In Canada, Aboriginal peoples are the poorest, most marginalized group. While Canada consistently ranks as one of the world’s top countries in which to live, according to the United Nations Human Development Index, when the same criteria is applied to Aboriginal peoples they rank sixtieth or below – far, far behind their Canadian neighbours!
Canada’s Aboriginal policy has been repeatedly criticized both internationally and nationally for violating the human rights of Aboriginal peoples. The federal 1986 Comprehensive Claims Policy, for example, is premised on the assimilation of Aboriginal peoples through the extinguishment of their title and rights. This policy has been criticized by the United Nations, discredited by the landmark Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and cast aside by the Supreme Court of Canada in its 1997 Delgamuukw decision, which recognized the collective rights of Aboriginal peoples. Yet Canada chooses to continue implementing a policy that, in the words of Aboriginal activist Arthur Manuel, “offers nothing more than modern-day ‘beads and blankets’ in exchange for the birthright of future generations.”
Increased interest in the situation of Indigenous peoples worldwide is reflected in several significant international developments, including the United Nations’ decision in December 1994 to proclaim the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People. A goal of the Decade is “the strengthening of international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous peoples in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education, and health.”
Indigenous peoples are entitled to the same human rights as other peoples and are supposed to be protected by existing international human rights covenants, such as the Conventions on Civil and Political Rights, Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, Racial Discrimination and Rights of the Child.
For years Indigenous peoples and human rights and social justice organizations have used these international human rights instruments to advocate for Aboriginal rights and justice. For example, KAIROS raised the issue of Canada’s extinguishment policy with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2002, and again with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2003.
The fact Indigenous peoples’ rights continue to be violated or ignored in spite of these existing human rights covenants led to a renewed call for an international instrument specific to Indigenous peoples, and in 1998 the U.N. General Assembly reaffirmed “the adoption of a declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples [is] a major objective of the Decade.”
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is an international human rights document designed to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples. Like other UN declarations, it contains human rights principles which governments are expected and encouraged to respect. Unlike other declarations, however, the Declaration addresses collective rights to a degree unprecedented in international human rights law.
This is crucial as many countries, including Canada, do not accommodate collective rights effectively. In fact, in Canada the implementation of Aboriginal collective rights to lands and resources is viewed as a threat to the Canada’s economy prosperity and social stability, notwithstanding the fact Canada’s wealth and the enviable standard of living of most of its citizens flows from lands and resources stolen from Aboriginal peoples.
Adoption of the Declaration should demonstrate the international community’s commitment to protecting the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples. The Declaration is not legally binding, but it ccould carry considerable moral force. It should improve respect for Indigenous rights by addressing fundamental issues affecting their social, economic, cultural and political existence. It should provide specific and wide-ranging standards affecting every aspect of indigenous life.
Although adoption of the Declaration was a major objective of the UN Decade on Indigenous Peoples, which ends in December 2004, there continues to be little progress in the U.N. Working Group mandated to advance this goal, which has approved only 2 of the draft Declaration’s 45 articles since its inception in 1995. As the end of the UN Decade draws near, there is concern work on the draft Declaration will end as well.
With the support of the Grand Council of the Crees, the Assembly of First Nations and other Aboriginal organizations, KAIROS joined with Amnesty International, Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers), and Rights & Democracy to launch a public education and advocacy campaign that urges Canada to play a leading and constructive role in ensuring this urgently-needed international human rights standard is adopted by the United Nations.
KAIROS is also working with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal groups to prepare for the United Nation’s review of Canada’s compliance to the Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights. As with earlier initiatives, KAIROS is planning to produce a joint shadow report that addresses some of the issues not adequately covered in Canada’s report to the United Nations. This role is highly valued by UN human rights committees who rely on non-governmental organizations like KAIROS to provide them with information member countries often fail to put forward.