The testimonies of survivors of Canada's residential school system were appalling, a United Nations expert said on Friday, urging the government to fully implement the recommendations of a 2015 truth commission to achieve meaningful reconciliation and accountability in the country.
"Canada must address the adverse impact of colonial legacies to achieve meaningful reconciliation and accountability for past crimes," said Calí Tzay, UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, in a statement at the end of a 10-day official visit to Canada.
"I was dismayed and saddened by the stories of survivors of Indian Residential Schools," the UN expert said.
Over 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were separated from their families and forced to attend government-funded schools between the 1870s and 1997. In 2015, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the Canadian government concluded that children were physically and sexually abused and died in the schools in numbers that may never be fully known.
Tzay said the Commission's Calls to Action should be fully implemented. "The full resolution of Indian Residential School claims is necessary to achieve true reconciliation, including for Catholic church-run institutions and residential schools established by provinces," the UN expert said.
"Canada has made progress towards the promotion and protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples since the visits of my predecessors," he said, while pointing to many existing challenges that remain unaddressed.
"The negative legacies of residential schools are reflected in the child welfare system today. Despite comprising 7.7% of the Canadian population, over 53% of children in care are indigenous, up to 90% in some provinces," he said.
Tzay said intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools and structural racial discrimination has led to a number of present-day human rights violations and abuses, including the current crisis concerning missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. It is estimated that Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than other women in Canada.
"The number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to increase," the expert said. The special rapporteur noted that most of the 231 Calls for Justice of the National Inquiry for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) and gender diverse people still remain to be implemented. He called on the Canadian government to prevent and combat such violence as a matter of priority, by addressing the root causes of the MMIWG "epidemic," including systemic racism and discrimination against Indigenous women and girls.
The special rapporteur also expressed concern that Indigenous Peoples continue to be overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
"The situation of Indigenous women and gender diverse peoples is even more devastating as they represent half of the federal prison population," Tzay said. "Indigenous Peoples are often victims of racial profiling, arbitrary and discriminatory arrests, and disproportionate use of force by law enforcement personnel."
Tzay cited the Coastal GasLink pipeline and the Trans Mountain Pipeline projects to illustrate how activities of business corporations further contribute to human rights violations and abuses of Indigenous Peoples in provinces across Canada, including the criminalization of human rights defenders.
"In many cases projects are developed without engaging in good faith consultations with Indigenous Peoples whose rights and interests are impacted, and without their consent," the UN expert said. "International human rights law entails a duty on the part of the State not only to refrain from violating human rights, but to exercise due diligence to prevent and protect individuals from abuse committed by non-State actors, such as business enterprises, including outside their territories," he said.
The special rapporteur noted that Canada has embarked on an important journey towards reconciliation that must dismantle structural and systemic racism against Indigenous Peoples and respect Indigenous Peoples' right to self-determination, lands, territories, and resources.
"Human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent, and all Indigenous Peoples should have equal rights and opportunities," the special rapporteur said.