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UN slams Canada for First Nations treatment
Lee Kamalatisit and her two-month-old daughter, Kaylee, sit in their unserviced one-room home on the Atawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario in...more
Lee Kamalatisit and her two-month-old daughter, Kaylee, sit in their unserviced one-room home on the Atawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario in this December 2011 file photo. Many Atawapiskat households live without running water or sanitary facilities.
Photograph by Frank Gunn/Pool, Reuters
By Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News February 22, 2012
Canada's international reputation came under fire in Geneva on Wednesday as a UN expert panel delivered scathing criticisms over the government's treatment of First Nations and recent changes to the country's immigration system.
Members on the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, all of them human-rights experts from around the world, questioned why headway has not been made in resolving the disparities between First Nations communities and the rest of the country.
"This problem should not continue the same way as it has in the past," said Noureddine Amir, vice-chairman of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. "How long will this be ongoing?"
The treatment of natives jumped back onto the federal political agenda after the Red Cross delivered humanitarian aid to the First Nations community of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario late last year.
Since then, opposition parties and aboriginal groups have called on the Conservative government to provide more funding for education, better infrastructure and a move toward self-determination. There are also concerns that the government's omnibus crime bill will have a disproportionate impact on natives.
In response, the government says it will focus on bringing job training and other actions to ensure Canada's more than one million aboriginal people can compete in the workplace and enjoy the same economic benefits and prosperity as other Canadians.
The international community has previously shown a great deal of interest in Canada's treatment of its aboriginal peoples, but this was the first time an international body had examined Canada's record since Attawapiskat.
Speaking to the UN panel on behalf of the federal government Wednesday, a senior Citizenship and Immigration Canada official acknowledged that mistakes had been made in the past.
But Catrina Tapley also highlighted the range of programs established and actions taken by various levels of government in recent years to help natives, and the 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, according to 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," she added.
The UN experts acknowledged Canada's generally strong record on human rights and its high economic, social and moral standing. However, they indicated the situation facing the country's First Nations is a blemish.
"We would be lying if we said everything is perfect," said 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."
Fellow panellist Anwar Kemal, a former Pakistani diplomat who served in Ottawa in the 1980s, noted the "alarming statistics" that show aboriginal people significantly overrepresented in the country's prison system. He also took issue with restrictions on the amount of federal money going to First Nations programming.
"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.
"There is discrimination against indigenous peoples that have been in the country throughout all history," added Ion Diaconu.
"This has led to an inherent state of poverty that has not been overcome despite all the efforts the government has made. You need to redouble efforts and eliminate the disparity."
Diaconu, a human-rights expert and former head of the Romanian foreign ministry, also expressed concerns with recent changes in Canada's immigration and refugee system and comments made by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney against Roma seeking asylum here.
"Now we hear about discrimination against Roma in Canada, this is something new," Diaconu said. "The stigmatization, the stereotypes of Roma that were stated by the media or the minister, a new discrimination has arisen. The Roma are not accepted as refugees, they are rejected."
Kenney has repeatedly labelled Roma, who come to Canada from Eastern European countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania, as "bogus refugees" despite reports of discrimination against them.
The actions of Canadian mining companies in South and Central America as well as Alberta were also raised.
"More rigorous monitoring of transnational corporations might be useful," said committee member Elias Murillo Martinez, a human-rights lawyer and former adviser to Colombia's foreign ministry.
The committee will make a series of recommendations in a final report, which will then feed into future assessments of Canada's human-rights record at the UN.
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