Carolyn Bennett: UN Declaration On Rights Of Indigenous Peoples 'Should Not Be Scary'

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OTTAWA -- There's nothing frightening about adopting and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Tuesday at the UN.

Bennett earned a standing ovation from a UN forum in New York by announcing that Canada is now a full supporter of the 2007 declaration, "without qualification."

UNDRIP, as it is known by its acronym, describes a global set of collective and human rights covering indigenous issues including language, identity, culture and traditions, health and education and free, prior, informed consent over resource extraction. The declaration is not considered legally binding.

carolyn bennett
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett is shown with colleagues before a session at the UN headquarters in New York on March 16, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

Bennett said Canada is uniquely placed because it is one of the few countries in the world that has already incorporated indigenous rights in its constitution.

"We intend nothing less than to adopt and implement the declaration in accordance with the Canadian Constitution," she told the UN's permanent forum on indigenous issues.

Canada was one of four countries, including Australia, New Zealand and the United States, that voted against the declaration when it was first passed in 2007 — even though Canadian diplomatic officials had helped draft the original declaration.

The former Conservative government initially argued that the free, prior and informed consent provisions amounted to a de facto indigenous veto on major resource projects, and questioned how UNDRIP could be accommodated within existing Canadian constitutional protections.

Bennett did not directly address those concerns Tuesday, but said the declaration fits within Canada's long history of treaty and constitutional rights.

"Let's be honest: implementing UNDRIP should not be scary," said the minister.

"Recognition of elements of the declaration began 250 years ago with the Royal Proclamation, which was about sharing the land fairly. UNDRIP reflects the spirit and intent of our treaties."

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers released a discussion paper Tuesday that says the industry backs the UN declaration and will work with governments and Aboriginal Peoples to see that it can be accommodated within Canadian law.

"These are opportunities to recast relationships," David McGuigan, CAPP's manager of aboriginal policy, said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"A lot of our companies feel they already achieve a lot of what's required by UNDRIP in a corporate context and in a resource development context."

"Recognition of elements of the declaration began 250 years ago with the Royal Proclamation, which was about sharing the land fairly. UNDRIP reflects the spirit and intent of our treaties."

Pierre Gratton, president and CEO of the Mining Association of Canada, presented the Liberal government's position as correcting a historical anomaly.

"We've been historically seen as a leader but then we had this funny situation at the UN where we were a dissenter on something that was so important to indigenous peoples worldwide," Gratton said in an interview.

"This move really puts us back where we properly belong and also where I think, in practice, we have largely been."

CAPP began circulating its discussion paper among provincial and territorial governments and indigenous communities late last month and was caught off guard by the Liberal government's UN announcement this week. There is still some concern about how exactly the declaration will be implemented.

'Dialogue' needed

"You can't just pass a law to say UNDRIP is here if I implement it in Canada, because it's quite a vague document in places — and intentionally so," said McGuigan.

The declaration was drafted as an international document, not for the specific Canadian context where indigenous rights are already entrenched in constitutional law, he said.

"So we need to have some dialogue in Canada about how we're going to move that forward."

Bennett acknowledged in her UN address that discussions are only beginning.

"What does this mean for Canada now?" she asked.

"It means nothing less than a full engagement on how to move forward with adoption and implementation, done in full partnership with First Nations, the Metis nation and Inuit peoples."


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