Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 September 2014, 16:29 GMT

State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Canada

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Canada, 11 March 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/48a7eadcc.html [accessed 24 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Although Canada never ratified ILO No. 169 and voted against the 2007 UN General Assembly Declaration on Indigenous People, it greatly supported the drafting of both documents and provided a relatively progressive example of policy reform and reconciliation between government and indigenous nations. Moreover, its policy of multiculturalism also stood as a model of diversity. However, events during 2007 have called into question full national commitment regarding these issues.

The June 2006 arrest of a group of 12 men and five youths for planning terrorism renewed the focus on the country's Muslim minority. This continued into 2007 when several aspects of Canada's anti-terrorism policy came under renewed legal pressure. Anti-Muslim incidents occurred sporadically in various locations, including Montreal and Toronto.

Controversy also continued over Canada's policies of multiculturalism in education, law and social life, especially with respect to allowing the application of Sharia law in certain cases involving Muslim citizens.

Sharia

According to Statistics Canada estimates (2007), there are now between 750,000 and 1 million Canadian Muslims. Some Muslims argue that Canada's secular legal system makes it difficult to govern themselves by their own religious laws, for instance in matters related to marriage and divorce.

However, critics of Sharia law like the Muslim Canadian Congress cite the absence of a formal certification process for interpreters and the subjectivity of interpretation. They also question the motives of the pro-Sharia lobby and warn that implementing a parallel justice system would infringe on the rights of Canada's Muslim women.

Attempts to introduce Sharia law in Ontario to settle family disputes in a manner similar to Jewish and Catholic arbitration bodies were rejected in 2005 by the provincial government, which then moved to prohibit all religious-based tribunals. In Quebec, cabinet ministers also rejected the use of Sharia law in that province, claiming that it discriminates against women.

In May 2007, after several Canadian financial institutions indicated they were preparing Sharia-compliant mortgages and other financial products to serve the growing Muslim population, critics once again began voicing opposition to what they claim was another veiled attempt to introduce Sharia law into Canada.

Canada maintains relatively liberal immigration policies and Muslims now represent the fastest-growing part of the population. Given the international political climate. the debate has continued in 2007 over possible entry into Canada of immigrants involved in terrorist missions.

Terrorism and First Nations

Increased focus on terrorism also threatened the ability of Canada's 612 different First Nations to demand their rights and protest injustices.

Controversy arose in April 2007 following Canadian media reports that the indigenous Mohawk Warriors Society had been included in the Department of National Defence's counter-insurgency draft training manual along, with other groups labelled as international security risks.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine protested what he described as a move to criminalize the legitimate rights of Canada's indigenous people to obtain redress and demanded immediate removal of any reference to First Nations from the document, which seeks to associate aboriginal protest groups with large well-armed radical militia such as the Tamil Tigers, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.

Following the media attention, the Canadian government made a special effort to assure indigenous leaders that the references will not appear in the final version of the manual, which recommends the army use deception, ambushes and assassination against insurgency groups.

Social conditions

There were renewed efforts by Canada's First Nations to continue generating awareness of the socio-economic status of some First Nations communities in the country, as highlighted on the 29 June 2007 National Day of Action.

Indigenous areas continue to represent 92 of the bottom 100 communities in the country according to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. As in the rest of the region, this minority lags badly on practically every social indicator, including education, health and employment.

Aboriginal poverty, traditional land rights, control of resource extraction and tourism, and discrimination remain among the major issues. Protests and civil disturbances, including blockades, continued in some provinces – notably in Ontario, British Colombia and Manitoba – related to failure of the provincial governments to consult with native groups over sale and use of disputed treaty lands.

In April 2007 the Manitoba provincial government, along with First Nations leaders, signed the Wabanong Nakaygum Okimaw accord. It mandates each provincial First Nation to create its own lands development plan, including decisions on resource extraction, housing and any other development.

Signatories hope to create a UNESCO World Heritage site to preserve and promote one of the last intact parcels of primary boreal forest on the entire North America continent. Along with enabling environmental conservation, it is intended to enable aboriginal people to control and gain revenue from traditional lands.

Nevertheless indigenous groups argue that the Manitoba government is failing to fully uphold the agreement with regard to consultation, and is only selectively applying the accord.

Canada and the UN GA Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People

Despite Canada's international lead in granting indigenous land titles, greater degrees of autonomy, self-government and control over resources, Canada's indigenous communities became very concerned in July 2007 when the country joined six other states in signing a letter to the UN calling for redrafting of key provisions of the General Assembly IP Declaration.

Canada's Assembly of First Nations (along with ecumenical groups, indigenous NGOs and human rights bodies like Amnesty International) immediately sent an open letter reminding the Conservative government that, by seeking to redraft the document, Canada was failing to honour its international obligations as an elected member of the Human Rights Council. Moreover it was reversing its own positions and arguing against content it had originally participated in drafting.

In September 2007 Canada was among only four countries that cast a negative vote in the General Assembly. Included in its range of concerns was that Article 28 related to providing redress for property taken without free, prior and informed consent, and could be interpreted as promoting the reopening of settlements already reached between states and indigenous peoples.

There seem to have been no similar concern during 2007 about reopening the debate over the territorial integrity and future status of the French minority within Canada. The Prime Minister had earlier revived status discussions over Quebec and declared that the predominantly French-speaking province should be recognized as a nation 'within a unified Canada'.

Mining

Like its powerful industrial neighbour to the south, actions in Canada also had an impact on the minorities in the rest of the Americas during 2007, especially in the mining sector.

Canada's mining corporations continued to be leaders of the global mining industry and have already been challenged over environmental practices and exploitation of indigenous lands at home. Canadian mining companies in 2007 accounted for over 40 per cent of global exploration budgets and nearly 3,200 concessions in more than 100 countries. Government figures indicate almost 60 per cent of the world's mining and exploration companies are listed on Canadian Stock Exchanges.

Canadian companies that boast of low-cost operations maintain several typical open-pit mines in the Americas in places like San Martín in the Siria valley of Honduras. Water-based sodium cyanide solution is used to separate the gold. Environmental experts argue that, besides considerable fresh water consumption, they generate highly toxic by-products, including heavy metals like mercury and arsenic that can contaminate potable water sources and affect nearby inhabitants. This occurred in the indigenous communities around San Martin.

Critics have therefore sought to link rights violations of indigenous communities in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Peru and Suriname to the environmental devastation and violence allegedly perpetrated by Canadian mining corporations in the Americas.

As of December 2006, according to Guatemala's Ministry of Energy and Mines, there were 356 mining licences granted and an additional 250 concessions in process, covering more than 10 per cent of the country, which has a majority indigenous Maya population. Of these concessions, 80 per cent are owned by Canadian companies.

According to Rights Action, a US-based NGO that supports indigenous land reclamation efforts, protesters in the Q'eqchi' Mayan village of Chichipate, located atop a large deposit of nickel in Guatemala, have claimed Canadian mining company complicity in the forced removal of indigenous residents to begin mine construction. Environmentalists are also concerned about damage and pollution of water sources through use of water from nearby Lake Izabal to cool nickel-smelting furnaces at a rate of 200 litres per second.

The Ottawa-based NGO Mining Watch Canada (MWC) reports that Canadian mining companies already have 10 projects in development in Oaxaca Mexico, covering over 70,000 hectares of land, and in 2007 continued to consolidate larger land holdings. The impoverished (and militarized) neighbouring Mexican state of Chiapas has over 72 Canadian mining concessions, representing a total of 727,435 hectares. More than 55 per cent of these were conceded without any information-sharing or consultation with local indigenous communities.

In May 2007 busloads of people stood in front of the Canadian Embassy in San Salvador to protest the Canadian government's role in Central American mining, and specifically in the 29 mining projects currently active in El Salvador.

British and Canadian parliamentary representatives travelled to Honduras in August 2007 and spent four days listening to all sides in the mining debate. They offered significant support to civil society sectors seeking just and responsible mining laws, and environmental and local community protection.

One central theme was the need for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) legislation and the application of Canadian mining laws to Canadian companies operating in the Americas to ensure ethical conduct. This is especially important because extractive industries routinely take full advantage of the absence of adequate local laws and any frailty or corruption they may encounter in governments of the NAFTA area. The initiative includes appointing an independent ombudsman to verify compliance with standards.

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