Why James Anaya’s visit to Canada matters, and why it doesn’t go far enough

It has been a week since the departure of UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, and the response remains varied. After more than a year of stalling from the federal government, Anaya’s arrival to Canada on Oct. 7th was met with much anticipation. His visit covered ground from Quebec to British Columbia, before wrapping up at a press conference in Ottawa on Oct. 15th. Having met dozens of communities and delegations, some feel Anaya’s exiting remarks fell short – a lost opportunity to leverage international law in resistance to Canada’s ongoing colonialism.

Sheelah McLean – one of four women who launched the Idle No More (INM) movement last November – met Anaya as part of an INM contingent in Saskatchewan. According to McLean, the group used the opportunity to bring forth many key issues, including “ongoing violence towards Indigenous Peoples, and in particular queer and two-spirited Indigenous Peoples; the socialization of white settlers into violence and racism against Indigenous Peoples,” and, “Indigenous Peoples’ inherent rights to lands and resources.”

Hearing the other delegations’ presentations “was actually really powerful,” says McLean. “Everyone reiterated the same issues over and over. By the end, listening to everyone speaking… the picture was clear.”

However, according to McLean, Anaya’s preliminary observations – which will be followed by an official report to the UN’s Human Rights Council – didn’t portray this picture. “I was surprised that it wasn’t more scathing. I thought it would be addressing all the things that Idle No More addresses” says McLean. “It doesn’t reflect what is happening.”

While Anaya did discuss issues such as “woefully inadequate” funding for aboriginal housing, and the need for a “nation-wide inquiry” into missing and murdered aboriginal women, his speech was sprinkled with remarks on the “positive steps” and “notable successes” of the federal and provincial governments to address Indigenous Peoples’ concerns – at one point going so far as to compliment the “specific and comprehensive claims processes that in many respects are models for the world to emulate.” Overall, a far cry from the vision of sovereignty, inherent rights, and nation to nation relations that INM has championed over the last year.

This is particularly disheartening given the UN’s historic role as a shepherd of international law. Over the last four decades, Indigenous Peoples have won pivotal victories in the movement to assert their rights the international level. The creation of a special rapporteur to safeguard Indigenous rights in 2001 is a testament to those victories. Special rapporteurs provide the Human Rights Council with a window into a specific issue – such as housing, education, or the right to food – reporting back with expertise and recommendations on how to address violations. Their work has both international and domestic implications, informing international standards such as declarations and conventions, and compelling governments such as Canada’s to implement and align with such benchmarks.

“Historically, the UN has been able to pressure Canada to change some of its policies and practices,” says McLean. For example, through the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada famously opposed, before unceremoniously signing on in 2010. “It does bind them to looking at Indigenous issues in a specific way,” says McLean. “Pressuring the government globally to implement UNDRIP does make a huge difference to people in communities.”

As we await Anaya’s final report, the need to keep that global pressure alive is especially apparent.

This article was written by the Anti-Colonial Committee (ACC) of the Law Union of Ontario. We are a group of Indigenous people and allies, including activists, lawyers, and law students, working in resistance to colonialism.

Check us out at anticolonialcommittee.org, or check out the Law Union of Ontario at lawunion.ca. Send us your topic ideas at anticolonialcommittee@gmail.com.

by Emma Feltes, member of the Anti-Colonial Committee of the Law Union of Ontario.

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