“Canada must now work out fair and lasting terms of coexistence with Aboriginal people…. Canada’s claim to be a fair and enlightened society depends on it.” -- Recommendation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996.
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For decades, high level government inquiries, federal audits and international human rights bodies have repeatedly and consistently pointed to an unacceptable gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in the enjoyment of basic human rights. Despite living in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, Indigenous families and communities in Canada continue to face widespread impoverishment, inadequate housing, food insecurity, ill-health and unsafe drinking water. Indigenous peoples have demonstrated extraordinary resilience in the face of historic programs and policies such as the residential school program that were meant to destroy their cultures, but they must still live with the largely unresolved legacy of the harm that was done.
The Canadian Government
Government services needed to improve people’s lives and address the legacy of past wrongs often fall far short of what is needed. The federal government’s repeatedly claims to spend large amounts of money on Indigenous peoples. But, the reality is that despite the urgent and pressing needs of Indigenous peoples, funding for many basic services for Indigenous peoples is often significantly less than what is provided in predominantly non-Indigenous communities.
"A National Commitment"
The Canadian Constitution affirms the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples and the Treaties that they have entered into with Canada. Canadian courts have called the protection of Indigenous rights “an underlying constitutional value,” “a national commitment” and a matter of “public interest".
Governments in Canada are supposed to act as guarantors of these rights. Instead, in positions taken during negotiations and before courts, governments in Canada have consistently sought to minimize their responsibilities. Processes to resolve disputes over Indigenous land rights are so adversarial, prolonged and costly that the Inter-Commission on Human Rights has concluded that lands claims processes in Canada don’t meet international standards of justice.
Land and Water
The widespread failure to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights to lands and resources, or to ensure timely resolution of outstanding land disputes, undermines the ability of Indigenous peoples to maintain ways of living on the land that are vital to their cultures, health and well-being. It also denies Indigenous peoples the opportunity to make their own decisions about the best forms of economic development needed to meet the needs and aspirations of their communities.
Changes to Federal Environmental Impact Assessment Processes
The federal government says that one of the main ways it protects the land rights of Indigenous peoples is through their participation in environmental impact assessment processes. In 2012, however, in two omnibus budget bills adopted by Parliament (Bill C-38 and Bill C-45), the federal government gave itself broad discretion to approve resource development projects regardless of the outcome of such assessments or even without any assessment at all.
Idle No More
The government's failure to consult with Indigenous peoples over these and other changes to legislation that affect their rights has sparked cross-country demonstrations under the banner of the Idle No More movement. Since December 2012, the grassroots Idle No More movement has brought thousands of people out on the streets of Canadian cities to demand respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples. The Idle No More movement has catalyzed a public debate that is long overdue. The ongoing violation of the human rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada is simply unacceptable. Change will only occur, however, if enough voices demand it.
Amnesty International’s work with Indigenous people in Canada
Amnesty International has long been concerned about violations of the human rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada. We recognize that the most effective movements for the protection of human rights are led by the rights holders themselves. We work in support of Indigenous human rights defenders through research and documentation, promotion of international human rights standards, and by encouraging our members and the general public to speak their conscience on these crucial issues.
Over the last decade, we have worked alongside Indigenous peoples’ organizations and activists to document the unacceptable impoverishment and marginalization of Indigenous communities, which among other tragic outcomes, has exposed Indigenous women to horrendous levels of violence in their homes and on the streets of Canadian cities. We have stood with Indigenous peoples in demanding fair and equitable access to basic services like clean drinking water that most Canadians take for granted. We have spoken out against the discriminatory double-standard in which land rights of Indigenous peoples recognized in the Canadian Constitution and in historic and contemporary Treaties are casually swept aside by governments and corporations. And we have campaigned for Canada to set a much-needed, positive example for the world by implementing international standards for the protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Around the world, Indigenous peoples are consistently among the most marginalized and most frequently victimized members of global society. Our experience working alongside Indigenous communities and activists around the world underlines the importance of international human rights standards – and the need for all governments to support and fully implement these standards.
Photo: Demonstrators participate in peaceful protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, 21 December 2012. Susanne Ure/ Amnesty International