UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Canada is facing a crisis over aboriginal issues despite years of efforts to overcome tensions and address social problems, a U.N. expert who recently visited the country said Monday.
James Anaya, U.N. special rapporteur on indigenous rights, said Canada has not narrowed social disparities between aboriginal and other Canadians in recent years. He said disputes over land and natural resources continue to be a source of tension and distrust.
Such disputes include recent protests against shale gas exploration in eastern New Brunswick, opposed by the Elsipogtog First Nation. The protests turned violent last week when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police enforced an injunction to end a demonstration against seismic testing by energy company SWN Resources. Six police vehicles were set on fire and 40 people were arrested.
Anaya said he had no first-hand knowledge of the violence, which occurred after his visit, but he called it a "manifestation of this frustration with the unresolved issues." "There's a crisis in Canada with regard to indigenous issues, notwithstanding some important developments within Canada over the last decades," Anaya said at a news conference.
On Monday, a New Brunswick judge lifted the injunction against a blockade outside a compound owned by SWN Resources, saying it was no longer needed because vehicles and equipment owned by the company have been removed and protesters are no longer blocking the road.
Members of the Elsipogtog First Nation beat drums and sang in celebration. The chief of Elsipogtog, Aaron Sock, criticized the police for their actions and vowed to keep up the fight against the shale gas exploration. The RCMP defended its actions, saying it had worked hard to try to resolve the situation peacefully before moving in.
In a statement following his visit to Canada, Anaya said aboriginal peoples live in conditions comparable to much poorer countries. He said one in five indigenous Canadians live in dilapidated and often overcrowded homes and "funding for aboriginal housing is woefully inadequate." He said the suicide rate among Inuit and First Nations youth on reserve is more than five times greater than that of other Canadians. One community Anaya visited had suffered a suicide every six weeks since the start of the year.
Anaya said such problems persist even though Canada was one of the first countries to extend constitutional protection to the rights of indigenous people, has taken notable steps to repair the legacy of past injustices and has develop processes for land claims "that in many respects are models for the world to emulate."
Anaya, who is planning to present a full report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, had several recommendations for Canada's government. He encouraged the government "to take a less adversarial" approach to land claim settlements "in which it typically seeks the most restrictive interpretation of aboriginal and treaty rights possible."
He also cautioned the government "not to rush forward" with a proposed First Nations Education Act that indigenous leaders have opposed. The law is meant to allow indigenous communities to establish their own education system and proposes standards for "school success plans," but indigenous leaders say it denies the primary importance of First Nation languages and cultures and fails to affirm First Nation control over their education.
Indigenous leaders have cited legacy of Canada's now-defunct residential school system, in which aboriginal children were removed from their communities and placed in schools intended to strip them of their culture, as an argument for allowing First Nations to control their own education. Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a historic apology to survivors of the schools in 2008.
In response to Anaya's statement, Canadian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt said the social well-being of aboriginals is "at the center of Canada's preoccupations and explains why the government has taken, and continues to take, effective incremental steps to improve the situation."
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this story.