Canada's treatment of aboriginal people faces global scrutiny

Canada's record on how it treats aboriginal people will be under global scrutiny within the next year by three human-rights groups, including two from the United Nations.

UN and human-rights groups to visit Canada within the next year

Canada's treatment of aboriginal people faces global scrutiny

11 years ago
Duration 1:48
Canada's record on how it treats aboriginal people will be under global scrutiny from three major human rights groups within the next year. CBC's Ryan Hicks reports.

Canada's record on how it treats aboriginal people will be under global scrutiny within the next year.

The federal government is allowing three human rights groups — including two from the United Nations — to make visits where they will look at living conditions in aboriginal communities, including access to clean water, housing and education.

The groups will also probe whether government and law enforcement are doing enough to resolve the cases of an estimated 600 murdered and missing aboriginal women.

"Now Canada has to respond to the international community," said Grand Chief David Harper of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), which represents Manitoba's northern First Nations communities. "What have you done? What more can be done?"

The United Nations' special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, as well as members of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will make the visits.

'Canada has nothing to hide'

The federal government says it stands by its record on human rights.

"We are proud of our record, so there is nothing to hide," said Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs. "Canada has nothing to hide."

Anaya made his initial request for access to Canada in February 2012.  A year later, in February of this year, he wrote to the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs saying he still had not heard from the Canadian government about his request.

On April 26, Canada's ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations at Geneva, Elissa Golberg, announced the federal government would allow Anaya to visit.

The last time that a UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples visited Canada was in 2004.

Chief Harper said many countries at the United Nations have been pushing Canada to address the living conditions of aboriginal people.

"We've been banging on the doors of Parliament Hill, but here we are in this day and age. We need other countries to speak on our behalf," he said.

Visits provide some hope

It has been a year and a half since Gail Nepinak's sister, Tanya, went missing in Winnipeg, and there has been little to no progress in her case.

Gail Nepinak, left, and mother Joyce Nepinak hold a photo of Tanya Nepinak, who went missing in September 2011. (Ryan Hicks/CBC)

"She was kind-hearted … a special person," Nepinak said of her sister, who is among Canada's estimated 600 missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Winnipeg police charged Shawn Lamb last year with first-degree murder in connection with Tanya Nepinak's death, but her remains have never been found.

Gail Nepinak said the upcoming visits by the human-rights groups provide a glimmer of hope, as she doesn't believe governments and law enforcement are doing enough on cases like her sister's.

"When my sister went missing, I feel like they just put her aside," she said.

"Hopefully it will be helpful," she added. "If it helps, that's good. Anything helps for us."

Not the first UN visit

Canada has had a testy relationship with UN special rapporteurs lately.

Last May, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, scolded Canada over inequality and access to food. He said inequality is getting worse and that 800,000 households do not get the healthy food they need. 

The government responded to De Schutter's comments at the time, with Immigration Minister Jason Kenney suggesting that De Schutter was wasting his organization's money by visiting a developed country.

"Canada sends billions of dollars of food aid to developing countries around the world where people are starving," Kenney said.

"It would be our hope that the contributions we make to the United Nations are used to help starving people in developing countries, not to give lectures to wealthy and developed countries like Canada. And I think this is a discredit to the United Nations," he said.


Ryan Hicks is in his final year as a law student at McGill University and is a former Quebec political correspondent for the CBC. In 2018, he won the Amnesty International Media Award for his reporting from Guatemala about the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States.

With files from The Canadian Press and the CBC's Laura Payton