Canada’s Opposition to UNDRIP

Drawn from an urgent action released on International Human Rights Day, December 10 2006. We include this background here because the Canadian government has been remarkably persistent in its refusal to vote in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights on Indigenous Peoples.

Introduction

Every year, KAIROS honours International Human Rights Day (December 10) by working with partners to choose a focus. This year, our focus is Indigenous and Aboriginal rights: We're asking you to consider protesting Canada's blocking of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by writing a Christmas card to the Prime Minister before the House of Commons breaks for the holidays on December 15! For the second time in six months Canada has ignored the majority of parliamentarians, Aboriginal peoples and human rights advocates, and voted against an international human rights instrument designed to promote and protect Indigenous peoples' rights.

On November 28, at a meeting of the UN General Assembly's third committee on social, humanitarian and cultural matters, Canada voted for a resolution to delay adoption by the United Nations of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration). The third committee must approve the Declaration before it can go before the UN General Assembly. This means the General Assembly will not vote on the Declaration this year. It's feared this postponement will give Canada more time to build opposition to the Declaration.

Canada (and Russia) previously voted against the Declaration in June, at the newly-formed United Nations Human Rights Council.>

Why a Declaration on Indigenous Rights? Some background

In every region of the world, the survival or well-being of Indigenous peoples is threatened by grave and persistent violations of their fundamental human rights.

Indigenous Peoples are among the most marginalized and dispossessed sectors of society, and endure constant prejudice and discrimination. Unfortunately, the same is true for Aboriginal, Inuit and Métis people across Canada. From the Lubicon Nation in Alberta to the Kashechewan Cree Nation in Ontario, Aboriginal people endure higher levels of poverty, worse living conditions, and far less control over their lives and lands than do non-Aboriginal Canadians.

Non-Aboriginal people in this country must be ready to support Aboriginal calls for basic human rights. More than twenty years in the making, the Declaration is the strong international human rights instrument that Indigenous peoples need to address the widespread human rights violations affecting them globally. It would not be legally binding on States, but would help to establish minimum standards for the treatment of indigenous peoples.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does not create any new human rights, but instead provides general guidelines for governments and state institutions around the world to counter racism and discrimination against Indigenous peoples and to promote their "dignity, survival and well-being." The Declaration explains how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to the unique situations of Indigenous Peoples around the world, particularly their rights as peoples to self-determination. This is especially important for Indigenous peoples who are, for the most part, nations without a country.

As Wilton Littlechild, a Cree lawyer from Alberta and international indigenous rights expert explains, Indigenous peoples fear States want to further compromise indigenous rights: "We have problems with the current text as well and would like to see it strengthened, but that is not the intention of certain governments. We are deeply concerned that they will weaken the areas of self-determination, treaties, lands, territories and natural resources, and free and informed consent. These are key areas for us."

Why is Canada voting against the Declaration?

The Declaration was endorsed by the previous Liberal administration, but Harper's government has called for more negotiation, saying that parts of it are "unclear." Canada is also lobbying other States. It wants discussions to continue for at least another year. Indigenous peoples are concerned that more talks will allow opponents of the Declaration to further dilute the rights it enshrines. A summary of Canada's official concerns can be found at http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/canada_un/geneva/HRC_June29_06-en.asp

All members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs support Canada's adoption of the Declaration, save the Conservative members. Ironically, Canada originally played an important leadership role in the UN working group that finalized the text. Amnesty notes that, "By working in collaboration with Indigenous peoples Canada was able to advance a number of key provisions that addressed state concerns and built support for its adoption. However, since the election of the Conservative government, Canadian officials lobbied to have the Declaration re-opened for further negotiation and to encourage other states to oppose its adoption.

Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice has stated publicly that the Declaration conflicts with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms but has never substantiated this extraordinary claim. The Minister has also said that the Declaration could lead to criticism of past and current Canadian laws and policies.

In fact, expert bodies of the United Nations have repeatedly criticized Canada's treatment of Indigenous peoples as incompatible with existing obligations under international human rights treaties."

Ultimately, the government's concerns boil down to a refusal to admit that Indigenous peoples have inherent rights, including rights to their traditional lands.

How have KAIROS and the churches been involved?

In June, KAIROS celebrated with Indigenous peoples and their supporters when the UN Human Rights Council voted 30 – 2 in favour of its adoption. Canada led the opposition to the Declaration, despite a resolution passed by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs calling on the government to support the Declaration at the UN.

At a press conference on Parliament Hill on November 9, KAIROS joined five National Aboriginal organizations, all three opposition parties, and other NGOs in calling on the federal government to support the Declaration's adoption. Earlier in the month, the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs adopted a second resolution calling on the government to support the immediate endorsement of the Declaration. The seven Liberal, Bloc Québécois and NDP committee members voted for the resolution, while the three Conservative members voted against it.

This unprecedented display of solidarity by Aboriginal peoples and their supporters has failed to influence Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative minority government, which consistently refuses to consult Indigenous peoples on this crucial human rights issue.

Helpful web links

The full text of the Declaration can be found in PDF format at:
http://www.gcc.ca/pdf/INT000000021.pdf

Commentaries on the Declaration can be found on the Amnesty International (Canada) site:
http://www.amnesty.ca/campaigns/no_exceptions/resources/declaration_brief.pdf (Acrobat Reader needed)

The Grand Council of the Crees lists ten good reasons to support the Declaration:
http://www.gcc.ca/newsarticle.php?id=85

The Assembly of First Nations summarises here its disappointment with the government's decision to block adoption of the Declaration:
http://www.afn.ca/article.asp?id=3189

Almost exactly ten years ago, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples presented its groundbreaking report. The report reflected five years of consultation across Canada and resulted in a comprehensive, far-ranging and careful set of recommendations that (if put into place!) would have by now made a significant difference to Aboriginal peoples' well being and to their basic rights. You can read summaries from the Report at:
http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/ch/rcap/sg/sgmm_e.html

A recent CBC report card on Aboriginal peoples ten years after the 1996 Royal Commission:
http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/aboriginals/status-report2006.html

The CBC report also includes a link to the Assembly of First Nations' own report ten years after RCAP:
http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/aboriginals/pdf/afn_rcap.pdf