James Anaya, Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples presents his report during the 24th Session of the Human Rights Council. 18 September 2013. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré via UN Photo Geneva on Flickr CC
James Anaya, Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples presents his report during the 24th Session of the Human Rights Council. 18 September 2013. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré via UN Photo Geneva on Flickr CC

Internationalization and global governance occupy two-way streets, even for a wealthy country like Canada. For generations, Canadians have viewed the UN and other global governance institutions as operating in a single direction: taking resources from the well-to-do nations and redistributing them to poorer countries or regions in crisis. This country has been comfortable with this approach for a long time, dispatching peace-keeping troops, sending foreign aid and supporting many humanitarian and social justice initiatives around the world.  

Increasingly, however, Canadians have had to face the other side of global governance: the glare of publicity that occurs when international organizations and their representatives hold Canada to account. This has happened, in recent years, on climate change, the oil sands developments, Canadian refugee practices and in other areas. In no field, however, has this been as pronounced as in Indigenous affairs.  

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (SR) is coming — and not for the first time. The last visit of this high level agent of the United Nations was well-received by Indigenous peoples, who welcomed the international attention, and condemned by the Government of Canada‎, which rejected the critical report submitted by Rodolfo Stavenhagen in 2004. Although the Government officially extended the invitation for the SR to return to Canada, this is not an inspection tour that the government or the Canadian public welcomes.  

The current SR, James Anaya, will find things to laud about Canada's relationships with Indigenous peoples, including the application of the law in Aboriginal rights cases and the modern treaty and self-government process. The SR will find many things to be very disturbing, from housing conditions to unemployment rates, the prevalence of teenage suicide and cultural and language loss.

Most Canadians will, predictably, be quite prickly when the results are released, even if they would agree with most of the criticisms and would share the dismay at the persistence of the very serious problems.  The standard response in this country is to point to the expenditure of large sums of money as signs of sincere commitment and a shared determination to improve conditions. 

There is something predictable to this exercise - external criticism, Aboriginal support for the critique, government and general criticism of the message and usually the messenger - that has actually diminished public interest in the visits of the SR and the oversight provided by the United Nations.  ‎Such an approach is unfortunate, for it misses the true intent of the involvement of global governance institutions.  

The socio-economic and cultural challenges facing Indigenous Canadians are extremely real and powerful. They are a challenge for all levels of governments, particularly Aboriginal politicians and administrators. These problems are multi-generational and reflect deeply held values, assumptions, histories and structures among First Nations and other Canadians. The problems are not unsolvable, but they do defy easy or rapid solution. Nor, it must be added, are these issues unique to Canada — Indigenous peoples around the world face similar challenges.  

The UN SR is not coming to condemn Canada. There are dozens of countries around the world whose records on human rights and the mistreatment of minorities deserve far more criticism than does this nation. The SR exists to provide an international voices for Indigenous people in Canada and to bring the global interests and understanding to bear on the ‎Canadian scene.  

Canada should embrace the visit of the UN SR and should not view it as an intrusion on national affairs. Everyone knows new solutions to the challenges and opportunities facing Aboriginal peoples in Canada are needed. Moreover, Canada’s ability to be part of the global processes of bringing constructive and positive changes to poorer, weaker and more destructive regimes rests in significant measure on our willingness to spend our fair share of the time under the spotlight of international scrutiny. ‎We cannot impose on others what we are not prepared to accept for ourselves.  

Given that the SR is coming to Canada, and given that there is widespread agreement on the need for important new ideas, Canada should reverse it's current approach. The visit should be welcomed. Canada and it's Aboriginal partners‎ should take special care to present examples of the best programs and initiatives, some of which are of global importance. They should, together, identify areas of serious need — what social scientists now call "wicked problems."

No one wins by superficial condemnation and that is neither the role nor the modus operandi of the SR or other senior UN officials. The goal, shared by all, is to identify achievements and shortcomings and to work together toward sustainable solutions. Done properly, the visit of the SR could be a useful step in the Canadian process of reconciliation. Done poorly, the visit could re-enforce among Aboriginal Canadians the sense that the country does not care much about Indigenous issues.  

Global governance calls on the leading nations to take their proper place in world affairs. It also requires the same countries to open themselves to both international scrutiny and to external suggestions for improvement. Welcoming James Anaya as the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a vital step in demonstrating that Canada embraces the full meaning and importance of global governance. 

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and co-Director for the International Centre of Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan.  An expert in Indigenous-newcomer relations, rights and politics, and Aboriginal land and resource claims, he is currently contributing to collaborative research projects on East Asia-Arctic relations and the internationalization of indigenous rights.