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Canada responds to charges of human rights violations

OTTAWA, Ontario - On Nov. 23, Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty
International Canada, met with two Canadian ministers - Andy Scott, of the
Ministry Northern and Indian Affairs, and Liza Frulla, of Status of Women
Canada - to discuss the organization's recent report, "Stolen Sisters",
which describes widespread violence and discrimination against indigenous
women in Canada.

"From both ministers, we heard clear recognition that this is a serious and
pressing human rights concern that needs to be a priority for the Canadian
government," said Neve.

Kathryn Fournier, acting director of the Social Services Justice
Directorate at the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs, confirmed that
issue has moved to the fore in her department. "Certainly the tragedy of
violence against Aboriginal women in Canada has not been fully understood
or addressed," she said.

Of particular concern to Amnesty International were the approximately 500
indigenous women who have been murdered or gone missing over the past few
decades, primarily in urban areas, without adequate police response. The
underlying causes of the women's vulnerability were detailed in the report,
including laws that discriminate against them in terms of both race and
gender - stripping them of Indian status, therefore of treaty and other
rights, for example, as well as excluding them from Canada's
matrimonial-law protections.

Earlier in November, Ambassador Gilbert Laurin, Deputy Permanent
Representative of Canada to the United Nations, cited the Amnesty
International document when he issued a national mea culpa in a session of
the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee of the General Assembly. In
a speech on human rights transgressions in countries around the world, he
closed with a reference to Canada, which in 2004 had two visits from the UN
Special Rapporteur for the human rights of indigenous people. Laurin then
said: "We expect that ["Stolen Sisters"] will inform our future efforts in
this area. Canada recognizes its responsibility to fully promote and
protect the human rights of its citizens."

"Making sure that women's voices are heard has been a very difficult
process," said Beverley Jacobs, a lawyer who is president of Native Women's
Association of Canada (NWAC). "Essentially, we had to go to highly regarded
outside bodies - the United Nations and Amnesty International - to
embarrass Canada into taking notice."

Neve called the ambassador's speech significant: "Canada stood up in an
international forum and acknowledged the validity of the findings. They
haven't contested them. They haven't defended their position. The same was
true in the meeting with ministers Scott and Frulla; I think we were also
all struck that for Minister Scott, this is an issue that has touched him
personally."

"Andy Scott gets it. He sees that it's a travesty," said attorney Celeste
McKay, a strategic-policy analyst for NWAC.

WAIT AND SEE

For her part, Chief Maureen Chapman, leader of Skawahlook First Nation in
British Columbia and head of the Assembly of First Nations Women's Council,
was guardedly optimistic. "This issue has become high profile and members
of the current government hope to be more helpful," she said. "Our sense is
that they'd like to do what they say they're going to do."

Both Chapman and McKay pointed to the length of time - more than a century
- that the discriminatory legislation has been in place. "Some of the
issues, such as matrimonial property rights, have been studied to death
without any action being taken," added McKay. "Skepticism is healthy at
this point." Indeed, a government commission that reported on violence
against indigenous people in 2001 has charged that none of its
recommendations have been implemented.

Going forward, Amnesty International is looking for more than hand
wringing, according to Neve. "Our November meeting with the two ministers
was the first one, and it was very constructive," he said. "We didn't
expect the announcement of a detailed plan, but now we want to see concrete
action."

An important step will be drawing into the process one minister who was not
at the meeting: Anne McLellan, Canada's deputy prime minister and head of
the Ministry of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, which is
responsible for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. "Since reforms in
justice and policing are central, we stressed to ministers Scott and Frulla
that the deputy prime minister must be involved," said Neve. "There's a
long way to go in bridging the large gap in trust between indigenous
peoples and the justice system."

Chapman noted that several ministries have contacted Native women's groups
directly and that they, in turn, have met with NWAC to determine which ones
might be particularly helpful. "We'll work with them to take Native women's
issues off the back burner," she said.

ONE MORE BARRIER

Help may be on the way. However, on the reserves, there is yet another
stumbling block that may prevent indigenous women from collaborating with
federal or provincial governments to devise effective programs, according
to Chapman. When Canada's Indian Act of 1876, along with other 19th century
and modern laws, transformed the nation's largely matriarchal, egalitarian
tribes into patriarchies, they stripped indigenous women of a broad range
of rights and isolated them economically and politically within their own
communities as well as in the nation as a whole.

As a result, Chapman charged, women who try to organize face retribution.
Many of the male-dominated band councils are easily threatened by political
activity by female band members, according to testimony given to the 1996
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs. "Getting involved at all - setting
up or even attending a meeting, for example - may mean a woman is
threatened," Chapman said. "Perhaps she'll be told that her social
assistance funds will be cut off." For many, something as simple as the
band council refusing to pay for transportation to a meeting prevents
participation.

One answer, Chapman said, would be forming a national indigenous women's
society that would bypass tribal leadership and fund women's organizations
directly. The royal commission recommended the same tactic, which was not
put into effect.

Unfortunately, the idea is even more difficult to implement today than it
would have been then. Fournier cited "the increasing tendency of the
Canadian government to deal with the band councils on a
government-to-government basis" - a movement toward First Nations
self-government that is lauded by indigenous Canadians.

At the same time, Fournier recognized the urgency of the situation: "We do
have to work out jurisdictional and on-reserve, off-reserve issues, which
may mean something to the government of Canada, but for an Aboriginal woman
in a violent situation, all of this may be less compelling."

In the end, said Chapman, achieving meaningful reform and resolving the
human rights crisis is up to the women involved: "The movement will have to
come from the Aboriginal women's organizations and from our communities."