Why Aboriginals Need Human Rights

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice wants to repeal a 30-year-old section of the Canadian Human Rights Act that blocks the ability of First Nations citizens to lay claims against Chiefs and band councils acting under the outdated Indian Act. Fearing a loss of power, national native leaders have called the proposed change a rushed, unilateral move that would sow dissent and tensions on reserves. Prentice should stick to his guns.

“First Nations people’s don’t have the same rights and remedies as other Canadians,” he said when he introduced the legislation last December. “We think that’s unacceptable and we’re prepared to move on it.”

That’s welcome news to the rank and file in First Nations, many of whom have suffered human-rights abuses from their own leaders. It also has the full support of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which detailed the problems with Section 67 of the Human Rights Act in a special report published in October, 2005. The Section “runs contrary” to the “inclusive approach” of the Act, the Commission wrote, which says that “any action, policy or legislation within federal jurisdiction can be the subject of a human rights complaint.”

“In effect, [Section 67] creates a zone of law and decision making within which First Nation people have a restricted right to pursue claims of discrimination,” the report says. Since the broad scope of the Indian Act “affects many aspects of the daily lives of First Nation people,” the blanket exemption harms them in numerous respects, including housing, education, the use of lands, wills and estates, even their right to be registered as a member of the band. The bill is expected largely to benefit women, said the Globe and Mail when it was introduced, “who have often seen their land rights trampled by the male-dominated band councils.”

Both Prentice and the Commission are on solid ground. Natives have never had the protection of human rights law. They have been asking Ottawa for years to do something about the abuses they suffer at the hands of their leaders, who in turn faced no retribution for their despicable actions. These same leaders are now crying the loudest about the proposed change, and want it delayed for 40 months. But rights delayed are rights denied.

Given this country’s long history of denying us basic human rights, it’s ironic that aboriginal leaders should be leading the charge against extending to their own people the right of non-discrimination. In 1900, the Dominion Elections Act effectively denied us the right to vote, a violation confirmed in subsequent laws passed in 1920 and 1938. Not until 1960 were aboriginals granted the right to vote in federal elections.

Take a closer look at one Chief on one Manitoba reserve and some of his victims, and then decide for yourself. Are we rushing too fast?

One family – which had dared to criticize the Chief politically – had the misfortune to have a cell phone stolen from him found in their residence. In retaliation, this Chief, an ordained Anglican priest, used his unlimited powers to evict the whole family from its home and banish them from the reserve. A videotape shot of the eviction looks like something that could have taken place in Idi Amin’s Uganda.

The video shows band constables and the RCMP enforcing the eviction order by ripping off window screens as the family’s children screamed in terror. A week later, their father was taken from the band office in handcuffs, driven to Thompson, Manitoba, and dumped out onto a street, with strict orders not to return to the reserve.

A week later, on the very day the federal government was turning over control of Child and Family Services to the band, the Chief directed two social workers to the home with orders to instruct the mother to leave the reserve or face confiscation of her children. The terrified woman chose to leave. The social workers drove them to Thompson and, as before, dumped them on the street. The same week band constables threw the family’s furniture and groceries on the lawn and the Public Works department moved the house to another part of the reserve.

Not in Canada, you say? Welcome to my reserve. And these were not this Chief’s only victims. The people are thankful to the Chiefs of Manitoba for electing this despot to higher office.

Section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act denies this family the right to petition the courts for redress. Should any government in this land be allowed to strip people of their home, their possessions and their citizenship because they allegedly stole a telephone?

The Chiefs don’t need a 40-month delay. Their people have waited long enough.