Until Saturday, Canada's aboriginals had less recourse than other Canadians when their human rights were violated. And so the extension of the Canadian Human Rights Act to complaints under the Indian Act is a welcome and overdue move. Not only will it give further dignity to aboriginals; it holds the promise of improving governance on reserves.
The Canadian Human Rights Act covers many of the activities of everyday life that usually proceed without incident, but over which a malicious person, or a maliciously-run institution, can run roughshod - practices like sexual harassment in the workplace; denial of an apartment because of someone's background; or dismissal from a job because of a family feud. Previously, aboriginal Canadians could not use the complaint mechanism in the Act to appeal to the Canadian Human Rights Commission if they faced this kind of unacceptable discrimination. Now, they can.
Aboriginals have some special concerns that deserve redress, and one group of women, in particular, could use protection. As reported by the Commission in 2005, "The lack of an on-reserve matrimonial real property regime is a long standing human rights issue."
There are significant challenges ahead. Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who has pledged to work with the federal government to implement the extension, says "First Nations lack the capacity and resources to effectively implement the changes." The most obvious new challenge that the extension of the Human Rights Act will allow - over access to band offices and other on-reserve facilities for people with physical disabilities - might also be the most visible and costly one. And it will take time for aboriginals themselves to be aware of the new avenues of redress they can seek, an awareness that First Nations governments themselves should be willing to foster.
But in these challenges comes an opportunity for greater collaboration. A small band government with jurisdiction over a population in the hundreds can't be expected to deal with complaints as competently or professionally as a provincial government might. Existing cross-reserve institutions such as the First Nations Land Management Resource Centre - which helps First Nations with matters like environmental assessments and land codes - are good models for the professionalization and centralization of work that can bring First Nations governments into compliance with human rights legislation.
There needn't be any contradiction between collective aboriginal rights and human rights. And First Nations people have been lacking crucial protections for too long. While the struggle for other aboriginal rights, and for a revision to the Indian Act, continues, the new human rights regime is a cause for celebration.