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U N Report: Indigenous housing conditions "abhorrent"

Michele McAuley

November 6, 2019

A UN report presented October 18 by Leilani Farha, the special rapporteur on housing, outlines that Indigenous peoples live in some of the most abhorrent housing conditions across the planet with many subjected to grossly inadequate housing, lacking basic necessities - potable water and toilets - as well as to homelessness, life-threatening conditions, forced evictions and involuntary displacement.  

It is a necessarily scathing report, and in 25 pages addresses past, present and ongoing ‘deeply rooted discrimination, criminalization, barriers and violations’ that Indigenous peoples endure, noting  these violations are “embedded in, and a consequence of, colonization, forced assimilation, past and present dispossession of their lands and deeply rooted discrimination nurtured over centuries.”  “Indigenous peoples were intentionally alienated from their own cultures and deprived of access to resources, both of which are necessary for their enjoyment of the right to housing.”  

Increasing numbers of indigenous peoples are migrating to cities, where the most available option is living in precarious informal settlements where they’re at risk of early death.  They face significant barriers to housing, including overt racism and economic vulnerability. have disproportionately high rates of homelessness and are extremely vulnerable to forced evictions, land-grabbing and effects of climate change.  When they defend their rights they are often the targets of extreme violence.  

Indigenous women often become the targets of further violence because of their gender, Indigenous identity, socio-economic status and patriarchy.

In Canada, the report states: ‘close to half of all First Nations people live on reserves; more than 25 per cent in overcrowded conditions; more than 10,000 on-reserve homes in Canada don’t have indoor plumbing and 25 percent of reserves in Canada have substandard water or sewage systems. Housing shortages are so severe in the North that some people in Indigenous communities are forced to sleep in shifts, with 15 people living in a trailer-sized house.  In a country with the most fresh water in the world, 75 percent of the reserves in Canada have contaminated water, with communities such as Attawapiskat declaring a state of emergency because of toxic chemical levels in the water.’  ‘In Canada, indigenous children make up 52.2 percent of children in foster care’.

Trudeau’s Liberals made big promises to Indigenous Peoples in the early years of their majority government and didn’t come through on most.  They fired Jody Wilson-Raybould - the first Indigenous Attorney General – for doing her job, kicked her out of the party and refused any wrong doing even when found to have broken the law on the matter.  They barely mentioned Indigenous peoples during this campaign and Trudeau directly insulted a Grassy Narrows protestor in September when confronted about his broken promises to that community, then gave a smirky, hollow apology the next day.  During his victory speech on October 21, Trudeau mainly called for unity, trying to shore up his minority government, never once mentioned First Nations, yet told the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta that he had heard them.  This is a stunning omission and sad admission because the Liberals did not win any seats in those provinces - the ridings that Indigenous Peoples held the swing vote in didn’t vote Liberal.  

This report addresses crimes against Indigenous peoples in the context of climate change and capitalism: ‘Indigenous peoples rely heavily on the natural environment for their material and cultural existence… have contributed the least to the climate crisis yet are the ones most affected by it - finding themselves on the front lines facing every disaster, from the melting of the glaciers in the Arctic, to the deforestation of the Amazon, to the rising sea swallowing islands in Oceania.  Indigenous perspectives on climate change are often excluded from the global mainstream narrative… the lack of value attributed to indigenous ideas and solutions for adaptation and mitigation and the imposition of non-indigenous solutions on indigenous communities represent a new era of “climate change –driven colonialism”.  

There are also legal implications for Trudeau.  In presenting the report Farha said “The right to housing under international human rights law is something that is legally binding on governments in Canada.  That’s really important because the UN’s DRIP isn’t a legal instrument in the way that the treaty for the right to housing is.”  That statement puts pressure on the government to act, and we need to make this front and center on November 29, when we take to the streets again. 

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