United Nations official declares Canada in crisis

by Derek Cornet

After a visit to his community by a United Nations representative, Buffalo River Dene Nation (BRDN) chief Lance Byhette said it’s clear his reserve is facing nothing short of a crisis.

James Anaya, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right of indigenous people, traveled to several First Nations including BRDN on his nine-day mission across Canada recently to learn more about its aboriginal population and the obstacles they face.

Anaya attended a meeting in Dillion, SK, Oct. 13 to speak with Byhette, as well as Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations chief Perry Bellegarde, Waterhen Lake First Nation chief Carol Bernard and other area representatives. One of the major issues brought forward by Byhette is the need for more housing.

“We’ve had cases of tuberculosis occurring within our membership and this is the type of thing that accumulates because of a shortage of housing,” he said.
Every year for the past decade, Byhette said funding from the government to address housing has been capped at $243,000. He said this amount falls short in terms of maintaining current property and also building more homes for the band’s increasing membership.

“The government makes it seem like we’re money hungry and that is not true,” Byhette said. “We’ve always been deprived of the money. We’ve always been deprived of the right funding. We’ve always been sidetracked fighting amongst each other when they release just a couple million dollars.”

Another issue Byhette spoke with Anaya about was the issuing of oil sands special exploratory permits in December 2012. The permits were issued on land north of the Primrose Lake Air Weapons Base, which is in the traditional territory of BRDN.

Byhette said nobody was consulted about the permits and the band has launched a court case against the province. Byhette also said the BRDN should be at the forefront of any decisions made in its territory. The two sides will meet in court this November.

Also at the meeting was BRDN elder Norbert Billette. He said it was good to see Anaya make a visit to the community and hopes outstanding claims will be addressed. He went on to say BRDN was never compensated for the land lost decades ago from territory acquired to build the air weapons base, and he’d like to see progress on the claim.

“There used to be a main road through the bombing range and we’d all take it during pilgrimages to Lac Ste. Anne,” Billette said. “I’d also hunt in that area.”

On Oct. 15, Anaya released his preliminary findings during a news conference in Ottawa. In it, he concluded Canada faces a crisis when it comes to the situation of indigenous people. During his tour, he witnessed social problems he said are linked to housing overcrowding. Among them are high rates of tuberculosis and other health problems, family violence, unemployment and unwanted urban displacement. He also described funding for aboriginal housing as woefully inadequate.

“I urge the government to treat the housing situation on First Nations reserves and Inuit communities with the urgency it deserves,” the statement read. “It simply cannot be acceptable these conditions persist in the midst of a country with such great wealth.”

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