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Taking a Look in the Mirror: Canada’s Treatment of First Nations People

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at McGill chapter.

By Elisha-Kim Desmangles

For decades, Canada has basked in the glory of its status as a leader in human rights and a promoter of multilateral diplomacy in world affairs. Canada can proudly say that it was the driving force behind United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions, the establishment of the International Criminal Court, and the UN initiative known as “responsibility to protect,” a norm in which the international community is obligated to act against a state that is committing crimes against humanity and genocide towards its citizens.

I remember learning about all these great things for which Canada is recognized while sitting in Leacock 132 during an Introduction to International Development Studies course my first year here at McGill. I won’t hide that I may have “brushed the shoulder” in pride of my country of birth as the professor revelled in Canada’s human rights successes.

But too soon did I forget that nobody is perfect – not even Canada.

In fact, while Canada has been a superhero for human rights in areas such as the provision of Canadian forces for numerous peacekeeping missions, or more recently in Russia concerning President Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay law, it has been neglecting its duties towards in own citizens: the First Nations.

In 2003, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People visited Canada and did not have good things to say about our treatment of First Nations. In fact, his report contained accusations of the persistent inequalities that aboriginal people in Canada are confronted with, in areas such as economic and social rights, as well as education, housing, and healthcare.

Now, a decade later, Canada is being given a second chance to prove itself the leader of human rights that it has always claimed to be. Current UN Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, arrived the weekend of October 5th in order to investigate the progress that has been made in Canada’s efforts to improve the quality of life of our aboriginal citizens. Anaya began his tour on Monday, October 7th, and will spend nine days meeting with people of the First Nations, in addition to government officials.

However, according to Assembly of First Nations National Chief, Shawn Atleo, what Anaya wants to see is not what he’s going to get. In a CBC News interview, Atleo was quoted saying, “Deep impoverishment, over 600 murdered, missing indigenous women and girls” are still major problems that the First Nations face in what they know as their homeland.

I remember being appalled when my professor mentioned that Canada has not been too kind to aboriginal people living inside its borders. Growing up in the United States, it was customary in elementary and middle school history classes to learn about the American’s terrible treatment of Native Americans during the 1800s and the Trail of Tears which displaced hundreds of thousands Native Americans to different reservations across the country and took the lives of countless innocent souls. But Canada, too? What happened to the stereotype of Canadians being good and nice to everyone, one of the only stereotypes I was happy to propagate? How could a place I’ve held so high turn out so low?



Prime Minister Stephen Harper has mentioned that natural resource development is an important component in the prosperity of Canada in the long-term. However, Anaya highlights that political decisions like these cannot be taken into consideration without discussion with and approval of aboriginal people, especially since such development would occur on or close to lands belonging to the First Nations. Moreover, Anaya plans to discuss the proposed First Nations Education Act with the aboriginal people, which if passed, would modernize schools on First Nations reservations. However, many aboriginal people have alluded to the lack of consultation of the First Nations in the writing of the bill.

It is imperative that the Canadian government gets its act together. It’s great that the government has taken it upon itself all these years to fight for the rights of people outside our borders, but there are Canadian citizens suffering inside our borders and not enough is being done to help them. It is only hypocritical of us to criticize and “fix” the human rights issues of other countries when we aren’t doing any better at home.

Additionally, Anaya first approached the government in February 2012 to ask permission to visit. He did not receive affirmation until this past spring, but why is that? What exactly does Canada have to hide?

The fact that, according to a Native Women’s Association of Canada Study, more than 600 aboriginal women and girls have disappeared or killed in Canada during the past three decades? The fact that half of First Nations children live in poverty (or 60 percent in Saskatchewan and Manitoba)? Or is it that fact, maybe, that aboriginal youth face a suicide rate that is five to six times greater than non-aboriginal youth?

The scariest part of those last two sentences is the fact that they are “facts.” This sort of treatment of First Nations and the quality of life we are letting them live is unacceptable for a country with such a strong moral compass abroad. It is up to the government to realize that there are major human rights issues going on in our backyard that have yet to be fixed.

Canada needs to take this opportunity of the UN visit as a chance to look at itself in the mirror. Do we like what we see? Of course not; so it’s up to us to do something about it. Either Canada makes the change, or its human rights abuses will go down in the history books more than its international successes. 


Please Note: opinions presented in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of Her Campus or Her Campus McGill.

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