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Why We Can No Longer Call Canada an Advocate for Human Rights

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With little fanfare, Canada was scolded last month by both the United Nations and Amnesty International over its human rights record. Yes you read this correctly -- Canada.

The two areas that attracted the most attention by the UN/ Amnesty International human rights experts were Canada's record when it came to refugees and internally the manner in which we continue to discriminate against our First Nations people.

While politicians mouth the usual platitudes in support of refugees and First Nations their actions demonstrate the platitudes are nothing but a smoke screen.

On the refugee front Canada was, for decades, considered a safe harbour for those fleeing persecution from their countries of origin. Where the stateless once saw us as kind and benevolent, today refugees are routinely targeted and easily returned from whence they came.

Just a few weeks ago Jason Kenny, the Minister of Immigration saw fit to denote Hungary, amongst a number of EU countries, as a "designated safe country." The result of this move means that asylum seekers arriving from these "safe countries" have their claims fast tracked and the decision of the immigration adjudicators are final; no appeals to the process. Everyone knows this was put in place to deny access to Roma refugees from Hungary where they and other minorities, specifically Jews, face bigotry, discrimination and even death.

Incredibly the Canadian government has even gone to the extreme length of funding billboards in certain Hungarian cities with large Roma populations stating that the Canadian refugee system has changed recently: "Those people who make a claim without sound reasons will be processed faster and removed faster."

When the official opposition in Hungary, the fascist Jobbik party, appears to applaud neo-Nazi violence against Roma communities while demanding lists of Hungarian Jews one wonders how Canada sees Hungary as "safe."

And right here at home the UN and Amnesty International observers waste few words when it comes to the treatment of Canada's Aboriginal people.

According to the Amnesty report:

"By every measure, be it respect for treaty and land rights, levels of poverty, average life spans, violence against women and girls, dramatically disproportionate levels of arrest and incarceration or access to government services such as housing, health care, education, water and child protection, indigenous peoples across Canada continue to face a grave human rights crisis."

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L-R: Dr. Michael Dan, Chief Theresa Spence, former national Chief Phil Fontaine, Bernie Farber

While many criticized Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence who only recently ended her hunger strike, she undoubtedly shone the light of betrayal on the government's treatment of her people. The grassroots movement of young First Nations activists, IdleNoMore has grown out of her work and together with the more governance-minded and mainstream Assembly of First Nations action is finally underway.

And it's about time. Despite having a rich and intact cultural history, the standard of living on too many First Nations reserves is closer to Third World conditions than what Canadians would expect even for the most destitute in our society.

Unsafe housing with extensive black mould, dilapidated structures, rampant prescription narcotic drug abuse/addiction, interpersonal abuse, lack of primary healthcare, unsafe drinking water and waste treatment, near complete unemployment, lack of an identifiable economy, and a fundamental lack of hope permeates many First Nations reserves.

Having personally visited a number of Aboriginal communities, I remain convinced that if Canadians were able to spend even a few days on such a First Nations Reserve the outcry of anger and humiliation would lead toward change. Instead, we either choose wilful blindness or more to the point given that most of these reserves are so far from our consciousness the old adage "out of sight-out of mind" prevails.

As Canadians we consider ourselves to be open, honest -- a welcoming society. Yet for those from afar struggling to build a new life and for our First Nations right here struggling to change their lives for the better, that openness rings very hollow.

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