Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Canada's Ongoing Racial Discrimination Against Indigenous Women and Children Discussed at United Nations

                         (Photo by NWAC of ONWA, CAEFS, myself and NWAC at UN)

On August 14th and 15th, 2017, Canada appeared before the United Nations (UN) Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to account for its efforts to eliminate racial discrimination in Canada. As part of this process, Indigenous groups and non-government organizations (often referred to by the UN as "civil society") are permitted to submit "shadow reports" on Canada's racial discrimination record. These reports do not form part of Canada's official report to the UN, but UN committees, like CERD, use these shadow reports to get a more informed picture of what is happening in Canada.

CERD is a treaty body which meets to review state parties progress or lack thereof under the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. This Convention was passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1965 and came into force in 1969. Canada signed on to this convention in 1966. Therefore, Canada appears before CERD to account for its practices in relation to the convention before committee members from all over the world.

In this convention, state parties, like Canada, have agreed to core principles including: "universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion". The convention also includes statements that the United Nations:

        - "condemned colonialism and all practices of segregation and discrimination";

        -  "affirms the necessity of speedily eliminating racial discrimination throughout
           the world in all its forms and manifestations";

        - "any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false,
          morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and that there is no
          justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere"; and

        - "convinced that the existence of racial barriers is repugnant to the ideals of
          any human society".

The convention goes on to define racial discrimination as follows:

         "In this Convention, the term "racial discrimination" shall mean any distinction,
          exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national
          or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the
          recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and
          fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other
          field of public life."

Knowing that Canada would promote itself in a positive light and gloss over its deplorable human rights record in relation to Indigenous peoples, especially the dual disadvantage of racial and gender discrimination experienced by Indigenous women and girls specifically, several of my colleagues in solidarity agreed we needed to ensure these crisis issues were highlighted for the CERD committee.

To this end, I partnered with several organizations that do a great deal of work advocating against injustices for Indigenous women and girls, to submit a shadow report on "racial discrimination" in Canada. Our collaboration included the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA), the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), the Ontario Native Women's Association (ONWA), and myself as Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.

                                   (Senator Kim Pate CAEFS and I at UN)

One of the downsides to these formal processes, is the very limited nature of these reports, in that we cannot canvass all issues completely. Knowing this, we decided to focus on some of the most urgent issues, knowing that other urgent issues could not be highlighted. We also took into account that Cindy Blackstock of the First Nation Child and Family Caring Society would be submitting her own report specific to First Nations children in care.

                              (Cindy Blackstock from FNCFCS and I at UN)

There were many other written and oral submissions from Indigenous groups which highlighted other issues related to free, prior and informed consent, Indigenous land rights and the impact of development on Indigenous peoples and lands. So we tried as best as possible to avoid any duplication. These reports can be accessed at the United Nations Human Rights website:     

It was good to work with the late Art Manuel's family members and Indigenous colleagues while in Geneva. It reminds me of the importance of Art's lifelong work at the international level on Indigenous rights, land title and self-determination.

                         (Art Manuel and I in Geneva at a different committee)

When I attended at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland there were so many groups who had traveled there to present to CERD, that we were only afforded 2-3 minutes maximum to make an oral presentation. As a result of so many presenters, the committee was not able to ask many questions. What follows is my oral presentation to the committee, keeping in mind we made more fulsome presentations at informal meetings and we referred them to our much more detailed written submission:

ORAL PRESENTATION (2-3 minutes):

Kwe, my name is Pam Palmater from the sovereign Mikmaw Nation and I am speaking on behalf of FAFIA, CAEFS, ONWA, RU on racial discrimination against Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

Canada has long targeted us as the primary means to eliminate our Nations to free up land for settlement. Therefore, our experiences are unique as Indigenous peoples and should not be compared to racialized settler groups.

Canada’s Indian Act created rules to banish Indigenous women and our children from our Nations – some of which are still in effect and found by UN human rights bodies to be a root cause of racial and gender discrimination.

Our children were stolen by Indian agents only to become victims of physical and sexual abuse in residential schools.

We were and are also targeted for forced/coerced sterilizations to reduce the population of our Nations.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report found all of this to be evidence of cultural, physical and biological genocide.

The direct result of this racialized and gendered discrimination is deteriorating socio-economic conditions for Indigenous women and girls:

- Indigenous peoples are only 4% population but 50% of all kids in foster care are Indigenous;

- 60% of Indigenous children live in poverty and the majority of their homes are headed by single Indigenous mothers;

- Indigenous women and girls often lack of access to proper healthcare, education and the basics of food and water;

- There is an 8-15 year reduced life expectancy and we suffer some of the highest suicide rates in the world;

-  There are thousands of murdered & disappeared Indigenous women and girls;

- Indigenous girls are over-represented in human sex trafficking, where traffickers often taken straight from foster care;

- Numbers of Indigenous women in prisons has increased by 83% since 2003 and the majority were victims of residential schools, foster care and/or sexual abuse;

- 90% Indigenous women in jail now have their children forced into foster care where they are sexually abused at disproportionate rates;

None of these grim statistics is due to any defect in Indigenous women, girls, their families, communities or Nations - they are not the authors of own misfortune.

Our report shows the direct link between Canada’s racialized and gendered discrimination as the root cause of poverty, which is the primary reason Indigenous children are stolen and placed into foster care; which acts as a direct pipeline to human sex trafficking, over-incarceration in prison, and high rates of murders and disappearances.


(1) Implement UN (CEDAW & CERD) recommendations to eliminate sex discrimination from the Indian Act by ensuring that in Bill S-3, currently before the Canadian Parliament, Indian women and their descendants, born prior to 1985, are entitled to the same 6(1)(a) status as Indian men and their descendants;

(2) Urgently provide adequate needs-based funding to all First Nation social programs (for all First Nation people on and off-reserve) at least on par with provincial levels with extra to account for historical under-funding (realizing that these programs are resourced from Indigenous lands and resources);

(3) Restrict the use of prison for Indigenous and racialized women and girls and implement existing legislation to de-carcerate them (especially those with disabling mental health issues);

(4) (a) Implement the recommendations of the CEDAW Article 8 Inquiry into the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls, while at the same time take immediate steps to actively protect Indigenous women & girls from violence by all parties – including state parties and their police forces;

(b) Direct Canada to ensure the national inquiry (i) reviews all individual cases of murdered and disappeared Indigenous women & girls and (ii) investigate police racism, abuse and sexualized violence against Indigenous women & girls (all within a human rights framework). 

We have tried our best to build upon the foundations built by lifelong Indigenous women's advocates like Sharon McIvor, who have helped educate UN committees on the ongoing crisis for Indigenous women and children in Canada in the hopes they will pressure Canada to finally take action.

                     (Sharon McIvor and I at the UN before a different committee)

SPECIAL THANK YOU Welal'in to Ryerson University's Aboriginal Education Council for supporting my travel to the United Nations so that we could do this important work.

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Indigenous Inquiry [into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls] a Slow Motion Implosion

*(Originally published in the Lawyer's Daily on August 8, 2017- edited)

When the draft terms of reference of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls were leaked to the media in the summer of 2016, many families, advocates, experts and communities were upset that there would be no investigation of the police — either their mishandling of individual files or their behaviour.

This omission was a shock to most since police racism and abuse was raised at every pre-engagement session conducted by Indigenous Affairs seeking input into the inquiry’s mandate. Families and advocates immediately responded by writing open letters calling on the federal, provincial and territorial governments to ensure that police handling of individual files and police behaviour would be included in the final terms of reference. Despite their strenuous advocacy, the final terms of reference specifically excluded any review of individual files or police conduct.

Since the launch of the inquiry in September 2016, it has been in slow motion implosion. The inquiry has been criticized for its numerous and lengthy delays, its failures to communicate with the families and its continued failure to provide information about schedules, logistics, process, or budgets. The Native Women's Association of Canada raised the issue that their phone calls to the inquiry were not answered or returned and were instead redirected to Indigenous Affairs — leading some to question the objectivity of the inquiry.

Then, one by one, the inquiry saw the resignations of some of its most senior staffers, including Michèle Moreau, the executive director; Chantale Courcy, director of operations; Tanya Kappo, manager of community relations; and Sue Montgomery, director of communications (the first, Michael Hutchinson, had been terminated). Several former staffers, speaking under condition of anonymity shared their concerns that the inquiry was lacking leadership and direction, and egos and power struggles have left it dysfunctional.

The recent resignation of one of the commissoners, Marilyn Poitras, makes chief commissioner Marion Bulller’s strenuous denial of significant problems in the inquiry, look blatantly detached from the seriousness of the situation. This is especially true when her own fellow commissioners are resigning, admitting they haven’t done their jobs and that the inquiry is in “crisis mode.”

To this end, an open letter was sent to the inquiry by a collective of Indigenous women, advocates and impacted family members calling for action and offering assistance. Others tried phone calls, e-mails and in-person meetings to try to get the inquiry back on track, with little obvious impact.

The continued lack of action on the part of the inquiry led many prominent advocates, Indigenous leaders and concerned families to call for a hard reset of the inquiry — which included calls for new commissioners, extended timelines, additional budget and  improved terms of reference.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson, representing northern Manitoba First Nations, called for the current commissioners to resign and let the inquiry reset for the benefit of the families — a call shared by many. A hard reset is not without precedent as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission also struggled in the beginning and was reset with new commissioners and it was better for it. The issue of residential schools deserved a proper inquiry just as the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls deserves a competent, independent fulsome inquiry that has the time and resources necessary to address the core issues — which includes a review of individual files and police conduct.

The issue of a hard reset also divided the chiefs at the most recent Assembly of First Nations (AFN) annual general assembly in Regina. Numerous family members attended the AFN assembly to plead with the inquiry’s commissioners to resign and reset the inquiry. The chiefs were deeply divided on the issue of reset but all seemed to agree that the inquiry was plagued with problems and recommended numerous improvements.

Commissioner Buller’s statements prior to the chiefs’ vote that she would not resign regardless of the outcome of the vote, arguably created an adversarial relationship between Indigenous peoples and the inquiry. Many family members are saying that the inquiry has “already failed” and this division among the leaders and families on how to fix the broken inquiry is itself evidence that the inquiry lacks the trust it needs to do its job.

Equally as concerning were the developments at the AFN assembly, where chiefs and families who wanted to address their concerns about the inquiry met with or spoke to Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett. Bennett was also quick to support the chiefs at the AFN in their calls for a soft reset of the inquiry.

This inquiry is supposed to be independent of the federal government, yet by all appearances it is the federal government pulling the strings. The inquiry itself then scrambled to put together a press release on the very same day that families were calling for a hard reset of the inquiry claiming they will now review police conduct and individual files.

This release has caused greater confusion because the inquiry is both empowered and limited by the terms of reference agreed to by the federal, provincial and territorial governments which specifically excluded the review of open or ongoing individual files (which for murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls are many) and police misconduct. Any information related to these matters must be referred back to police — the very same institutions that did not handle the files properly to begin with or that failed to take action against racist, abusive or sexually violent police officers. Misleading the families this way in order to avoid more calls for a hard reset is a huge injustice to the many families and communities who are relying on this process in good faith.

What is clear despite all the confusion and dysfunction, is that a hard reset is required or it risks becoming like Wally Oppal’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry where large numbers of witnesses pulled out of the inquiry and the resulting report lacks any credibility. The Ontario Native Women's Association has already pulled out of the inquiry and many others may follow suit if the inquiry is not addressed. Canada owes the families and communities better if the prime minister meant what he said that there is no relationship more important to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples.

*The link to the article as originally published in the Lawyer's Daily is

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