South Africa will be hosting the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance at the end of this month. The theme of the conference, scheduled to run from August 31 to September 7 in the city of Durban, is “United to Combat Racism: Equality, Dignity, Justice.”

The nation that was once vilified for its official policy of apartheid will now provide a fitting locale for an international gathering that seeks to address the persistent global problem of discrimination based on race and culture. A recent Reuters news agency article billed the conference as “a turning point in the international fight against racism.” The Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF) sees the upcoming conference as “a particularly important stage for Indigenous Peoples to highlight the real situation with respect to racism in Canada.” The CRRF also sees the event as an opportunity for Aboriginal peoples from around the world to band together in an effort to thwart governments who seek to remove the right to self-determination in the United Nations Draft Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Though Canada enjoys a stellar reputation in the international community for being one of the most humane places in the world to live, there are still many issues to be addressed within our borders and the record of the Canadian government is far from unblemished. Though the United Nations Human Development Index ranks Canada number one in the world, the Native population would be ranked 63rd in the world – on par with countries like Bulgaria and Lebanon in terms of socio-economic conditions. As recently as 1999, the United Nations Human Rights Committee recognized the situation of Native people as “one of the most pressing issues facing Canadians.”

The residential school system is but one glaring example of how racism was inherent in Canada’s history and persists in Canada’s present. Though the cases have become so celebrated over recent years, and though there remains no doubt as to the harm inflicted on the Native population by the policies of the involved churches, compensation issues continue to be dragged slowly through the court system. Though some might highlight the fact that the truth is coming out and that this should be taken as a positive sign on the road to healing old wounds, others can simply point out the differences in how these cases get settled.

For example, in a similar case involving the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland, where members of the Catholic church were found guilty of physical and sexual abuse, white victims have been compensated in amounts that far exceed what Natives can expect from a court settlement.

One angle of defense on a point such as has been that the number of Natives due to receive compensation far outstrips the numbers of affected white victims in cases such as Mount Cashel, thus Natives can’t reasonably expect to be similarly compensated since the financial means is simply not there. Churches have been pleading financial difficulties, with some claiming to be on the verge of bankruptcy. That more Native people were subjected to systemic abuse at the hands of organized churches is but further evidence of a double standard at practice here.

The Durban conference will be one to take note of. Native people in Canada, who face higher rates of incarceration, welfare, and suicide than their white neighbours, can only hope to narrow that gap between first place and sixty-third. It is not unreasonable to want to enjoy first world status in a first world country.