The land human rights forgot

Posted on April 17, 2008 in Equality Debates – opinion/editorial – The land human rights forgot
Published: Thursday, April 17, 2008

Can someone tell us why the Canadian media are burying our country’s biggest domestic story?

This country’s signature disgrace is the appalling socioeconomic conditions on native reserves. The main cause is simple: Many reserves are corrupt little kibbutzes run by — and for the benefit of — a tightly knit clique of leaders. For all the politically correct propaganda we hear about the “ancient wisdom” of aboriginal peoples, such reserves are the backwaters that human rights forgot. Band employees get hired and fired on the basis of their connections. Band-controlled housing, similarly, is assigned on the basis of cronyism. And women often are systematically disenfranchised: One of the most common stories you hear is the poor divorcee who gets thrown out of her band-supplied home because her better-connected husband pulls strings with a patriarchal band council.

What’s worse, victims of these abuses often have no recourse under the Canadian Human Rights Act (HRA), Section 67 of which blocks the statute’s application in any context that conflicts with the Indian Act. The effect is to make the HRA a dead letter for many natives.

The Conservatives, to their credit, have moved on this problem. Bill C-21, introduced last year by Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, was a simple piece of legislation that stated: “Section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act is repealed.” Under the terms of the bill, native leaders would have six months to get their affairs in compliance with the CHA. In a perfectly rational world, it would have received all-party support.

Instead, opposition MPs mangled the bill with amendments. Most notably, we got this loophole, big enough to drive a truck through: “This Act shall be interpreted and applied in a manner that gives due regard to First Nations legal traditions and customary laws, particularly the balancing of individual rights and interests against collective rights and interests.”

Given that the whole wretched reserve system is sustained by the conceit that natives need their own quasi-sovereign territories as repositories for their unique cultures, what discriminatory policy could not, under one strand of tortured logic or another, be justified according to the idea of “collective rights and interests”?

Such amendments make a farce of C-21, and Mr. Strahl has sensibly threatened to pull the bill altogether if they cannot be deleted. Better to wait for a Conservative majority government and push C-21 through in a meaningful way than settle for such an emasculated bill.

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