In Canada and Australia, shameful treatment of Aboriginal peoples

Pressure on federal government continues in Canada for a public inquiry into missing and murdered women

Introduction–In December 2011, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)  launched a formal inquiry into the inadequate or non-responses of the Canadian government and federal and provincial agencies to the unsolved murders or disappearances of more than 600 women across Canada in the past several decades. A high number of these victims are Aboriginal.The only other formal investigation of a country by CEDAW took place in Mexico in 2003-2004, in response to the murders of women occurring in the state of Chihauhua. Full details of the CEDAW decision re Canada were posted on my blog last year:

Below is a news article and two news weblinks reporting on developments since then, including the recent call by nine of ten of Canada’s provincial governments that the federal government convene a judicial inquiry into missing and murdered women. That call was issued on April 17 by Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson, chairman of the working group of the provincial and territorial aboriginal affairs ministers. The demand for a public inquiry has been voiced by human rights and Aboriginal activists for some years now.

Further below is a second article, on the shameful colonial history in Australia towards Aboriginal peoples there.


World watches Canada’s native tragedy

By Tim Harper, columnist, Toronto Star, April 29,  2013

When Canadian political leaders come together in the wake of a tragedy such as the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, they show they can act quickly in the face of public outrage.

But that action raises another question about inaction. Why do these same leaders move so slowly — or not at all — on the question of violence when it involves aboriginal women, or suicides when they take place in our First Nations communities?

There are an estimated 600 murdered or missing aboriginal women in this country. There may be more, there may be fewer, but without a national inquiry, we can’t know.

The Neskantaga First Nation, 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, recently declared a state of emergency after a pair of suicides, bringing the total in the past year to seven sudden deaths, four of them confirmed suicides, and another 20 attempted suicides. This in a community of 300. Tales like this are not new, but they are too often met with indifference.

It is not cliché to say the world is watching. Friday in Geneva, Canada’s human rights record was on display at the United Nations, during a regularly scheduled review of our record. Violence and discrimination against aboriginal women was repeatedly raised by UN members at the forum.

It may be easy for detractors to dismiss human rights criticism when it comes from the likes of China and Cuba, but country after country raised the question of violence against aboriginal women with Canadian Ambassador Elissa Golberg. That included allies like the United States.

Washington’s representative told Golberg the Obama administration remains concerned about disproportionate violence, poverty and discrimination against native women and girls in Canada.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has relented, and will allow three UN rapporteurs — who have usually been treated with scorn by the Conservatives — to visit Canada this summer, including a special rapporteur on aboriginal affairs.

Also, as early as Monday, a letter will be headed to Harper from Manitoba deputy premier and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson, telling him the provincial and territorial aboriginal affairs ministers have unanimously (sic) agreed to call on Ottawa to launch an inquiry into the missing ormurdered women.

“Prime Minister Harper impressed me when he apologized to people like me,” says Robinson, a residential school survivor. “The world’s eyes are watching us on this and this is a very critical issue. I am confident the prime minister will do the right thing. To find unanimity on an issue like this shows how serious this is.”

Robinson hosted other aboriginal affairs ministers at a recent meeting and said he, like other provincial ministers, has simply heard too many stories from families who have lost daughters, sisters or mothers and have lost patience with their political leaders. They want answers.

A call for an inquiry was also one of the key requests carried by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo when he met with Harper amid the tension of Idle No More protests and Theresa Spence’s fast in January. The RCMP has questioned the 600 figure, a number compiled by a program called Sisters in Spirit by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, which ended a five-year research program in 2010 when Ottawa cut off its funding.

If the number is inflated, we should know. But it is a certainty that whatever the number, it is a stain on Canada’s international reputation. An inquiry would appear to be the type of low-hanging fruit that could go a long way to bridging the divide between Ottawa and First Nations and bring some closure to those suffering across the country.

The response, however, was the same in Ottawa and Geneva on Friday. Golberg mentioned the establishment of a National Centre for Missing Persons and a study that will be done by MPs. She told the world Canada was a world leader on human rights and determined to end hardship for aboriginal women and girls.

Julie Di Mambro, a spokesperson for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, cited a number of government initiatives, including 30 pieces of anti-crime legislation over the past seven years. “While we are moving ahead with a comprehensive justice agenda, we are also pleased to participate on the parliamentary committee which is studying the issue,” she said.

When a tragedy grips a nation, it can race through the House of Commons and a plodding political process can move with alacrity. But it appears for that to happen, it has to be a certain type of tragedy.

Three UN rapporteurs on their way to probe Canada’s human rights record

Ottawa still blocking UN Indigenous peoples rapporteur from landing in Canada on official visit


Australia’s boom is anything but for its Aboriginal people

The story of the first Australians is still poverty and humiliation, while their land yields the world’s biggest resources boom

By John Pilger, The Guardian, April 29, 2013

Eleven miles by ferry from Perth is Western Australia’s “premier tourist destination”. This is Rottnest Island, whose scabrous wild beauty and isolation evoked, for me, Robben Island in South Africa. Empires are never short of devil’s islands; what makes Rottnest different – indeed, what makes Australia different – is silence and denial on an epic scale.

“Five awesome reasons to visit!” the brochure says. These range from “family fun” to “historical Rottnest”. The island is described as “a guiding light, a defender of the peace”. In eight pages of prescribed family fun, there is just one word of truth – prison.

More than any other colonial society, Australia consigns its dirtiest secrets, past and present, to wilful ignorance or indifference. When I was at school in Sydney, standard texts all but dismissed the most enduring human entity on earth, the indigenous first Australians. “It was quite useless to treat them fairly,” the historian Stephen Roberts wrote, “since they were completely amoral and incapable of sincere and prolonged gratitude.” His acclaimed colleague Russel Ward was succinct: “We are civilised today and they are not.”

That Australia has since changed is not disputed. To measure this change, a visit to Western Australia is essential. The vast state – our richest – is home to the world’s biggest resources boom: iron ore, gold, nickel, oil, petroleum, gas. Profits are in the multiple billions. When the former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd tried to impose a modest tax, he was overthrown by his own party following a A$22m (£14.6m) propaganda campaign by the mining companies, whose mates in the media uphold the world’s first Murdocracy. “Assisted by Rio Tinto” reads the last line of an unctuous newspaper article on the boom’s benefits to black Australians.

At airports passengers are greeted by banners with pictures of smiling Aboriginal faces in hard hats, promoting the plunderers of their land. “This is our story,” says the slogan. It isn’t.

Barely a fraction of mining, oil and gas revenue has benefited Aboriginal communities, whose poverty is an enduring shock. In Roebourne, in the mineral-rich Pilbara, 80% of the children suffer from an ear infection called otitis media, which can cause partial deafness. Or they go blind from preventable trachoma. Or they die from Dickensian infections. That is their story.

The Nyoongar people have lived around what is now Perth for many thousands of years. Incredibly, they survive. Noel Nannup, a Nyoongar elder, and Marianne McKay, a Nyoongar activist, accompanied me to Rottnest. Nannup’s protective presence was important to McKay. Unlike the jolly tourists heading for “Rotto”, they spent days “preparing for the pain”. “All our families remember what was done,” said Noel Nannup.

What was done was the starving, torture, humiliation and murder of the first Australians. Wrenched from their communities in an act of genocide that divided and emasculated the indigenous nations, shackled men and boys as young as eight endured the perilous nine-hour journey in an open longboat. Terrified prisoners were jammed into a windowless “holding cell”, like an oversized kennel. Today, a historical plaque refers to it as “the Boathouse”. The suppression is breathtaking.

In the prison known as the Quod as many as 167 Aboriginal prisoners were locked in 28 tiny cells. This lasted well into the 20th century. The prison is now called Rottnest Lodge. It has a spa, and there are double bunks for children: family fun. I booked a room. Noel Nannup stood in the centre of the room and described its echoes of terrible suffering. The window looked out on to where a gallows had stood, where tourists now sunbathed. None had a clue.

A “country club” overlooks a mass grave. One psychopath who ran the Quod was Henry Vincent. He liked to whip prisoners and murdered two of them, an inquiry was told. Today, Vincent is venerated as a “pioneer”, and tourists are encouraged to follow the “Vincent Way heritage trail”. In the Governor’s Bar, the annual Henry Vincent golf trophy is displayed. No one there had a clue.

Rotto is not the past. On 28 March Richard Harding, formerly inspector of custodial services, declared Western Australia a “state of imprisonment”. During the boom, Aboriginal incarceration has more than doubled. Interned in rat-infested cells, almost 60% of the state’s young prisoners are Aboriginal – out of 2.5% of the population. They include children. A former prisons minister, Margaret Quirk, told me the state was now “racking and stacking” black Australians. Their rate of incarceration is five times that of black people in apartheid South Africa.

Black Australians are stereotyped as violent, yet the violence routinely meted out to them by authority is of little interest. An elder known as Mr Ward was arrested for driving under the influence on a bush road. In searing heat, he was driven more than 300 miles in the iron pod of a prison van run by the British security company GSL. Inside, the temperature reached 50C. Mr Ward cooked to death, his stomach burned raw where he had collapsed on the van’s scorching floor. The coroner called it a “disgrace”, but no one was prosecuted. No one ever is.

Eco-tourism is also booming. The Kimberley region is popular with Europeans. Last year, 40 Aboriginal youngsters killed themselves there, a 100-fold increase. When I first reported on indigenous Australia a generation ago, black suicide was rare. Today, the despair is so profound that the second cause of Aboriginal death is suicide. It is booming.

• John Pilger’s film on Australia, Utopia, is released in the autumn.

[And see this lengthy feature article on the treatment of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples that was published in the Toronto Star, June 19, 2012.]

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