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Hicks: Aglukkaq’s shameful response to UN food envoy
Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Northern Public Affairs’ editorial policy.The editors have contacted the Hon. Leona Aglukkaq’s office and offered space on this website to respond.
Our Nunavut political correspondent, Jack Hicks, on Minister Leona Agglukkaq’s recent comments about the United Nations food envoy.
Once upon a time there was a very lovely land populated by a wide range of Indigenous peoples, who differed by language, kinship structure, and economic activity.
Then non-Indigenous peoples showed up, and gradually… took over the best of the land. They cut down trees, put up fences, created farms, built shops and factories, and eventually built cities.
The Indigenous peoples in the south of the country were gradually dispossessed of their land. They ended up living largely on their own in marginal areas far away from cities, or in poor neighbourhoods in the cities. A modest Indigenous middle class developed, but the majority of the Indigenous population was, at least in cash terms, poor. And their health indicators (average life expectancy, etc.) were poor too.
That Indigenous communities and culture survived at all was remarkable, given the multiple assaults embodied in colonization.
The north of the country hadn’t yet proven to be of significant economic value to the non-Indigenous economy, so the Indigenous peoples who lived there were left alone for much longer. Eventually traders and missionaries arrived in the north, and government officials (starting with police officers) followed. It took a while for the government officials to decide how to deal with the Indigenous population, but eventually it was decided that for administrative convenience they should be coerced into living in settled communities.
Social problems began to develop among the first generation of Indigenous peoples to grow up in the settled communities. Many children grew up happy and healthy, but a substantial percentage of children grew up suffering from ‘adverse childhood experiences’ which had an impact on their mental and emotional well-being later in life. Rates of violence, substance abuse and suicidal behaviour began to increase.
In the north a territorial government had been established on the British Westminster model. In its early days the legislature was shaped and managed by non-Indigenous people living in the larger communities. Indigenous people came to accept this way of organizing a government, even though it didn’t seem very effective at responding to the social problems in the smaller communities. At least the territorial government respected Indigenous language and culture, which had persisted to a greater extent than in the south.
Then one day, who should arrive in the very lovely (but now troubled) land but a Special Rapporteur from the United Nations. He had done his research, he travelled about and met with people, and he concluded that the Indigenous population endured “severe disadvantage” compared to the non-Indigenous population — and that surely a rich country like this could to better for its original inhabitants. With regards to the north, he wrote that further efforts were needed to “ensure that Indigenous peoples living in remote areas can enjoy the same social and economic rights as other segments of the … population, without having to sacrifice important aspects of their cultures and ways of life.”
Conservative Members of Parliament were apoplectic. “I think this is the kind of nonsense we are used to from these armchair critics,” seethed one MP, incensed that a United Nations official would have the gall to come to his wealthy democratic country and comment on its social inequalities — when there were so many poor, undemocratic African and other Third World countries the UN should be investigating instead.
‘He had no business coming here,’ was the general tone of the attacks, ‘Especially when we help fund the UN. If we pay your salary, you investigate other countries — and you leave us and ‘our’ Indigenous people alone.’
The country where this happened was Australia; the year was 2010; the Special Rapporteur was the American (Apache, actually) lawyer James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People; and his report — which can be read here — was “by United Nations standards … a flogging of colonial proportions” (said the National Indigenous Times).
Fast forward two years, and who should arrive in another very lovely land, Canada, but Belgian lawyer Olivier De Schutter — the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
The Edmonton Journal noted that this was “the first time since the [Right to Food] office’s 2000 inception that a developed country has had its food security scrutinized, provoked in part by a group of Canadian chiefs and elders who presented concerns about food security to a UN panel in Geneva, Switzerland, in February.”
On his eleven days in Canada, De Schutter met with a range of organizations, visited poor inner-city neighbourhoods, and also visited remote, fly-in aboriginal communities in Manitoba and Alberta. He didn’t visit Inuit Nunaat, but he did meet with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Mary Simon — who stated clearly and compellingly that “Adequate food continues to be an everyday struggle for many Inuit living in northern Canada.” The ITK President lauded De Schutter’s call for a national food strategy that sees the right to food as a human right for all Canadians.
What I’ve seen in Canada is a system that presents barriers for the poor to access nutritious diets and that tolerates increased inequalities between rich and poor, and aboriginal [and] non-aboriginal peoples,” De Schutter said in a statement. “Canada has long been seen as a land of plenty. Yet today one in 10 families with a child under six is unable to meet their daily food needs. These rates of food insecurity are unacceptable, and it is time for Canada to adopt a national right to food strategy.
Postmedia summed up what happened next:
De Schutter [decried] Canada for being “in violation of international obligations” (think the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Canada ratified a long time ago.) He also blasted people for holding a “self-righteous” attitude about how great Canada is, given how many families do not have the means to adequately feed their children.
It’s not because the country is a wealthy country that there are no problems. In fact, the problems are very significant and, frankly, this sort of self-righteousness about the situation being good in Canada is not corresponding to what I saw on the ground, not at all,” De Schutter [said], pointing to up to 900,000 households and 2.5 million people in Canada who, he claims, are too poor to afford adequate diets.
The Conservative government’s response? Butt out, you patronizing ill-informed techno-crat. Well, I’m (partly) paraphrasing, but here’s a sampling of the venom directed at De Schutter:Immigration Minister Jason Kenney got things rolling, when he told reporters pointedly that the UN “should focus its efforts on those countries where there is widespread hunger, widespread material poverty and not get into political exercises in developed democracies like Canada. We don’t think that’s a very intelligent use of their resources.”
If we missed the point, Kenney was happy to rephrase: “I think this is completely ridiculous. Canada is one of the wealthiest, most democratic countries in the world. According to us, we believe that the UN should focus on development in countries where people are starving and we think it’s simply a waste of resources to come to Canada to give them political lecturing,” Kenney added.
If people expected Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, representing the riding of Nunavut, to play good cop, they must have been shocked to see her actually ratchet up the rhetoric. She called De Schutter “ill-informed” and “patronizing” about the challenges facing aboriginals in Canada’s Arctic communities. She also said she was “disappointed” by her meeting with him and “insulted” that he “chose to study us, but chose not to visit us.”
The meeting, held after his news conference, was a last-minute addition to De Schutter’s schedule after the government said at the beginning of his mission that no cabinet ministers were available to meet him. …
Doug Cuthand, former Vice Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, commented in the Saskatoon StarPheonix:
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq could have accepted his report, reviewed his findings, and made recommendations. After all this is a very serious issue and it shouldn’t be seen in partisan terms. Food insecurity is a fact in Canada and it has been the case regardless of the government in power.
But Aglukkaq chose to attack and ignore the valuable findings. She accused De Schutter of being an “ill informed and patronizing academic.” This kind of rhetoric may play to the Tory base but it does little to address the very real problems our people face as an impoverished population that relies on food banks and welfare.
Aglukkaq went on to state that Indigenous people don’t face food insecurity because “they hunt every day.” This is an out-of-date view.
As APTN noted,
The traditional food supply in Nunavut … is under extreme pressure. Suppliers at Iqaluit’s monthly country-food outdoor market say they can’t keep up with demand. Snowmobiles full of caribou are picked clean before vendors can get them off the sleds.
The Special Rapporteur didn’t back away from his comments. When asked about Kenney’s comments about how he should stick to famine-stricken countries with real problems, De Schutter replied:
Well, of course it’s political. The right to food is about politics, it’s not about technicalities. It’s a matter of principle and it’s a matter of political will. I think these comments are symptomatic of the very problem that is my duty to address and that my mission should indeed elicit such comments so that this becomes a national conversation at the highest level of government. …
This right (to food) today is under very severe threats with respect to the First Nations of this country. My report will be useful, not only if it’s discussed at an international level, but also if it’s used to launch a national conversation on these issues, if the Canadian public opinion can be led to better understand what the situation is, what its responsibilities are.
The Special Rapporteur’s final report — to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2014 — will form part of Canada’s official international human rights record.
As Doug Cuthand noted, “De Schutter plans to do a follow-up visit to Canada to assess the progress in tackling hunger and food insecurity. It should be an interesting visit if the government will let him into the country.”
Leona Aglukkaq knows full well that a great many households in Nunavut experience food insecurity.
Aglukkaq knows that Statistics Canada has found that “household food insecurity has been associated with a range of poor physical and mental health outcomes, for example, self-assessed poor/fair health, multiple chronic conditions, obesity, distress and depression”, and that Nunavut has by far the highest percentage of households with food insecurity:
Aglukkaq knows that research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed that in Nunavut “Nearly 70% of Inuit preschoolers resided in households rated as food insecure. Overall, 31.0% of children were moderately food insecure, and 25.1% were severely food insecure, with a weighted prevalence of child food insecurity of 56.1%. Primary care-givers in households in which children were severely food insecure reported experiencing times in the past year when their children skipped meals (75.8%), went hungry (90.4%) or did not eat for a whole day (60.1%).”
Aglukkaq knows that Tagak Curley, as Minister of Health and Social Services, stated forthrightly in the Legislative Assembly that “Food insecurity is a crisis in Nunavut that cannot be addressed by Health and Social Services alone. Many factors affect food insecurity and a collaborative and comprehensive approach is needed.”
Aglukkaq knows that Economic Development Minister Peter Taptuna has stated “We see food security as one of the main causes of poverty. It is a concern to the government.”
Aglukkaq knows that MLA Ron Elliot has stated “Food insecurity is a profoundly disturbing issue and one which is fundamentally linked to poverty”, and that his fellow MLA Moses Aupaluqtuq added that “Basic rights, such as adequate health care, food security, decent housing, and a quality education, are still things that we, as representatives of the people who elected us, continue to fight for and demand on a daily basis.”
Aglukkaq knows that the Nunavut Association of Municipalities passed this motion:
WHEREAS: Food security is a growing problem in Nunavut;
WHEREAS: 70% of Nunavut households with Inuit preschool children are food insecure;
THEREFORE IT BE RESOLVED that the NAM urge the Government of Nunavut and the Government of Canada to take the issue of food insecurity seriously; and
THEREFORE IT BE FURTHER RESOLVED: that any government initiatives that directly or indirectly impact food security issues such as the Nutrition North Program and the Poverty Reduction Initiative for example, ensure that food security is a priority objective.
Aglukkaq knows that just last October one Stephen van Dine, Director General of Devolution and Territorial Relations for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, told the MLAs that:
I will absolutely and fully acknowledge that one of things that have occurred as a result of the change of [the Nutrition North Canada] program has brought light to a number of important issues and questions facing things like food security across the north. Those issues are certainly very significant and are certainly well understood by many.
Aklukkaq knows that a 2007 study by UNICEF, Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries: A comprehensive assessment of the lives and well-being of children and adolescents in the economically advanced nations put Canada in the middle of “rich countries”, tied with Greece, in terms of the overall well-being of children. (Imagine if Aboriginal kids in Canada had been ranked on their own, how low their overall well-being would score…)
Oh ya, Aglukkaq knows all this.
So how do we explain Leona Aglukkaq’s reaction to the UN Special Rapporteur’s report?
Susan Delacourt wrote a column in the Toronto Star noting that “One doesn’t expect a senior government member to level a sneering character attack, as Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq did”, adding that “Her slurs were echoed by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.” Delacourt called these “childish political antics” and contrasted them to the “more mature” statements made subsequently by Prime Minister Harper and Senator Hugh Segal.
That’s not a very serious analysis.
Doug Cuthand’s column puts Aglukkaq’s comments in political context:
Canada’s human rights record has deteriorated in recent years but the government continues to ignore international criticism, choosing instead to laud the country’s high standard of living.
In 2008, Canada decided not to ratify a complaints procedure as part of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to allow people to take their cases to the international arena if they had exhausted all domestic options. In 2009, Canada rejected key recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review. One of the rejected recommendations included calling on Canada to develop a national strategy to reduce poverty based on human rights.
It seems that if you want to get to the Conservative government you have to embarrass it in the international arena. Just ask Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who declared a state of emergency in her community and called in the RCMP. The federal government went ballistic and seized her administration.
And of course there is the black eye that the world has given Canada over lack of direction on climate change. This more than any other factor will change the landscape and be the biggest threat to northern food sources.
The Conservative strategy is clear. Have an Inuit politician parrot the party line, thus making the issue internal to aboriginal people. In the House of Commons question period, she was answering questions directed toward Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.
Precisely. Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq is a sock puppet, willing to read whatever script the Conservative Party gives her — even if the ‘party line’ is clearly and egregiously against the interests of her constituents.
Read this exchange from Question Period in the House of Commons last Thursday:
Ms. Jean Crowder (Nanaimo-Cowichan, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, it was shocking to hear the Minister of Health attack the UN food rapporteur for bringing attention to the issue of food insecurity amongst first nations, Inuit and Métis, especially because the head of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Mary Simon, supports his findings. Seventy percent of Inuit households with young children do not have access to safe and secure food. The government is ignoring the facts. The first step is admitting there is a problem. Will the minister at least do that?
Hon. Leona Aglukkaq (Minister of Health and Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, the UN rapporteur should look to his own country’s position on the seal hunt and its impact on the Canadian Inuit. How dare he come to Canada to study us, once again from afar, and declare what is best for us as Inuit in our country. He should look at the European Union position on the seal hunt and the impact on food security of Canadian Inuit, instead of coming here to tell us what to do and what is best for us.
Ms. Jean Crowder:
Mr. Speaker, the government’s own numbers talk about this lack of access to food. In 2008, Health Canada reported that aboriginal households are three times less likely than non-aboriginal households to have access to safe and secure food. Is the government now going to attack Health Canada? Why does the government think it is acceptable for children living in this country to wake up hungry, to go to school hungry, and to go to bed hungry? Instead of attacking, will the government now act to solve this very real problem?
Hon. Leona Aglukkaq:
Mr. Speaker, yesterday what surprised me was the UN rapporteur’s lack of understanding and knowledge about the aboriginal people, Inuit and their dependence on hunting wildlife for food security in Canada’s Arctic. What this amounts to is an academic study of aboriginal people in Canada’s Arctic without ever setting foot on our grounds, walking in our footsteps and understanding some of the limitations as well as the incredible opportunities we have as aboriginal people in this country.
What’s more, by making the issue of food security “internal to aboriginal people” (as Cuthand put it) Aglukkaq opened the door to ugly scapegoating of Aboriginal Canadians. If Aboriginal people “hunt every day”, then logically any food insecurity that aboriginal children experience must be the fault of their parents being too lazy to hunt — and not the result of government policies that result in unemployment, poverty, and high food prices.
Which leads me to the ugly editorial in the Toronto Sun on May 21st. I don’t recall ever seeing an editorial in a Canadian newspaper like this before.
Most alcoholics don’t accept they have a problem. Neither do racists. But sometimes, the evidence — like calling a struggling First Nations community a “human cesspool” — just overwhelms…
It’s not by coincidence that this editorial opens with an Aglukkaq-like attack on the “so-called food envoy” who dared to comment on inequality in Canada before demonizing the most food-insecure section of the Canadian population.
I’ll leave the last word to the Victoria Times-Columnist’s Iain Hunter, because I entirely agree with his column ‘He’s right – we should be ashamed’:
De Schutter told us what he heard from the vulnerable among us and what we know already.
Canada is a rich country with a dirty secret. A lot of people — including those with the constitutional responsibility to do something about it — resent being reminded of this.
Poverty lurks in the Great Canadian Gut like a tapeworm, sucking nourishment from those who need it most.
De Schutter is right. It is shocking. If our governors aren’t ashamed, a lot of Canadians are.
Photo credit: US Mission Canada, used under Creative Commons license.