Canada seeks end to legal discrimination against Aboriginal people

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Almost every country has committed wrongs in the past, but Canada is acknowledging its mistakes and is acting slowly to make sure that these are not continued.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emphasized in the last election campaign four years ago that among his Liberal Party’s priorities would be to build trust and mutual respect with Canada’s Aboriginal people and try to bring them into the Canadian mainstream. “Going forward, recognition of rights will guide all government interactions with Indigenous people,” he said.

But this is easier said than done because of the diversity among the Aboriginals themselves – there are more than 600 First Nation bands that the Indian Act recognizes. They live on reserves where alcohol, lack of jobs and gambling breed crime, despair and suicides, and the outdated Indian Act, which is replete with discriminatory clauses, and the antiquated approach of the bureaucracy add to the problem.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has stated that Canada’s Indian Act clearly discriminates against Indigenous women when it comes to passing on their Indian status to their descendants. The committee stated that the Act violates Canada’s international obligations and penalizes 270,000 Indian women and their children. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights bestows the right to full enjoyment of cultural identity on an equal basis to both men and women. Canada signed the treaty. However, parts of the Indian Act discriminate against Aboriginal women and their descendants.

Among the benefits of having Indian status are access to post-secondary education funding, tax exemptions and transmitting status and cultural identity to their children. The objective is to uplift the Aboriginal people and enable them to enjoy the same opportunities and rights as other Canadians.

Prime Minister Trudeau has termed the Indian Act “a colonialist relic” and has vowed to change the Act. However, this has not been easy given the government’s preoccupation with other priorities and the fact that most Canadians do not see the situation of the Aboriginals as urgent and vitally important.

Some Indian women have complained that they have not been treated as Indians because of the provisions of the Indian Act. “If the government of Canada fulfills its obligations and finally treats First Nations women as equals, it will be a new day for us, for our communities and for Canada,” said Sharon McIvor of British Columbia province.

McIvor’s grandmother belonged to the Nlaka’pamux nation, but she married a Canadian who was not of Indian origin. Because of rules that confer Indian status on the basis of male lineage, her daughter and her children could not be legally considered as Indians and were denied the benefits that the law provides for them.

The Indian Act was amended in 1985 to remove the overt gender discrimination. But critics maintain that the law still favors male Indians. McIvor complained that she can only pass on partial Indian status to her son, who married a non-Indian. However, her brother can pass full Indian status to his children and also to his grandchildren.

McIvor and her son Jacob Grismer told the committee that despite amendments the Act still excludes Aboriginal women and their descendants who would be entitled to register if they were treated on the same footing as Aboriginal men.

The UN committee has ruled that Canada must eliminate this discrimination and make sure that all First Nations (Aboriginal) women and their descendants are granted the same status as First Nations men and their descendants.

The government has stated that it is committed to eliminating all sex-based discrimination from the Indian Act and has made this a priority. The committee said that Canada “regrets the historical discrimination and other inequities to which Indigenous women and their descendants have been subject.”

Historically, Indigenous children were taken from their parents and sent to residential schools, where efforts were made to estrange them from their heritage and languages and transform them into Europeans who settled in Canada.

This policy was replaced by integration, where students from Indian reserves were sent to provincial public schools. Aboriginal leaders called it “an invitation to participate in the annihilation of our culture and our way of life.”

Now local bands administer separate schools on reserves with federal funding, as provided by the Constitution. However, provincial funding for public schools has outpaced federal help for Aboriginal schools. In 2016 the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal stated that lower funding for child welfare services on reserves is discriminatory.

The evidence suggests that both the federal and provincial governments are working to provide Aboriginals on reserves the same assistance as is provided to other students elsewhere. But in the real world, progress remains slow.

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.


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