It's a whirlwind fact-finding tour that will highlight points of tension in Canada's relationship with its aboriginal peoples, but it could also offer a road map to reconciliation.
James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, begins his first visit to Canada with meetings in Ottawa Monday and Tuesday with top officials from the federal government, including Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt. He will then travel across the country to listen directly to the concerns of aboriginal people and to observe the social and economic conditions in which they live.
While the visit is sure to draw attention to issues such as poverty, ill-health and conflict over pipelines and mining projects, it could also present opportunities to educate Canadians about the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada endorsed in 2010, and on the obligations of all Canadians as treaty people.
Prof. Anaya, who teaches human-rights law at the University of Arizona, said in an interview Sunday that he's anxious to investigate a number of issues that Canadians have written to him about in recent years, including resource development, land claims, the residential schools and the plight of missing and murdered aboriginal women. He's also interested to learn more about the outcomes of the Idle No More movement, which he followed closely.
"It's a broad range of issues, but I'm really going to be guided by what aboriginal people and the government signal as the ones that are in need of still greatest attention. I don't want to prejudge what I'm going to highlight before I listen to everybody over the next nine days or so," Prof. Anaya said. "The purpose of the visit is to listen and to learn and to contribute to your discussion on how to address the challenges that are outstanding."
One of the places Prof. Anaya will visit is the Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta. Wilton Littlechild, who is the chair of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is originally from Ermineskin and along with the chief and council invited Prof. Anaya to visit the community. He said he expects people will want to talk about a suite of pending federal legislation that will affect the rights of indigenous people, including the proposed First Nations Education Act, which seeks to modernize the organization of schools on reserve. Some aboriginal people oppose the legislation because they feel it was produced with insufficient consultation.
Also, Prof. Anaya recently produced a report on indigenous people and extractive industries that endorsed the general rule of free, prior and informed consent as a basic requirement for any operation on indigenous land, an issue of pressing concern in Western Canada and the North.
"He's interested in whether there are any good practices out there on extractive industries and indigenous people," Mr. Littlechild said. "He's always asking me if there's anything out there we could lift up as a good model."
Mr. Littlechild said he's optimistic the visit will spark a constructive dialogue.
"If he would link treaties as a solution with the UN declaration I think it would go a long way to reconciliation," said Mr. Littlechild. "That would be be a very good outcome to his visit. It would really provoke us to work together."
Prof. Anaya initially asked the Canadian government for an invitation to visit in early 2012. It took until a few months ago to obtain official approval, although Prof. Anaya said that's not unusual. Prof. Anaya will deliver a preliminary assessment at the conclusion of his visit and a final report in a few months time.