Canada singled itself out as the only country to raise objections over a landmark United Nations document re-establishing the protection of the rights of indigenous people last week. It was a gesture one prominent First Nation leader called “saddening, surprising.”
“Canada was viewed always as a country that upheld human rights,” said Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde. “For Canada to be the only nation state to get up to make a caveat on the vote – that’s very telling.”
Bellegarde travelled to New York City to attend a special UN General Assembly meeting of more than 1,000 delegates and heads of state for the first-ever World Conference on Indigenous Peoples on Sept. 22 and 23.
On day one, nations voted on the adoption of the document – the first vote of its kind after the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was introduced in 2007.
In his opening remarks, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke about the document’s significance, saying it helps “set minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples” – more than 370 million around the world.
“I expect member states to meet their commitments, including by carrying out national action plans to realize our shared vision,” he told delegates.
The United States, who was among four nations (including Canada) who opposed the adoption of the original declaration seven years ago, notably reversed its position. President Barack Obama threw his administration’s support behind the declaration, regarding it as one that will "help reaffirm the principles that should guide our future."
The document was adopted by all nations by consensus last week, but Canada was the only country to file its objections, flagging the wording of “free, prior and informed consent” as problematic.
Free, prior, and informed consent is commonly upheld as a key principle in international law. But according to Ottawa, it’s tricky wording that could be interpreted as “a veto to aboriginal groups and in that regard, cannot be reconciled with Canadian law, as it exists.”
“As a result, Canada cannot associate itself with the elements contained in this outcome document related to free, prior and informed consent,” the government explained in a statement.
Interim Assembly of First Nations Chief Ghislain Picard called the government’s objections “deeply concerning,” adding “Canada continues to embarrass itself and isolate itself on the world stage by offering to explain their vote.”
In the feds’ explanation, the word “veto” pops up three times, and Bellegarde says that’s inaccurate.
“Veto does not exist in the declaration anywhere,” Bellegarde said. “Why are they misleading and using that word?”
In 2007, Ottawa first used the same “veto” explanation in its statement rejecting the UN declaration.
Then in 2010, despite rejecting the declaration three years earlier, the federal government issued a statement saying: “We are now confident that Canada can interpret the principles expressed in the Declaration in a manner that is consistent with our Constitution and legal framework.”
Fast-forward to today and First Nation leaders, including Bellegarde, say they’re flabbergasted over the government’s flip-flopping and contradictory statements.
Bellegarde, who announced his candidacy for Assembly of First Nations chief on Wednesday, told The Huffington Post Canada in an interview the Harper government failed to consult with aboriginal groups in “any forums, any meetings, any dialogues” prior to the two-day UN conference.
He brought up recent decisions from Canada’s own Supreme Court which upheld aboriginal rights and titles and reinforced the necessity to obtain consent from aboriginal people on issues pertaining to property rights and claims.
In Tsilhqot’in Nation vs. British Columbia, a ruling written by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, it clearly states government and other agencies who desire access to land conferred by aboriginal titles “must obtain the consent of the Aboriginal title holders.”
“This relationship between this government, our Crown, and Canada and its indigenous peoples does not have to be so unnecessarily adversarial,” Bellegarde said.
Strained Relations ‘Persistently Unresolved’
Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not join Bellegarde at the UN conference, nor did Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt. Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq was in New York at the time, but opted to attend UN climate summit meetings.
Instead, new aboriginal affairs deputy minister Colleen Swords was sent to represent Canada.
Bellegarde said he pressed Swords for a clearer explanation of what “veto” means in the context of the non-legally binding UN outcome document and its application to Canadian law.
“No adequate response given back,” Bellegarde said.
The Huffington Post Canada asked Valcourt’s office for an explanation of Canada’s stance on the outcome document and received a written response.
“Our government is focused on working with aboriginal communities on our shared priorities, and we have in place a constitutionally-entrenched framework that ensures the consultation and accommodation, as appropriate, of aboriginal interests. This framework also balances the interests of non-aboriginal Canadians and it has served as a model for nations around the world,” read the statement.
Valcourt’s office also repurposed one line from UN human rights investigator James Anaya’s 22-page report from earlier this year about Canada’s relationship with its indigenous peoples.
“To quote the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ‘…Canada has taken determined action to address ongoing aspects of the history of misdealing and harm inflicted on aboriginal peoples in the country, a necessary step towards helping to remedy their current disadvantage,’” read the email.
However, Valcourt’s office failed to acknowledge that in the same July 2014 report, Anaya concluded: “The numerous initiatives that have been taken at the federal and provincial/territorial levels to address the problems faced by indigenous peoples have been insufficient.
“The well-being gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada has not narrowed over the past several years; treaty and aboriginal claims remain persistently unresolved; indigenous women and girls remain vulnerable to abuse; and overall there appear to be high levels of distrust among indigenous peoples towards the government at both the federal and provincial levels.”
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