First Nations people now covered under rights act

First Nations people living on reserves will get the same human rights protections as other Canadians for the first time following the closing of a 30-year legislative gap.

But who will pay for cost to comply with act?

A substance abuse worker looks over a house used and vandalized by gas sniffers on Pauingassi First Nation Indian Reserve, near the Manitoba and Ontario border. (Ken Gigliotti/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press)

First Nations people living on reserves will get the same human rights protections as other Canadians for the first time following the closing of a 30-year legislative gap.

The change means they will now be able to take action against First Nations governments as well as the Government of Canada if they experience discrimination.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission, which announced the change at a news conference in Ottawa Friday, is calling it "historic."

"The Canadian government has taken an important step toward correcting this historic injustice," said David Langtry, acting chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

"The purpose of the Canadian Human Rights Act is to ensure equality of opportunity and freedom from discrimination for all people in Canada. The exclusion of people governed by the Indian Act from human rights law was discriminatory and contrary to democratic principles."

About 700,000 aboriginal people living on reserves were excluded from the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1977. At the time, the government argued they were governed by the Indian Act and it needed time to consult to determine how the two laws would mesh.

Finally, after international pressure, the federal government agreed three years ago to include aboriginal Canadians under the act but gave First Nations governments, as well as themselves, an adjustment period.

That ends Friday and the changes come into effect Saturday.

Observers have said there is much to complain about on reserves including living conditions — which have been described as deplorable for decades from the lack of proper housing and health care to social services and education.

David Langtry, acting chief commissioner, Canadian Human Rights Commission, announces Friday in Ottawa that aboriginal Canadians will be included under the Human Rights Act. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
In one of her final reports, former auditor general Sheila Fraser recently highlighted the systemic funding problems on reserves to the point where half of aboriginal residents don't even have access to clean drinking water. On dozens of reserves across the country, they have to boil their water.

Years ago, former prime minister Paul Martin described living conditions on reserves as "Third World."

Impact unclear

At this point, it's unclear what the impact of the change will be in terms of challenges to the act, said Langtry.

"The reality is that the over 700,000 people affected by this have the right to have resources under the Canadian Human Rights Act as all other Canadians so the complaints that come forward will be dealt with — whether it's a complaint against the federal government or whether it's against the First Nations government — they should have the right to that access.

However, the sticking point may be who is responsible for fixing the problems that are brought forward," said CBC News reporter Julie Van Dusen, who was at the news conference.

"Will the buck be passed back and forth from between the federal and First Nations governments? For example, if you need wheelchair accessibility because you can't get into the local band council and you launch a complaint against the federal government because [it] provides funding on reserves, the federal government could argue, as one expects it might, that it is immune to the act when it comes to federal funding," said Van Dusen.

"So the band councils are saying, 'Look, we agree with the act, but where are we going to get the money to address these situations?'"

The Assembly of First Nations points out that many First Nations governments don't have the resources to comply with the act. For example, public buildings and housing owned by First Nations will now have to be accessible to people with physical disabilities, a cost that some communities won't be able to shoulder without help from the federal government, the AFN said.

"Clear commitments must be made in order for First Nations to be in a position to ensure respect for human rights," AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo said.

Langtry said the jurisdiction of who pays for what may actually have to go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

With files from The Canadian Press