Aboriginal rights and treaty law

To uphold the vital healthcare needs of the First Peoples, we must look back at our historical obligations.

Aboriginal rights and treaty law

As a former nurse, Senator Boyer witnessed firsthand the power imbalance between non-Indigenous healthcare providers and their Indigenous patients, particularly women. There remains a staggering gap in health outcomes faced by Métis, First Nations and Inuit peoples. Too often we hear stories of Aboriginal patients dying in emergency rooms and being ignored by healthcare professionals who assume they are homeless or addicted to drugs.

And yet Aboriginal people hold special rights under Canadian Constitutional law. Aboriginal and treaty rights have been recognized and affirmed as constitutionally protected rights under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Aboriginal rights and the treaties signed between Canada and Indigenous Nations thus carry the highest power in Canadian law. Canada has also signed numerous international treaties and agreements outlining its commitment to the human rights of Indigenous peoples. In 1948, Canada signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the rights of all people in international law and was enacted domestically through the 1977 enactment of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the basis of which is the notion that all citizens of Canada have the equal opportunity to live their lives and pursue their goals free of discrimination.

On September 13, 2007, the UN passed UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. One of four countries to vote against the declaration, Canada later reversed its position and endorsed UNDRIP in 2010. UNDRIP asserts that Indigenous people are entitled to full enjoyment of all human rights and freedoms. This is an important document that guides relationships with Indigenous peoples and all Canadian laws should be in compliance with it.

The numbered treaties with First Nations were signed in Canada from 1871 to 1921. Even though Treaty 6 is the only treaty to contain a written agreement for the provision of a medicine chest, there is evidence to show that oral promises to health and healthcare may have been made in all the numbered treaties.

These documents affirm the right to health and healthcare as an important part of Canada’s agreement with the First Peoples. However, Indigenous peoples in Canada continue to suffer from a system of inequality begat by a long history of racist and colonialist practices.

“Multigenerational racism experienced by Indigenous peoples in the healthcare system has been well documented in the stories of the vulnerable and captured by many in academic literature and numerous inquiries and studies,” Senator Boyer has written. “There are no easy answers, but the first step is recognizing that there are problems that have solutions. The solutions lie in recognizing that a process must be implemented to start addressing some of the inequities in the healthcare. Concentrated efforts at reform through a constitutional legal lens coupled with health policy changes and cultural awareness training for healthcare workers may be a logical start to begin to address these issues.”

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Aboriginal rights and treaty law