On June 18, the Canadian Human Rights Act came into effect on first nation reserves. This will affect more than 633 first nation communities and more than 700,000 first nation citizens who reside on reserves.
When the act was introduced in 1977, Section 67 prohibited individuals on reserves from filing claims against the government for acts of discrimination. This exemption was used by successive governments to enact policies and regulations that effectively discriminated and impoverished first nation people and governments. It allowed the federal government to strip first nation peoples of their citizenship and status and provide substandard education and medical and social services in first nation communities. The underfunding of first nation governments led to poor housing, dangerous drinking water and crumbling infrastructure.
The application of the act is being heralded as a new era of human rights for first nation individuals. And yet it is the federal government that has been opposing claims of discrimination filed against it by first nation citizens during the past few years in many cases on many issues.
Some try to dismiss the legitimate concerns of first nations or, worse, accuse first nation leaders of trying to deny human rights. Yet, the concerns are real and valid.
The vast majority of first nations lack the capacity and resources to effectively implement the required changes. Most programs, policies and infrastructure in first nation communities were put in place by the Department of Indian Affairs and do not stand up to the scrutiny of the Human Rights Act. First nation governments are now responsible for the problems.
Housing is an illustrative example. The poor conditions and overcrowding resulting from federal underfunding are well-known. Yet now, under the act, first nations must meet the needs of physically disabled citizens. No funding is being provided to make the necessary structural changes. Estimates indicate that 1,636 public buildings will require modification at a cost of $50-million. First nations are expected to deal with these changes.
First nations will require funding to enable their governments to meet standards equal to those enjoyed by other Canadians. The Assembly of First Nations has called on the federal government to ensure these resources are available.
There are other dangers. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal recently ruled – in a case dealing with the underfunding of first nation child and family services – that one can't compare levels of funding between federal and provincial governments. This ruling could allow the chronic underfunding to continue, with liabilities piling up against first nation governments while their people continue to suffer. The AFN is appealing this decision.
First nations want to continue to work with the federal government to give life to their rights. In fact, first nations view the 11 grounds covered by the Human Rights Act as too narrow. First nations view human-rights standards as including the right to water, food, shelter, culture, self-determination, land, education, health and more. For first nations, the act does not go far enough.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples more closely reflects the human-rights standards observed by first nations. Ironically, the federal government took more than two years to endorse the declaration, and even then with significant concerns. The AFN continues to encourage the government to fully endorse the declaration and to work with first nations on a constitutional amendment recognizing first nations as a third order of government.
First nations are ready to work with the federal government to implement, broaden and modernize Canadian human-rights laws. And the AFN encourages the federal government to work with first nations to reconcile our respective authorities and jurisdictions. Doing so will ensure that true equity and a higher standard of human rights will be attained. We believe that only through the process of reconciliation will the standard of living for first nation peoples equal those of regular Canadians.
If we truly believe in human rights for all, then we must work together toward these goals.
Shawn Atleo is national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.