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Violence against Indigenous Peoples persists across Canada: Human Rights Watch

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Canada has failed to address several human rights concerns regarding safe drinking water on First Nation reserves and violence against Indigenous women, according to the Human Rights Watch.

In its 2023 World Report released Wednesday, the organization said widespread abuses against Indigenous Peoples “persist” across Canada caused by “decades of structural and systemic discrimination.”

The report outlines the lack of access to clean, safe drinking water in Indigenous communities in one of the world’s “most water-rich nations” that has continued to “pose a major public health concern” despite the Canadian government’s promise to end all drinking water advisories on First Nations reserves by 2021.

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As of Jan. 5, there are 33 long-term drinking water advisories — warnings issued to caution people against drinking water that may be unsafe or is known to not be safe based on water quality test results — in effect across 29 communities, according to Indigenous Services Canada.

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Drinking water advisories that last for more than one year are deemed as long-term, which include three types of drinking water advisories: boil water advisories, “do not consume advisories” and “do not use” advisories.

In April 2022, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said she hopes Canada will be able to lift its remaining long-term drinking water advisories by 2025.

An $8 billion settlement agreement between the federal government and certain First Nations includes approximately $1.5 billion in compensation for individuals deprived of clean drinking water; $6 billion to support reliable access to safe drinking water on reserves; and the creation of a $400-million First Nation Economic and Cultural Restoration Fund.

The settlement agreement also include commitments such as support for First Nations to develop their own safe drinking water bylaws and initiatives, and the modernization of Canada’s First Nations drinking water legislation.

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The Human Rights Watch report also says that Indigenous women and gender-diverse people have been facing discrimination and violence in Canada.

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Citing a Statistics Canada report released last year, the organization said 81 per cent of Indigenous women who were under foster care, group home under child protection, or under any child welfare services had been physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), which was held from Sept. 1, 2016 to June 30, 2019, examined the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada.

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In response to the MMIWG report’s findings, the federal government promised a series of “transformative changes” in June 2021 and released another National Action Plan in 2022.

However, a 2022 assessment by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) deemed the government’s performance a “failure.”

In it report card, the NWAC said although the federal government directed $2.2 billion over five years to address the issue, “the commitments outlined in the plan were not separately costed.” NAWC added there is “little information about how those funds are being distributed and what concrete action is being achieved.”

“The National Action Plan, as it was drafted, was actually a recipe for inaction, and the people represented by our organization are paying the price,” said Lynne Groulx, NWAC’s CEO in the assessment.

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Besides Indigenous rights, Canada has also violated the rights of other marginalized groups including detained migrants, people with disabilities and older people, according to Human Rights Watch.

In addition, the report also accuses Canada of ignoring abuses by Canadian mining communities.

“The government of Prime Minister Trudeau has not taken adequate steps to ensure that Canadian authorities exercise meaningful oversight of Canadian extractive companies operating abroad,” it said.

In April 2019, the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) was set up to review complaints about possible human rights abuses by Canadian companies working in overseas garment, mining, and oil and gas sectors.

According to the report, the CORE still “does not have the authority or independence required to effectively investigate claims of wrongdoing or compel documents and witness testimony.”

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— with files from The Canadian Press

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