The Grand Council of the Crees

Special Rapporteur Rodolfo Stavenhagen

Remarks by Romeo Saganash during the visit of Special Rapporteur Rodolfo Stavenhagen

Posted: 2004-05-27

Mr Stavenhagen, friends:

It is an honour for me to make brief remarks at this session. Last weekend I travelled with our distinguished U.N. visitor in Eeyou Istchee, the traditional territory of the James Bay Cree Nation. We are fortunate to have this further opportunity to be with him today.

Today's session at Amnesty International has a special character. You are meeting with representatives of some of Canada's most distinguished, non-aboriginal, faith, human rights, democratic development, and related advocacy organizations. Mr Special Rapporteur, I believe that it is fundamentally important that they communicate to you their understanding of this situation, and their relationship with the ongoing, tragic dynamic between aboriginal peoples in Canada and the Crown.

A leading non-aboriginal Canadian legal scholar wrote recently in the Canadian Bar Review that "We live in an era of rights." The situation facing aboriginal peoples is fundamentally a rights situation. I know that governments have asked you to "be practical" and to focus on "practical solutions" in your work. We are not at all surprised. For many years, the government of Canada has demanded that we must abandon our rights-based advocacy in favour of such concepts as "local improvement of living conditions". We cannot do this. The ongoing denial of our rights, the right of recognition of our status, the right of self-determination, and our aboriginal and treaty rights to name a few, is the root cause of our situation. For us to abandon human rights advocacy is for us to get onto a slippery slope of no minimum standards, of no entitlements as of right based on our status and relationship with our territories or the Crown, and thus of diminishing charitable responses to our circumstances according to the whims of others. Mr Special Rapporteur, we have come to understand not as aboriginal peoples not only that we can "eat rights", but also that rights are the only thing we can "eat".

Canada often asserts that "its Indians" or "its Inuit" are better off than the "Indians" or "Inuit" in other countries, and that it spends seven or eight billion dollars per year on aboriginal peoples. These things may well be true on their face. However, we believe that these are false and immoral assertions and comparisons. The only question is how aboriginal peoples in Canada are doing in comparison to all other people in Canada, and whether the expenditures made on aboriginal peoples are equivalent - they should actually be higher, given the developmental deficits and gross legacies of exclusion among our peoples - than per capita expenditures from all sources on all other people in Canada.

The government of Canada - and indeed the country as a whole -- positions itself as a paragon of respect for human rights within this country and internationally. We believe that this stance and this discourse brings with it a duty to discuss, admit to, and progressively address serious human rights deficiencies concerning aboriginal peoples. Indeed, we know that Canada has explicitly assumed international obligations to do so.

In 1996, after 5 years of study, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples - or "RCAP" -- issued its final report. It stated that "...Aboriginal peoples have limited resources. Their lands and resources were taken from them by settler society and became the basis for the high standard of living enjoyed by other Canadians over the years. Only a small proportion of Canada's resource income has come back to Aboriginal people, most in the form of transfer payments such as social assistance. This has never been, and is not now, the choice of Aboriginal people. They want to free themselves from the destructive burden of welfare and dependency. But to do this they need to have back some of what was taken away. They need land and they need resources."

In more "practical terms", RCAP continued: "The current state of Aboriginal housing and community services poses acute threats to health. Diseases spread by inadequacies of water, sanitation and housing (tuberculosis and infections, for example) are more common among Aboriginal people than among non-Aboriginal people. Dwellings are unsafe and there is a lack of fire protection services. On reserves, DIAND figures show that 200 dwellings are lost because of fire each year. In the North, solid waste dump sites and lack of sewage treatment create environmental hazards that contaminate country food consumed by Aboriginal people. Such direct threats to health would not be tolerated in other Canadian communities. They must not be allowed to persist among Aboriginal people either. "

RCAP continued: "...Aboriginal peoples have had great difficulty maintaining their lands and livelihoods in the face of massive encroachment. This encroachment is not ancient history. In addition to the devastating impact of settlement and development on traditional land-use areas, the actual reserve or community land base of Aboriginal people has shrunk by almost two-thirds since Confederation [1867], and on-reserve resources have largely vanished. The history of these losses includes the abject failure by the Indian Affairs department's stewardship of reserves and other aboriginal assets. As a result, Aboriginal people have been impoverished, deprived of the tools necessary for self-sufficiency and self-reliance."

RCAP concluded with a dire warning: " It is not difficult to identify the solution. Aboriginal peoples need much more territory to become economically, culturally and politically self-sufficient. If they cannot obtain a greater share of the lands and resources in this country, their institutions of self-government will fail. Without adequate lands and resources, Aboriginal nations will be unable to build their communities and structure the employment opportunities necessary to achieve self-sufficiency. Currently, on the margins of Canadian society, they will be pushed to the edge of economic, cultural and political extinction. The government must act forcefully, generously and swiftly to assure the economic, cultural and political survival of Aboriginal nations."

Mr Special Rapporteur, by the end of the 1990's, these things had not changed, and it was becoming clear that RCAP was a dead letter. So we approached the two UN Covenant Committees. Their Concluding Observations in respect of Canada were as follows:

"...17. The Committee is greatly concerned at thegross disparity between Aboriginal people and the majority of Canadians with respect to the enjoyment of Covenant rights. There has been little or no progress in the alleviation of social and economic deprivation among Aboriginal people. In particular, the Committee is deeply concerned at the shortage of adequate housing, the endemic mass unemployment and the high rate of suicide, especially among youth, in the Aboriginal communities. Another concern is the failure to provide safe and adequate drinking water to Aboriginal communities on reserves. The delegation of the State Party conceded that almost a quarter of Aboriginal household dwellings required major repairs and lacked basic amenities.

... 18. The Committee views with concern the direct connection between Aboriginal economic marginalization and the ongoing dispossession of Aboriginal people from their lands, as recognized by RCAP, and endorses the recommendations of RCAP that policies which violate Aboriginal treaty obligations and the extinguishment, conversion or giving up of Aboriginal rights and title should on no account be pursued by the State Party. The Committee is greatly concerned that the recommendations of RCAP have not yet been implemented, in spite of the urgency of the situation. "

In April 1999, the U.N. Human Rights Committee ruled on Canada as follows:

"The Committee notes that, as the State party acknowledged, the situation of the aboriginal peoples remains "the most pressing human rights issue facing Canadians". In this connection, the Committee is particularly concerned that the State party has not yet implemented the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). With reference to the conclusion by RCAP that without a greater share of lands and resources institutions of aboriginal self-government will fail, the Committee emphasizes that the right to self-determination requires,inter alia,that all peoples must be able to freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources and that they may not be deprived of their own means of subsistence (art. 1, para. 2). The Committee recommends that decisive and urgent action be taken towards the full implementation of the RCAP recommendations on land and resource allocation. The Committee also recommends that the practice of extinguishing inherent aboriginal rights be abandoned as incompatible with article 1 of the Covenant."

Mr Special Rapporteur, in 2001, and 2001, and 2002, and 2003, and now again in 2005, various arms of the federal government and various independent commission are continuing to issue, and escalate the language in their reports of aboriginal displacement, dispossession, crisis, and deep aboriginal community anguish and shame. The authors of these reports include Health Canada, the Auditor General, independent research institutes, commissions of inquiries, and other entities.

I will conclude with a brief quote from one of the most recent reports, from the conservative CD Howe Institute:

"We believe there is compelling evidence that aboriginal poverty is Canada's worst social wound. Curing it will not be easy; ignoring the evidence will make the task impossible."

Which brings me to my final point. This situation in Canada - which is a G8 state with the highest levels of overall capacity, technical ability, resources, lands, and standards of living and social development -- persists, and some would argue, is getting worse. Fundamentally, this is a question of a national policy of extinguishment: extinguishment of rights, extinguishment of cultures, extinguishment of peoples.

The same is true in many other countries. We believe that a central, if not a necessary component, of any meaningful change will be the entrenchment of appropriate international standards. In this regard, I encourage you to give the views of the other, mostly non-aboriginal speakers at this session, and through you the UN Human Rights Commission, the close attention for which you are renowned and very much appreciated.

Thanks you. Merci. Miigwetch.

Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) Volume 2.

Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volume 1, Chapter 4: "housing" (emphasis added).

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996),Volume 2

Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) Volume 2

Concluding observations of the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights : Canada. 10/12/98. E/C.12/1/Add.31.[concerning Canada's compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights] December 1998

Drost, Helmar and John Richards: Income On-and Off-Reserve: How Aboriginals are Faring (CD Howe Institute, March 2003).