North America

The North American region described in the following entries displays continuities and discontinuities in the treatment of minorities. The area is characterized by dominance of European-descended peoples: British, Dutch, French, Spanish, and, in the case of Greenland, Danish. The relationship between these immigrants and other peoples produces a number of distinct types of minority. In the first place, despite sustained waves of immigration, the indigenous inhabitants of the region have not been entirely displaced. If their numbers have been reduced drastically through war, disease, famine, policies of assimilation and even genocide in the centuries since 1492, their presence endures. Their voice and grievances are now heard more powerfully than ever since they have learned the lessons of organization, publicity and propaganda. A second group results from rivalries among the European powers in settlement and conquest, leaving descendants of one power in a minority: this is the situation of such as the French-speakers of Canada, principally the Quebecois, determined to preserve intact their French cultural inheritance. A third group consists of those whose origins lie in the slave systems practised in the past, creating a distinct class whose members have striven for a state based on principles of equality and non-discrimination and the rectification of historical injustices. The States under consideration have also developed a “tradition” of immigration, so that minority communities emerge through the domination of newer arrivals by longer established and powerful groups: the position of Hispanic minorities in the United States falls into this last category.

North America has powerfully influenced thinking on minorities questions in terms of a critique of segregation, and positive support for policies of non-discrimination, affirmative action, and the “melting-pot” of races and cultures. Assumptions about equality and non-discrimination as the primary desiderata of an enlightened minorities policy have been incorporated into international and constitutional law. The elements of human rights incorporated in the United Nations Charter (see Appendix 1.1) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see Appendix 1.2) represent the first fruits of this approach to the protection of minorities in international law. Many State constitutions have incorporated chapters on fundamental rights using the Universal Declaration as a model.

Instruments on Minority Rights

The American Convention on Human Rights is not a relevant instrument: the States in the area are not parties; the Convention is mainly applicable to South and Central America (see introduction to that section). Regional human rights obligations may arise indirectly through membership of the Organization of American States which sponsored the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. This instrument contains only a basic non-discrimination provision in Article 2: “All persons are equal before the law and have the rights and duties established in this Declaration, without distinction as to race, sex, language, creed or any other factor.” However, the States are also, with the exception of the USA and Haiti, parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with its important Article 27 on minorities (see Appendix 1.3). Canada, Denmark and Haiti are parties to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (see Appendix 1.4): the United States has signed, but not ratified, both of these treaties.

The protection of minorities is secured principally through constitutional and sub-constitutional law. Different “styles” of protection are exhibited: Canada, Denmark and the United States serve as examples.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Part I of the Constitution Act 1982) (see Appendix 1.5) gives detailed linguistic and educational rights as well as basic non-discrimination provisions including a commitment to affirmative action. Thus, Section 16(1) provides: “English and French are the official languages of Canada and have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and Government of Canada.” The sections on official languages are followed by sections on “Minority Language Educational Rights”. The Charter also refers to the aboriginal peoples of Canada. Thus, Section 35 of the Constitution Act 1982 states: “(1) The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.” The treaties agreed by the ancestors of the Indians are not regarded as international in character but are affirmed nonetheless. Canada has attempted to transcend a narrow conception of its own nature and history through a commitment to multi-culturalism considered as a necessary strengthening of federalism. The Constitution of Canada, Section 27, provides that the document is to be “…interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians”.

Denmark provides examples of two methods of minority protection: the treaty relating to a specific group (see section on Western Europe and Scandinavia), and an extensive provision on autonomy or Home Rule applied to Greenland (see Appendix 1.6), the principle of which is that Greenland constitutes a special-status community within the Kingdom of Denmark. Home Rule is not the result of an international treaty, but stems from the delegation by the Danish Folketing (Parliament) of some of its powers in the field of administration, fisheries, conservation, education and culture, health, internal transport and environmental protection. Greenlandic is formally recognized as the primary language of Greenland, though provision is also made for instruction in Danish. In general, “external”, international powers reside with Denmark, and “internal” matters may be dealt with by Greenland.

The United States has endeavoured to deal with minorities issues through the concept of universal human or civil rights. The American Declaration of Independence of 1776 states “…We hold these truths to be self-evident — that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”. The first ten Amendments to the Constitution comprise the Bill of Rights, which, inter alia, forbids the establishment of religion. The 13th Amendment prohibits slavery; the 14th Amendment provides that no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, “nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction equal protection of the laws”. The Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896 provided official sanction for racial segregation through its “separate but equal” doctrine, but this was reversed in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education, holding that “separate” was inherently unequal. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in voting, employment, federally assisted programmes and public facilities. The United States’ courts have, however, equivocated on affirmative action as a remedy for past racial injustice and inherited disadvantage. The total thrust of policy has been to favour integration or assimilation of groups into the American way of life, though recent movements to, for example, bilingual education for Hispanic groups, demonstrate some change in paradigm towards a multicultural approach or at least a more genuine equality of opportunity for the different ethnic groups. Official policy in relation to Indian groups has gradually moved from recognition of independent status, through assimilation/genocide to what appears to be a better recognition of the distinct characteristics and contribution of the groups to the social whole (see Appendix 1.7). This benign movement is, however, subject to inconsistencies of official intentions.

Treatment of minorities

The reports in this section provide a critique of State policy and practice. A positive attitude by Governments towards their minorities, expressed in terms of legal regulation, is only a crucial first step in ameliorating conditions among the groups: more enlightened policies must be matched by implementing action.

In any case, some public goals for minority groups remain open to question. In the case of many indigenous peoples, continuing pressures of assimilation and acculturation are maintained by States: the opening in 1991 of native lands in Alaska to outsiders, with all the attendant threats of accelerated attacks on Inuit culture, is only one example. The indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States figure at the bottom of almost every indicator of social deprivation. The result is suicide, alcoholism, murder at rates considerably above those for non-indigenous. The factor of cultural loss is crucial, and individuals continue to lose their sense of identity. The struggle for land rights, including compensation for deprivation, is a key to the restoration of dignity and self-respect, in view of basic economics and the reverence in which many indigenous peoples hold the lands of their ancestors.

The situation of other minority groups, such as Blacks and Hispanics, while perhaps lacking the continuing poignancy of the fate of the indigenous, is also severe. Proclamations of equality and justice are not matched by practice. For many immigrant groups, the promise of an open society full of opportunity matures into the reality of the ghetto. Some minority groups, such as the Japanese-Americans, have done conspicuously well in material terms, though at the price of surrendering cultural distinctiveness. In order to advance in society, it still appears that minorities are required to accept the values and world view of the majorities, to the loss of both sides in terms of potential mutual enrichment.

The treatment of minorities in North America does not at present suggest the darkest picture in the contemporary world. There are, however, ongoing threats and difficulties for groups of considerable magnitude, including that of survival as identifiable entities. Many of the greatest injustices — slavery, genocide — are past, but the effects endure and mutate into more subtle injustices. Freedom, equality, self-respect and the respect of society, remain distant horizons for many.

American Indians


Black Americans

French Canadians

Hawaiians, Indigenous

Indians and Metis of Canada




Mexican Americans