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Canada Atleo hopes UN visit will ‘hold a mirror’ to gap between Canada and First Nations

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo is hoping a visit by a UN envoy will conclude that past treatment of First Nations can be considered genocide.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The head of Canada's largest aboriginal group says he hopes the arrival in Canada of the UN overseer of indigenous rights will illuminate the dark corners of this country's history and prompt a discussion about whether the past treatment of the First Nations constitutes genocide.

James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, will start an eight-day visit to Canada on Monday. That day is also the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation, which set the guidelines for British settlement in North America – and says aboriginal title to the land exists until it is ceded by treaty.

Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Thursday in an interview with The Globe and Mail that he hopes Mr. Anaya's tour through six provinces will "hold a mirror" to the deep gap between aboriginal aspirations for a better life and the promises in the Royal Proclamation, treaties, the Constitution and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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"It is time to shine a light into the deepest, darkest corners of First Nations reality and its impact on our people and its impact on the relationship between First Nations and Canadians," Mr. Atleo said. "I do think it is important to recognize that the treatment of our people and the debate about it [genocide] does need to take place."

Academics and social activists have said Canada's historical treatment of aboriginal people meets the UN definition of genocide, which is the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group through any of a number of means. They including killing the group's members, causing them serious mental or physical harm, subjecting them to unsustainable living conditions, preventing births and forcibly transferring their children to another group.

Native lives were lost in Canada and attempts were made to wipe out indigenous culture, Mr. Atleo said.

"Children as young as 6 had their tongues pricked when they tried to speak the only language that they knew. And this isn't five generations ago. This is in the lifetimes and the memories of people who are giving evidence at Truth and Reconciliation Commission [on the treatment of aboriginal people at church-run residential schools] gatherings and giving public testimony right now," he said.

"So I don't think this is a moment to shy away," he said. "In fact, when I talk about Anaya holding up a mirror, we've got to have this light shone and this mirror reflected back, not only on First Nations lives, but on the deep gap that still exists between First Nations and Canada as a whole."

Mr. Anaya will travel to remote communities and urban areas, and prepare a report for the UN Human Rights Council.

The federal Conservative government had a prickly experience with another UN official. When Olivier De Schutter, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, referred in 2012 to the "desperate situation" of indigenous people, the government dismissed him as an "ill-informed academic."

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But Mr. Atleo said he hopes Mr. Anaya will succeed in highlighting issues including the disproportionate number of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls, the "unfair" funding system for First Nations education and the state of treaty implementation and land negotiations. "This is why the Royal Proclamation is so critical," he said. "The negotiations and implementation must be based on recognition and affirmation and implementation of rights, not attempts to deny or extinguish."

Mr. Atleo will mark the anniversary of the Royal Proclamation in Ottawa on Monday. He then heads to London with other First Nations leaders for additional ceremonies.

And regardless of what Mr. Anaya finds, Mr. Atleo said, the world will learn about this country's relationship with the First Nations, Métis and Inuit at the UN's forum on indigenous issues in New York next May.

"Leaders like myself and others," he said, "we will be telling the world that first-world countries like Canada that stood for human rights for a long time in fact have major outstanding issues in our homelands that have to be addressed."

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