women who are incarcerated have high levels of mental illness and self-mutilation, for which they receive little or no treatment.

High suicide rates among Aboriginals, especially among the Inuit, are symptoms of hopelessness and depression.  They need psychological services, but even more they need hope.  They need jobs.  They need a path out of hunger and poverty.  Imagine what a school breakfast program for all students on reserve and all students in the Territories would do, for health, for school attendance, and for graduation.

With high rates of unemployment, projects to improve conditions on reserves could put people to work building and repairing houses, schools, and recreation centers. 

The gas-sniffing Innu children of Natuashish, Labrador, need help, but a good part of that help is help to their parents, many of whom are addicted to alcohol.  These parents should be offered help through parenting counseling and mental health services provided by addictions counselors, social workers, and other professionals and paraprofessionals. 

The problem for the Innu date back to their ill-advised move to an island off Davis Inlet, a desolate, isolated, rocky, unproductive location that made it virtually impossible for them to engage in their traditional hunting lifestyle.  Houses were poorly constructed and conditions were unsanitary.  People came down with tuberculosis, alcoholism spread widely, and attempts at suicide soared.  The relocation to the mainland did not solve all the problems created by their earlier relocation. 

While some $200 million was spent on the relocation to the present place, much more is needed to pay for the services that are needed.  In addition to help with parenting skills and professionally offered mental health services, people also need to gain self-respect, pride, and a feeling of achievement. 

Rather than meeting these needs, including child and family services, the government has spent tens of thousands, if not millions of dollars, spying on Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Services, in order to try to find dirt to use against her as she fights to get children on reserves the help that they need.  Rather than seeing such efforts as hers as needed, they are seen as an unwelcome opposition.

Many of the things that First Nations people need would be expensive, but a move away from tough-on-crime to smart-on-crime could even save money and would be more effective. 

Don’t count on any of these things coming to pass.  Instead Harper wants to spend $45 billion on fighter jets for protection against…whom?

Murray Sinclair, head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has argued that the residential schools created generations of adults who did not know parenting and whose culture was deliberately taken from them.  He said that it would take generations now to repair the damage.  The Davis Inlet saga proves that it is possible to accomplish the destruction in less time than that, but it may still take generations to fix.

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