The Globe and Mail by Sunny Dhillon / Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017
First Nations leaders have expressed their concerns about the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada to a United Nations committee that examines racial discrimination – and one chief says the Prime Minister needs a “wake-up call.”
Representatives from several Indigenous Nations held a news conference in Vancouver on Thursday, fresh off their meeting with the UN committee in Geneva earlier this week.
Judy Wilson, chief of the Neskonlith Indian Band and secretary-treasurer with the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said Canada cannot present itself as a leader on human rights when its land-rights policies aim to extinguish Indigenous title.
“What we spoke [to] was mainly about the land rights of our people. We cannot continue to have the Crown say they have underlying title to our lands when it’s actually the Indigenous First Nations across Canada that hold that title,” she told reporters.
The federal government has committed to “a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership, and rooted in the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
But Ms. Wilson said Ottawa needs to work more directly with the Indigenous Nations themselves. “The Prime Minister really does need another wake-up call,” she said.
A statement from the office of the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs said the federal government remains fully committed to implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to consulting and working in partnership with Indigenous people.
The statement said the government’s consultations have begun, with the Minister of Justice leading a working group that will ensure Canada lives up to its obligations under the UN declaration and the federal Constitution.
“We need to get this right, and we will continue to work in partnership, on a whole-of-government approach, to renew our relationship and advance reconciliation,” the statement read.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination monitors how effectively member countries implement a UN anti-discrimination convention. Canada is a signatory to the convention and must report to the committee every two years.
The submission to the committee by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs said it is “presently witnessing a great divide between the words of the Canadian government and its actions on the ground.”
The submission highlighted several areas of concern, including land title, energy projects, forestry and housing.
It said the Trans Mountain pipeline project – which the federal government approved last year – “poses an unacceptable risk to the health, safety and livelihoods of First Nations throughout British Columbia.”
It went on to say forestry activities in B.C. continue to affect the territories of Indigenous nations “with little or no benefit to them.”
On housing, the submission said Indigenous people experience disproportionately poor living conditions on- and off-reserve. It called the amount of federal funding for First Nations housing “critically low.”
Chief Bob Chamberlin, vice-president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said the fact Indigenous groups must still travel to international forums “to expose Canada’s dirty secret of racism towards First Nations people” is a significant issue.
The committee received submissions from about 20 Indigenous groups, including the Assembly of First Nations and the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
The committee is expected to release its initial comments on Friday.