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First Nations gain same rights other Canadians already enjoy

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OTTAWA -- As of today, First Nations people have access to the same human rights protections as all other Canadians.

"This is a historic day," said David Langtry, acting chief of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

"Over 700,000 people who previously had no recourse under the Canadian Human Rights Act are now able to come to the Canadian Human Rights Commission to seek a remedy to improve their lives in First Nations communities and beyond."

First Nations people already had the ability to challenge Ottawa over rights violations. That was granted in 2008 in federal legislation that also gave First Nations three years to transition to the new system. The transition is over and people on reserves now have the same rights as anyone else in terms of challenging local governments over discrimination.

Funding for clean water, education, child welfare and housing on reserves is open to question under the rights act.

The commission has spent the last three years meeting with First Nations communities to prepare for this day. Hundreds, if not thousands, of complaints may arise due to the poor living conditions on many reserves.

Langtry said he hopes the change will kick-start improvements to living conditions on reserves, raising them to the standard of living other Canadians enjoy.

First Nations are wary because they fear they don't have the resources to provide the level of services needed to avoid human rights complaints.

Debbie Burka, chief of political staff for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said if services on reserves are discriminatory it's often due to a lack of funding, not a lack of will: "It can put an additional burden on communities that are already suffering."

For example, she says any time a band gets housing money, residents who don't benefit could claim they are being discriminated against. Burka said she could see complaints against band councils turning into complaints by band councils against Ottawa over underfunding.

While today marks a milestone, the outlook is murky. The federal government is potentially close to absolving itself of human rights complaints involving service funding filed by First Nations. Last March, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal dismissed a complaint that argued the federal government violates the human rights of aboriginal children by underfunding child-welfare programs on reserves.

The tribunal chair said the Human Rights Act allows complaints only based on services provided differently by the same level of government. Since child-welfare services off reserve are provided by provincial governments, the tribunal chair said discrimination could not be determined.

The First Nations Caring Society is appealing that decision in Federal Court.

Langtry said if the decision is upheld it could nullify the intention of the government to extend human rights protections to people who live on reserves. "The government of Canada would get sweeping immunity from human rights law," he said.

Philippe Dufresne, senior council for the commission, said it expects a hearing on the matter will take place late this year or early next year. He said the consequences could be far-reaching.

"Parliament on the one hand gave human rights to First Nations and on the other, this could take them away," Dufresne said.

The commission expects the case will ultimately land in the Supreme Court. Other complaints against the federal government regarding funding for reserve services could be stalled until the case is settled.


-- with files from The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 18, 2011 A5

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