Recent appeals to the United Nations to get involved with First Nations issues have made headlines across Canada. Most widely discussed is the ongoing housing crisis in communities like Attawapiskat and the disappearance and killings of hundreds of Aborig


Recent appeals to the United Nations to get involved with First Nations issues have made headlines across Canada. Most widely discussed is the ongoing housing crisis in communities like Attawapiskat and the disappearance and killings of hundreds of Aboriginal women across Canada over the last three decades.

While these appeals and the subsequent responses of concerned UN organizations have brought much-needed attention to these issues, it is important to take a closer look at what real actions the UN is taking and can take, and whether these actions will have a meaningful impact on how these crises are addressed.

A number of recent stories have claimed that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has launched an inquiry into the disappearances and deaths of Aboriginal women, after receiving a request to do so by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA).

It is important to clarify exactly what action CEDAW is taking. At its 50th session, held in October 2011, CEDAW decided to initiate an inquiry procedure under article 8 of the Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

What exactly does this mean?

Simply put, if – and only if – CEDAW receives reliable information indicating grave or systematic violations of the Convention by the Canadian government, the CEDAW Committee will invite the government to “cooperate in the examination of information received, which may include information from government representatives, governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, individuals and the United Nations system, and to submit observations with regard to such information.”

This is no small task. The last time CEDAW opened an official inquiry in North America was a decade ago in Mexico. That effort concluded with a CEDAW report that publicly took the Mexican government to task over its handling of the hundreds of violent crimes perpetrated against the women of the city of Ciudad Juarez; including abduction, rape, torture, disfigurement and murder.

In response to CEDAW’s 2006 harsh report, Mexico committed to making regular reports to the UN on the steps it was making to address the problem. But almost six years after CEDAW’s report was published, an increase in media coverage, benefit concerts and the making of documentaries that highlighted the issue, little has changed for the women of Ciudad Juarez. Women continue to disappear, bodies continue to be found and activists who have sought to draw attention to these crimes have been targeted and killed.

So, does this mean that a CEDAW inquiry into the disappearance and murder of Aboriginal women in Canada is a fruitless venture? Not necessarily.

In the case of the Attawapiskat housing crisis, the UN has become more deeply involved. Indeed, in a recent open letter to the Canadian government, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, expressed his “deep concern” over the crisis, observing that the social and economic situation in Attawapiskat “seems to represent the condition of many First Nation communities living on reserves throughout Canada, which is allegedly akin to third world conditions.”

Anaya closed his letter by inviting the Canadian government to engage in a dialogue on the issue while promising to monitor the situation closely.

Those are pretty strong words. But what power or influence does the Anaya really have to effect change in the state of First Nations communities?

In the last year, Anaya has reported on the situation of indigenous peoples in a number of locations around the world including Scandinavia, Congo, New Zealand, Suriname, Costa Rica and New Caledonia.

According to Anaya’s reports, the situations faced by these peoples vary dramatically. According to Anaya, New Zealand has made “significant strides to advance the rights of Maori people and to address concerns raised by the former Special Rapporteur.” In this case, the concerns related to treaty claims and Maori participation in national government.

In Anaya’s report on the conditions of life for the indigenous people of Congo, he bemoans “the extreme social and economic disadvantages of these peoples and their discrimination and marginalization in comparison to the rest of Congolese society,” while praising the country’s President on the introduction of legislation that is apparently designed to bridge the gap.

The reports amount to little more than observations and recommendations that hold no legal weight and are not enforceable in the countries concerned.

So, where does that leave First Nations people and communities in Canada who are looking to the United Nations for support in their battles against both the Canadian government and the socio-economic conditions and racism that puts Aboriginal people, especially women and children, at risk?

It is clear that calling on UN participation in First Nations issues in Canada results in increased media attention and awareness, not just among Aboriginal people, but also amongst the Canadian population at large. Raising such awareness is a critical step toward resolving these crises.

However, expectations must be tempered in regards to whether the UN can force the government and other stakeholders, including First Nations leadership at both the community and national levels, to take action. In simple terms, the UN cannot dictate what actions must be taken, as evidenced by the continuing violence against women in Ciudad Juarez and the continued plight of indigenous people in places like Congo. The decision as to what action to take, if any, remains in the hands of the governments and peoples of the countries where these crises occur. If a government or the representatives of indigenous people do not have the political will or desire to make change, it simply will not happen, regardless of the moral standing of the UN.

Still, it is important to observe that UN agencies like CEDAW and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have developed extensive expertise and experience from their work with communities at risk, NGOs and national governments around the world. While it is not realistic to expect the UN to impose solutions to problems in Canada’s First Nations communities, UN agencies may be uniquely qualified to engage both First Nations leadership and the Canadian government in dialogue that builds trust, and recommend and broker creative solutions that improve the lives of First Nations people across the country.