How UN envoy’s visit launched food fight and debate over who speaks for Indigenous north in Canada
Nestled deep within the recent brouhaha over the visit to Canadian soil by Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, is an interesting sub-text: namely, who, in a complicated country like Canada, is in the best position to speak on behalf of Indigenous peoples?
Well, as anyone even vaguely familiar with Aboriginal issues knows, the answer depends on who you ask and who else might be doing the talking, and the UN’s Special Rapporteur’s visit is perhaps as good a case as any to illustrate why Aboriginal representation is no straightforward affair.
Following up on his mandate to ensure signatory countries’ promote and pursue their citizens’ right to food under various international laws, the UN envoy declared in his end of mission statement that he was “disconcerted by the deep and severe food insecurity faced by Aboriginal peoples across Canada living both on- and off-reserve in remote and urban areas.” During his visit, the Special Rapporteur was earlier quoted as saying that Canada is home to “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.” As De Schutter himself would put it, “I have to say, my concerns are extremely severe, and I don’t see why I should mince my words.”
So that’s what someone from the UN thinks about the state of Indigenous food security in this part of the world. What about Aboriginal people themselves?
Let’s begin with Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuk woman who also serves as the federal Minister of Health and Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. After initial indications suggested no Cabinet member would do so, the Conservative minister ended up meeting with De Schutter at the last second. According to her version of that sit-down,
“As an Aboriginal person from the North, I was insulted that Mr. Schutter chose to ‘study’ us, but chose not to ‘visit’ us. In fact, Mr. De Schutter confirmed to me that he did not visit a single Arctic community in Canada during nearly two weeks of travel within Canada.”
Media reports around the same time had Aglukkaq reportedly calling De Schutter “ill-informed” and “patronizing” toward Aboriginal people in the Arctic, and saying that she was “disappointed” with their meeting. Not unlike some mainstream media outlets (e.g., this commentary in the National Post) Aglukkaq questioned the UN food envoy’s decision to even visit this country, citing the fact that, by “the United Nations’ own measure, Canada ranks sixth best of all the world’s countries on their human development index.”
(Interestingly, that UN Index Aglukkaq cites was used a few years back as the basis of a First-Nations-only HDI developed by Indian Affairs Canada; its ‘Registered Indian HDI‘ revealed “a considerable gap” in the quality of life between First Nations people and Canadians over the period of 1981 to 2001. A more recent Aboriginal Affairs document reports that the “HDI gap between registered Indians and other Canadians has remained virtually constant between 1996 and 2006.” Moreover, a 2007 study entitled “Indigenous well-being in four countries: An application of the UNDP’s Human Development Index to Indigenous Peoples in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States,” found that, were Indigenous peoples in Canada to be given their own, stand-alone ranking in the overall HDI rankings in 2001, they would have placed 33rd, or a full 25 spots below Canada’s actual ranking of 8th that same year.)
But it was the health minister’s choice to frame her comments “as an Aboriginal person” that I wish to focus upon here. Like any skilled politician, she no doubt chose her words carefully and deliberately, so I regard it as fair to wonder what her intent was by opening with the phraselet, “As an Aboriginal person from the North.” By invoking a cultural/geographical location clearly meant to differentiate her from the decidely non-Aboriginal (as well as ‘insulting’ and ‘patronizing’) Mr. De Schutter, did Ms. Aglukkaq perhaps mean to imply that her perspective should be somewhat privileged as far as what ought or ought not to be said concerning the well-being and interests of Aboriginal people in that region?
If so, perhaps someone forgot to tell Mary Simon. The president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Simon also met with De Schutter during his 11-day trip, and, according to Nunatsiaq Online, she pretty much agreed with the Special Rapporteur that Aboriginal peoples in Canada’s north face some daunting challenges in accessing nutritious food [UPDATE: Simon’s full comments can be found in this press conference transcript]. Citing statistics that show nearly seven in 10 Inuit households lack food, Simon said
“This is six times higher than the Canadian national average. It is also the highest documented food insecurity rate for any Aboriginal population residing in a developed country. … It is our hope that Inuit disparities relating to the right to food will be recognized by Mr. De Schutter in his final report and that these findings will prompt action…”
Presumably, like Ms. Aglukkaq, Ms. Simon made these comments at least in part in her capacity as ‘an Aboriginal person from the North.’ In Ms. Aglukkaq’s case, it was also as an Aboriginal person serving as a senior minister in the Conservative-led Government of Canada. Ms. Simon, meanwhile, made her statements as an Aboriginal person leading a national Aboriginal political organization.
Here, questions emerge. Questions like, how much, if at all, should these individuals’ respective affiliations and associations be factored into any consideration as to who may truly speak for — that is, truly represent — the interests of the north and its people(s)?
As an Aboriginal person myself, I’d be curious to know what others think about how we might weigh these seemingly competing claims against one another, claims to speak (or even act) in the name of a region’s Indigenous peoples.