By Celeste McKay
In the coming months, Canada will be asked to report to two separate United Nations human-rights bodies about the progress it is making to end the appalling levels of violence experienced by indigenous women, and close the social and economic gap that has put them in harm’s way.
In November 2008, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women concluded that ending violence against indigenous women must be made a priority issue given the large numbers of indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered in Canada. In an unusual move, the committee called on Canada to report back in one year on its progress.
Two weeks ago, these concerns were again repeated when Canada’s human-rights record was reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council as part of its Universal Periodic Review process. Of the 45 states that had the opportunity to take the floor, 16 specifically mentioned violence against indigenous women as a critical area of reform.
These states included many with whom Canada has long had a positive relationship at the UN. Norway, for example, recommended that Canada “study and address the root causes of domestic violence against women, in particular Aboriginal women” and to “institute comprehensive reporting and statistical analysis of the scale and character of violence against indigenous women” that will lead to a national strategy to be initiated in consultation with indigenous representatives that will “respond to the severity of the issue”.
Governments in Canada now have a choice. They can continue to offer the United Nations—and indigenous women themselves—hollow reassurances that they are doing their best. Or they can take this opportunity to work with indigenous women to come up with a plan of action that will make a real difference.
When Canada was reviewed by the Human Rights Council earlier this month, its representatives responded to every criticism and recommendation with regurgitation of existing commitments, services, and programs available to indigenous peoples. This was despite the fact that other states had observed that existing services and programs were clearly not adequate to deal with the most pressing needs of indigenous peoples.
Indigenous people want to have meaningful, constructive dialogues with Canada—whether it is related to land claims, matrimonial property, child welfare, implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or violence against indigenous women—to name just a few.
In the coming year, there will be an opportunity for the government to do the right thing—to take concrete measures that will make a difference in the lives of indigenous people, by not only hearing from those most affected but listening and forming meaningful partnerships with indigenous peoples to ensure real change occurs. The Native Women’s Association of Canada will be monitoring Canada’s response to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Universal Periodic Review.
The human-rights concerns of indigenous peoples in Canada are real and pressing. Failure to respond with good faith and meaningful action can only undermine Canada’s reputation and influence on the world stage. Canada can only regain its credibility as a human-rights champion through a real commitment to make the lives of indigenous women, their families, and communities better. This includes instituting a national plan of action for violence against indigenous women, developed and implemented in partnership with indigenous women’s organizations, indigenous peoples and human-rights organizations.
Celeste McKay is a consultant on international affairs and human rights who often represents the Native Women’s Association of Canada.