The Canadian government has always tried to maintain Canada’s reputation as a beacon of democracy and of a model of social contract theory. But James Anaya, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on indigenous rights, may be challenging the impeccable Western democratic image that the international community has so liberally applied to the United States’ northern neighbor.

Anaya, who in October 2013 took a nine-day tour of Canada’s provinces to investigate the lack of resources afforded to the Meti, Inuit, and United Nations groups, openly criticized the Canadian government for their inaction on combating the discrimination against these indigenous groups. Noting the frustration of indigenous peoples towards the Canadian government under whose yoke they find themselves, Anaya warned of a “crisis in Canada with regard to indigenous issues,” a crisis that was soon eclipsed by more blatant human rights violations in far-away developing countries.

But can a human rights crisis really happen in North America, of all places? Is the West not traditionally perceived as the sanctum of democracy, the protector of liberty, the guardian of freedom? Apparently not, as more and more indigenous peoples in developed countries find themselves disenfranchised — maybe even especially so — on their own soil.

This brings us to a more troublesome problem: the Western hemisphere has consistently looked to reform the systems of other countries, providing standards of democratic human rights laws that it itself cannot meet. The apparent hypocrisy that Canada espouses, in its signage of almost all conventions and documents on modern human rights, is a serious issue that the international community must address.

Though they may be placed in societies that on paper provide them with equitable rights and social contracts, indigenous peoples are arguably the most vulnerable in North America and Europe, where they find themselves alienated, isolated, and marginalized by a government that focuses on legal provision of such rights as opposed to their more tangible implementation.

Although this may seem less of an overtly alarming issue than, say, human trafficking of Aboriginals in Myanmar, it has come time for the West to take a break from trying to reform its neighbors and fix its own wrongdoings instead.

A False Picture of the West

North America and Europe have had a notable presence on the human rights front, and have been given the autonomy to run their characteristically liberal governments because of this legitimacy. Countries such as the United States, Canada, and France played a central role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and have been praised for their work at the United Nations. In addition, Canada is a party to seven major international human rights conventions, and, according to the foreign affairs subsection of its website, “encourages all countries which have not made these commitments to do so.”

And so the establishment of Canada and the United States as a moral hegemon continues, evident on a number of levels that remain dangerously unchallenged. These two countries’ Western ideological standard for the United Nations and other international bodies have ensured their own immunity under moral scrutiny, especially, as they say, since there are “greater problems” in the developing world. This fundamentally flawed mindset allows victims of human rights violations within these more developed countries to essentially fall in the cracks of what is deemed worthy of addressing.

The most foreboding problem is the public’s opinion of human rights problems. The concentration of media outlets within the North American continent has made it incredibly easy for any message leaving the area to be a message inherently biased against the rest of the world. With public opinion swayed against possible acts against indigenous people within the homeland, it becomes easier to begin labeling developing countries as most urgently in need of Western supervision. This phenomenon is so pervasive that it has been termed the Savior-VictimsSavages (SVS) complex by human rights scholar Makua W. Mutua. In fact, this complex, which dictates a single savior, victim, and savage in every human rights problem, is a thoroughly Eurocentric concept that is reminiscent of imperialism and has deeply religious overtones. According to the system, any human rights problem must target a third-world country in which a “savage” government has attacked helpless victims, necessitating the West to “save” these groups from destruction.

It becomes highly hypocritical, then, that a system that aims to restore democratic ideals and to right human wrongs ends up propagating the exact ideals that it is trying to prevent. A system that seeks to view other cultures as lesser and thus in need of help only succeeds in stratifying these groups further among ideological and social lines. In the case of indigenous peoples, this is exceptionally problematic: these “savages” are now placed within a society in which they are culturally isolated. Even worse, they are left with no recourses to reconcile their disenfranchised position because they are within a legally equitable society, one that fails to extend its idealistic standards across indigenous peoples.

But a legally equitable society isn’t necessarily a socially equitable one. Indigenous people in Western countries are unable to adjust and are often forced to assimilate to Western lifestyles. They become alienated, poor, and hungry in the meantime, and are not able to reach out for help. Because they are within a government that has an unbreakable reputation, they are often the most hidden of victims and thus the most wronged in a world that wants to look for these crimes.

Stolen Sisters of Canada

On the whole, there has not been much media coverage of human rights violations in Canada. But upon digging deeper, there are a slew of issues to address, issues that rival sex slavery and torture on the customary magnitude of human rights violations.

The emerging phenomenon is known as the “Stolen Sisters” crisis. Over the last twenty years, there have been almost 600 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada. These murders and abductions are directly related to the dismal socioeconomic situations indigenous groups in Canada find themselves in, a predicament largely caused by colonial laws forced upon them by the federal government. These laws, implemented upon the first arrival of Europeans into Western indigenous lands, attempt to integrate indigenous peoples into the Canadian government by assimilating them into the mainstream social system.

Two issues remain at-large, then: first, the fundamental root causes of violence targeting Indigenous women, but most importantly, the Canadian government’s repeated reluctance to hold a national public inquiry into the missing and murdered women, even under significant duress from international peers. A bigger underlying problem is Canada’s shortsighted drive to represent itself as a model of democracy, and thus refuse any investigations that might jeopardize its position as a prime exporter of Western ideology.

Canada’s generalized approach to unifying the main three indigenous groups under its complex and diverse societal umbrella has largely centered around forced assimilation. In fact, the public lynchpin of this assimilation manifests itself in systems that seek to drive away the longstanding and traditional cultures of indigenous peoples. With the passage of the Indian Act in 1876, indigenous children were placed in residential school systems. This system had profoundly negative impacts that have trickled down successive generations in an exponentially destructive manner. Removing children from their families and depriving them of filial languages are just some of the disastrous results documented.

The rest of the Indian Act sought to simplify the logistics of bringing an entire section of society under the government by designating the male as the only official representative of the aboriginal identity in the household. The resulting social paradigm brought female subjugation to the forefront of this assimilatory process. It eliminated the female’s ability to identify under a unique community or ethnic group, stripping away any cultural ties and sending indigenous women into cultural purgatory. The links between forced assimilation and increased violence on indigenous women are not immediately clear, but further analysis shows that these colonial policies are exactly what led to the vulnerability of these individuals. Insofar as the stringent conditions applied to these groups and their essential severance from their cultural ties has led to a dissolution of the cultural constructs that gave women their autonomy, colonial practices have significantly attacked and weakened women’s positions within their communities.

Traditionally, maternal influence and caregiving have been critical within indigenous societies, and strong women were revered in tribal circles. Within Inuit tradition, for example, women played an especially crucial role in their community, caring for the family and ensuring the tribe’s longevity. Other groups developed along similar lines — mothers and women were valued so long as they had a culture and society to attribute themselves to. The dissolution of that society thus orphaned these women from the source of their societal power, making them exceptionally vulnerable to external influences.

The development of a society that shifts away from this towards a Euro-centric paternalistic system has abruptly ended the stability of the female status. Enter the danger of a developed government: the advanced bureaucractic nature of Canada’s government, in a clear example, has fundamentally altered the dynamics of indigenous relations, and particularly negatively. An intermediately strong or weak government would apply no such strict assimilatory conditions on its inhabitants, and would preserve this cultural paradigm.

The substantive proof of this is obvious. In 2000, the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres (OFIFC) issued a report that demonstrated the economic marginalization of indigenous children and women in particular as a result of this paternalistic structure. Along with data from the 1996 Census, the report showed that over half of indigenous women are below the poverty line. But the implications of this economic vacuum extend farther than just the lack of tangible wealth—it has caused a rural exodus of indigenous women. Under significant economic pressure, women are forced to leave their communities to find employment and thereby become much more easily targeted. These young women, in the wrong place at the wrong time, are forced into an environment that poses a risk to their safety: many victims of poverty and disenfranchisement are relocated to unsafe neighborhoods. Even worse, as the international community turns a blind eye, the trend only continues: only fifteen percent of all cases identified by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) happened in the 1970s, compared to the forty-seven percent—and climbing—recorded just this decade.

Over thirty percent of women whose cases have been collected under this description are missing, and the rest confirmed as murdered. In cases of death, the causes are highly distinguishable from indiscriminate street crime in urban areas. The percent of stabbing and strangulation inflicted on aboriginal women, which hovers around 27 percent, is almost triple that of non-aboriginal women. Though the government may not be discretely committing human rights violations against these people, it has created a society that has compromised their safety and allowed for their specific targeting. As these causes of death are much more discretionary and violent than other arbitrary means of death, indigenous women, in light of their public and cultural position as weak and subjugated, are clearly more easily targeted than other women and men on the streets.

In spite of its purported dedication to democracy and liberal ideology, Canada has repeatedly failed to provide adequate protection and service to indigenous women who are targeted by the very existence of assimilatory norms. Government policies that have forcibly displaced these women make Canada accountable for making sure these women are equally protected. Increases of these crimes indicate Canada’s failure to prevent these violations of fundamental human rights.

Negligence to Antagonism: The Basque in Spain

Though the Canadian government’s current actions are not explicit crimes against humanity, the Canadian government’s subtle but fundamental erosion of indigenous rights manifests itself in crimes that specifically undermine the human rights of a particular group. But what happens when and if the government itself is directly involved in antagonizing indigenous peoples?

A chillingly clear example of modern imperialism lies across the Atlantic Ocean, in the Basque Country on the border of Spain and France. Within this territorially ambiguous region live the Basque people, who have vied for political freedom—or at least a moderate independence—since the 19th century. The Basque people have long desired independence, and, unlike the Stolen Sisters of Saskatchewan, have taken political steps and established the Basque Separatist Movement, or the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA).

The conflict between the movement and its developed neighbors Spain and France is known as “Europe’s longest war.” Primarily due to Spain and France’s reluctance to yield any ground to the Basque peoples, the movement developed a military arm that has caused casualties on both sides. To date, over 800 deaths have been caused by the ETA, with almost five hundred of those being members of Spanish security forces. The violent backlash that has affected both the Spanish government and these peoples has caused an incredible amount of collateral damage, and is an affront to international consensus-building.

Although the recent announcement of a permanent cease-fire by the ETA in 2011 signaled the most significant window of opportunity for initiation of a peace process between the Spanish government and the indigenous community since 1998, no steps towards peace have been taken since. Currently, Spanish government officials are requesting that the ETA be dissolved before any political steps are to be taken. Steps taken by the government to ensure that the most vocal members of the ETA are imprisoned reek of authoritarianism.

Ultimately, the narrative transformed back into one of saviors fighting savages. The international peace conference held in Donostia-San Sebastian in 2011 was a gathering of Western liberal democratic nations and their leaders, a group so grossly unrepresentative of the ideals championed by the Basque people. Violence by the ETA became a scapegoat with which Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, and France shamed the group on an international level and muzzled its grievances. The indigenous people who had fought so hard and so long for their independence now had no other route but to capitulate to more developed countries as they were rebuked for inhumane actions. By focusing on the actions of the ETA and not their intent, Spain and its Western peers successfully squirreled themselves out of giving the Basques any representation at all in their own affairs. The conference itself was ironically futile: if you can get a group of nations to guarantee an agreement between these militant groups, why can’t you engineer a longstanding solution to these territorial problems?

These countries aren’t truly looking for a solution. Instead, they are looking to minimize and trivialize indigenous problems as to hope for their eventual corrosion by time and history. This is the real crime, the real human rights violation the world must analyze and fix.

A Dim Future for Indigenous Peoples

Anaya’s report requesting that Canada give more resources to indigenous peoples is a sign that these crimes are not the center of the problem but are a symptom of a greater societal disease. This problem is the Western governments’ willingness to disengage with indigenous peoples and to leave them to the very policies that drive them away from society and leave them disenfranchised. Though, unlike the Rohingya in Burma, these indigenous peoples are not actively targeted by their government, the lack of action to repair these flaws is problematic at best.

A core aspect of this issue that remains to be discussed is whether indigenous peoples can still be reconciled with a state system that has failed them so greatly. The lack of response by governments has undermined the fundamental trust that must exist in any social contract, and has further driven these people away. Thus it remains ever imperative that these governments begin to address these problems as soon as possible, before more indigenous people are abused under international covers.