UN aboriginal envoy says Canada is facing a 'crisis'

James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, is urging the federal government not to "rush" First Nations education reform and to launch a national public inquiry into the case of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.

James Anaya urges Ottawa to call an inquiry into aboriginal women, not to 'rush' education reform

James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, says Canada is facing a 'crisis' when it comes to its treatment of indigenous people. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, painted a grim picture of the conditions facing First Nations, saying Canada is facing a "crisis" when it comes to its treatment of indigenous people.

The remark came during a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday following the completion of his nine-day mission to Canada.

I urge the government not to rush forward with [education reform] legislation but to re-initiate discussions with aboriginal leaders- James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people

"From all I have learned, I can only conclude that Canada faces a crisis when it comes to the situation of indigenous peoples of the country," he said.

Anaya said the Canadian government still has a long way to go in narrowing "the well-being gap" between aboriginals and non-aboriginals.

On the eve of Parliament's return, the UN fact-finder urged the federal government not to "rush" forward with the tabling of a controversial aboriginal education reform bill it intends to introduce this fall.

Anaya also called on the federal government to launch a "comprehensive and nationwide" inquiry into the case of missing and murdered aboriginal women, something the federal government has so far refused to do.

He also urged the federal government to extend the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that it can complete its work.

The TRC's mandate expires next summer but it is unlikely the government will be able to provide all the requested documents in time.

In a written statement to CBC News, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said Anaya's observations are at "the centre of Canada’s preoccupations and explains why the government has taken, and continues to take, effective incremental steps to improve the situation in partnership with Aboriginal Canadians."

"As acknowledged by the rapporteur, positive steps have been taken and challenges remain," Valcourt said.

Funding for aboriginal students

First Nations education reform is expected to be featured in Wednesday's throne speech, and it will also be the centrepiece of the Harper government's aboriginal policy.

The UN aboriginal envoy said while everyone agrees that First Nations education is a priority, he heard a "profound and consistent mistrust" towards the First Nations Education Act being developed by the federal government.

Anaya said he heard "a particular deep concern that the process for developing the act has not appropriately included nor responded to aboriginal views."

"In light of this, I urge the government not to rush forward with this legislation but to reinitiate discussions with aboriginal leaders to develop a process and ultimately a bill that addresses aboriginal concerns and incorporates aboriginal view points," Anaya said.

The UN fact-finder said the federal government could increase the level of funding for aboriginal students "relatively quickly."

But in an interview with CBC News last Tuesday, Aboriginal Affairs minister Bernard Valcourt said education reform would have to come before more funding.

"Reform will take place, funding will follow. But funding will not replace reform because the current system is failing these kids," Valcourt said.​

The 2011 national household survey showed that 48.4 per cent of aboriginals aged 25 to 64 had a post-secondary education, compared to 64.7 per cent of non-aboriginals.

Of those aboriginals with post-secondary education only 9.8 per cent had a university degree, compared to 26.5 per cent of non-aboriginals.

Shawn Atleo, the national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, welcomed Anaya's remarks and called on Ottawa to give "serious consideration" to his preliminary observations, pending his official report and recommendations.

"It is our hope that the special rapporteur’s report will help compel action. First Nations are willing and ready for the hard work," Atleo said in a written statement.

Atleo had vowed two weeks ago, during a rally in Ottawa for missing and murdered aboriginal women, to tell the UN fact-finder that Canada is facing a "grave" human rights crisis. He and Anaya met on Monday.

"If the government is wise, which it hasn't demonstrated so far, it will pay very close attention to what the special rapporteur said," said Jean Crowder, the NDP critic for aboriginal affairs, in an interview with CBC News.

Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal critic for aboriginal affairs, told CBC News in a statement that the Conservatives’ "adversarial approach to Aboriginal Peoples on a host of issues has created conflict and distrust, rather than reconciliation and better lives."

Inquiry into aboriginal women

Anaya called the unresolved cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women a "disturbing phenomenon" and an "epidemic." He called on the federal government to launch a national public inquiry into the matter.

While he acknowledged the federal government has taken measures to address the issue of violence against aboriginal women, Anaya said aboriginal people expressed, "a widespread lack of confidence in the effectiveness of those measures."

"I concur that that a comprehensive and nationwide inquiry into the issue could help ensure a co-ordinated response and the opportunity for the loved ones of victims to be heard," he said. 

Anaya said such a move by the federal government would show "a responsiveness" to the concerns raised by families and communities affected.

In that interview with CBC News on Tuesday, Valcourt said that inquiries are for those who want to hide behind the pretext of taking action.

An inquiry would not bring anything more than we already know.- Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt

"An inquiry would not bring anything more than we already know. So instead of further study and spinning our wheels, let's take action," he said.

The Native Women's Association of Canada has been calling on the federal government to launch a national public inquiry into aboriginal women for just over a year now.

Conservative MP Ryan Leef, last week, pledged his support for a national inquiry — but only if the provinces are willing to play a role.

While the premiers agreed to support a call by the NWAC, the provinces and territories did not say what role, if any, they would play.

Anaya told reporters he met with the RCMP at the beginning of his nine-day visit to discuss their practices "particularly with regard to investigating or preventing acts of violence against women."

Last week, the Mounties launched a five-day social media campaign calling on the public to help them solve 10 cases involving missing aboriginal women.

The RCMP said the social media campaign was not timed around Anaya's visit.

The UN fact-finder spent the last nine days meeting with government officials, First Nations leaders, and indigenous people in Ontario, Quebec, B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Anaya is expected to make his findings public in a report that will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2014.

His visit follows a 2004 report by the previous rapporteur.