United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations Twenty-Fourth Session, July 31 - August 4, 2006
The Government of Canada welcomes this opportunity to address the 24th Session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP). We would like to make a general observation and also provide information on several recent and important initiatives in Canada that may assist the Working Group in its review of developments.
The new Human Rights Council presents an historic opportunity and challenge for the international promotion and protection of human rights. Canada has called for a new focus on implementation of human rights obligations by the Council and an emphasis on cooperation to facilitate implementation. However, the challenges are huge, because creating and strengthening institutions takes a lot of time, creativity and commitment. It is not surprising, therefore, that the creation of the Human Rights Council has created some uncertainty, including regarding mechanisms to address the human rights of indigenous peoples. We were therefore pleased that at the first Human Rights Council session the mandates of all mechanisms, including all indigenous mechanisms, were extended and will continue their work uninterrupted during the period of the review called for by the General Assembly.
Canada has supported the deployment in recent years of a range of bodies and processes within the UN system, in addition to the Working Group, to address indigenous issues. These include the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples , the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, discussions under the auspices of the World Intellectual Property Organization and the Convention on Biological Diversity among others, and a general main streaming of indigenous issues within the context of a number of world conferences.
Canada believes that this Working Group has played a useful and constructive role in raising the profile of indigenous rights as human rights and in providing a safe place in the UN system for indigenous peoples to express their voices.
The challenge going forward will be to ensure that we strengthen the effectiveness of mandates, including by working in a complementary and collaborative manner with other parts of the UN system, while avoiding overlap and duplication.
Canada's Minister for Foreign Affairs at the inaugural session called for the Council to continue to make progress on long standing human rights priorities such as the rights of indigenous peoples. In this first transitional year, as a member of the Council, Canada will play an active and interested role in shaping the new Council, ensuring a place for indigenous issues. We encourage indigenous groups to also be active in these deliberations and decisions.
Mr. Chairperson and members of the Working Group, Canada has observed consistently before this and other bodies in recent years that inclusion and participation of indigenous peoples in policies and programs affecting them have proven to be a prerequisite for progress. Canada's approaches to indigenous issues domestically continue to be based on this principle of participation in decision-making and in delivery.
In its Budget 2006, the Government of Canada identified a number of priority areas for working with Aboriginal leaders and communities, and provincial and territorial governments, to develop new approaches with workable solutions to improve the lives of Aboriginal peoples. These priorities include education; women, children and families; and water and housing.
On March 21, 2006, the Government of Canada launched an action plan to address drinking water concerns in First Nations communities. It included a commitment to establish a panel of experts to advise on an appropriate regulatory framework to ensure safe drinking water on reserve. That independent panel was established on May 31, 2006 by the Government of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations. It is currently holding public hearings with First Nations representatives and other stakeholders across Canada, gathering the views of community members on this priority issue.
The expert panel is to submit the final options paper at the end of August 2006. The paper will then be reviewed by the Joint Steering Committee on the Recognition and Implementation of First Nations Governments, co-Chaired by Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Jim Prentice and the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. A report on the findings will be made public in September 2006.
A long-standing human rights issue in Canada has been that First Nations women and children living on-reserve do not enjoy the same level of protection of their rights to matrimonial property as men, or as women and children living off-reserve. In order to address this issue, on June 20, 2006 The Honourable Jim Prentice, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, announced nation-wide consultations on the issue of matrimonial real property for Fall 2006. This is the first of a series of measures to protect the rights and to ensure the well-being of women, children and families living on-reserve.
To assist in the consultations process, Minister Prentice has appointed Wendy Grant-John as his Ministerial Representative. She will work with the Native Women's Association of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations in developing a plan for consultations and help facilitate the process while ensuring all interested parties are heard. She will then present recommendations for action, including possible legislative solutions.
In a related matter, the Government shares the concerns of all Canadians regarding all forms of discrimination and violence against Aboriginal women and is committed to providing support where needed. Consequently, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada will also be working with a wide range of stakeholders to strengthen violence prevention programming for women, children and families. By early Fall, the Department hopes to bring forward options to improve these programs and ultimately reduce family violence.
A third recent initiative to address current priorities has been launched in the field of education.
Since the 1972 paper entitled Indian Control of Indian Education (National Indian Brotherhood), First Nations have been seeking recognition by the federal and provincial governments of First Nations' jurisdiction over education. Canada's New Government recognizes the crucial importance that education plays in terms of improving the quality of life of First Nations people. On July 5, 2006, the federal government, the Government of British Columbia and the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) concluded six years of negotiations by signing a historic agreement that will lead to recognition of First Nations' jurisdiction over First Nations' education in British Columbia. This agreement will trigger Canada and B.C. to put into place the necessary legislative measures to implement this significant achievement. FNESC will work with the interested First Nations to assist them in developing education laws and establishing Community Education Authorities to deliver education programs and services.
The scope of jurisdiction for the purposes of these agreements is for on-reserve, kindergarten to grade 12 educations and represents one aspect of education. Early childhood development and post-secondary education will be negotiated in the future.
First Nations who choose to negotiate and enter into a bilateral Canada-First Nation Education Jurisdiction Agreement can opt in and remove themselves from the application of sections of the Indian Act. Those First Nations who choose not to opt in will continue to be governed by the Indian Act. A significant number of First Nations in British Columbia have expressed their intent to negotiate Canada-First Nation Education Jurisdiction Agreements.
This agreement on First Nations' schools is the first of its kind in Canada and is a major step toward our goal of closing the education gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal British Columbians. As partners, the Province, the federal government and First Nations are ready to work together to create better learning opportunities for First Nations' students. This agreement will strengthen First Nations' capacity to exercise control over their education systems and institutions. This approach represents the future of education for First Nations' students, as it provides a model that can be replicated on reserves across Canada.
Mr. Chairman and members of the Working Group, in past statements to this Working Group Canada has provided information on progress being made to resolve the unfortunate legacy of the negative effects on Aboriginal Canadians of the Indian residential schools experience. On May 10, 2006, the Government of Canada announced approval of a final Residential Schools Settlement Agreement , which had been negotiated with legal representatives of former students of Indian Residential Schools, legal representatives of the Churches involved in running those schools, the Assembly of First Nations, and other Aboriginal organizations. The Agreement proposes a Common Experience Payment for all eligible former students of Indian Residential Schools, an Independent Assessment Process for claims of sexual or serious physical abuse, as well as measures to support healing, commemorative activities, and the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Settlement Agreement must now be presented for approval by the courts in nine Canadian jurisdictions over the coming months.
In anticipation of a final agreement, the federal government in its Budget 2006 set aside $2.2 billion for the common experience payments and for the other programmatic elements. The Government believes that this financial recognition of the often negative impact of the residential school experience, buttressed by support programs and compensation for those who suffered harm, will help former students to build a better future for themselves and their families in communities across Canada. Programs and activities devoted to truth and reconciliation and commemoration of the residential school experience should lead to a broader understanding among all Canadians of the impacts of the Indian residential school system.
Finally, Mr. Chairman, Canada was instrumental in ensuring that issues facing the large numbers of indigenous peoples living in urban areas worldwide was addressed at the recent Third World Urban Forum (WUF) held in Vancouver in June, 2006. A number of indigenous representatives from Canada, Latin America and other regions accepted the federal government's invitation to attend WUF and bring their perspectives directly to this world conference. We commend the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues for recognizing the importance of urban issues and migration at its fifth session held in New York in May, and for participating in the World Urban Forum. Canada looks forward to further cooperation with the Permanent Forum, UN-HABITAT, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration and other partners in the organization of an international expert group meeting on urban indigenous peoples and migration, planned to be held later this year as a contribution to this complex and important subject.
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