Global Policy Forum

First Nations Feel Betrayed by Canada at UN


By Am Johal

Inter Press Service
August 7, 2007

Even though it took two decades to draft a U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Canada has been actively opposing the document for much of that time period. The declaration was to be finalized on Nov. 28, 2006 at the U.N. General Assembly in New York before Native leaders charge it was driven into the "diplomatic ditch" by countries such as Canada, the United States and Australia. A recent National Aboriginal Day of Action in June highlighted Canada's First Nations frustrations with the federal government and their policymaking on reconciliation.

Chief Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, told IPS, "Canada's position is terribly unfortunate. They have not supported this over the last 20-year period and it doesn't bode well for the genuine hope for reconciliation with aboriginal peoples." "The [Stephen] Harper government has eroded the relationship between First Nations and the federal government. This government is opposed to doing anything associated with collective rights and has favored individual rights. There has been no consultation with Canada's aboriginal community," he said. "The Harper government has been unilateralist in its approach to aboriginal issues. It remains to be seen what the final outcome will be. It will take a joint effort on the part of nation-states to put forward legislation that passes and meets the standard set by aboriginal communities."

Despite Canada's international reputation as a beacon for human rights, a leader in aboriginal reconciliation and having an active treaty process, the record seems to suggest the opposite when it comes to the actual facts on the ground. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was to set guidelines for how the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights would apply specifically to indigenous communities within an international context.

At the time of the United Nations vote in November 2006, the Indigenous Peoples' Caucus released a statement which read in part, "It is clear that these actions are a politicization of human rights that show complete disregard for the ongoing human rights abuses suffered by Indigenous Peoples. This betrayal and injustice severely impacts 370 million Indigenous Peoples in all regions of the world, who are among the most marginalized and vulnerable..."

"Secretary-General Kofi Annan had proclaimed that the world's Indigenous Peoples 'have a home at the United Nations.' However, today's vote by opposing States clearly demonstrates that this is not the case," the statement said. Grand Chief Ed John from the First Nations Summit also said at the time, "Today is a very sad day for the United Nations and a very serious setback for the integrity of the newly formed Human Rights Council, who urged the General Assembly to formally adopt this historic document. It now appears that the most likely outcome will be that the United Nations never formally adopts the Declaration. This is a remarkable and bizarre development."

In addition to Canada, the countries that refused to endorse the declaration last November included the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Colombia, Russia, Suriname, Guyana and a few African nations led by Namibia. Those unwilling to sign on to the declaration have expressed strong reservations about parts of the text calling for recognition of the indigenous peoples' right to self-determination and control over their natural resources.

According to the Assembly of First Nations, there is a backlog of 800-1,000 unresolved claims within Canada's own federal specific claims process -- in other words, claims involving Canada's treaty obligations. Estimates of the total value of these unresolved claims range from 2.6 billion dollars to six billion dollars. It takes an average of 13 years to settle a claim under the current system.

Chief Stewart Philip also told IPS, "Canada, on domestic matters, could still very well not implement its own changes to its own treaty process effectively. They may still unilaterally appoint members to the commission overseeing the legislative review before the end of this year. The other thing that is worrisome is the small amount of funding allocated to the enormous backlog of claims." Philip added that Canadian aboriginal organisations have been involved in monitoring developments at the United Nations "and the role of Canada is not supporting the Universal Declaration on Indigenous Peoples over the last twenty years."

Tony Penikett, the author of a book on British Columbia land claims and a former premier of the Yukon, told IPS, "One of the problems for Canada in the past was trying to say with a straight face that they supported aboriginal advancement and were standard bearers for other countries. It is more accurate to say that Canada was bad, but was better than others." Penikett added that not supporting the Declaration is a worrying trend, particularly with Canada's minority Conservative government and the influence of Harper's political advisor, Tom Flanagan, an extreme right-wing University of Calgary professor.

"The Harper government has passed a human rights bill based on individual rights as opposed to collective rights. In Canada, we have individual rights, but also collective rights for the francophone minority and aboriginal people," Penikett said. "The idea of self-government is through one's own tribal government. By moving in the direction of individual rights, the government is inherently chipping away at that. Their refusal is part of that pattern, and I am surprised that no one has effectively made this a political issue at the national level," he said.

"Harper's advisors are interested in privatizing reserve land and attempting to deal with rights on an individual level. Flanagan was Harper's advisor, campaign manager and thesis advisor. He is ideologically an extreme right winger. They are essentially promoting an idea that was abandoned in Canada in the early seventies."

Doug McArthur, a Simon Fraser University public policy professor and land claims negotiator, told IPS, "Canada's role at the U.N. in regards to this matter is a little confusing, particularly the actions of the Harper government. It's been under discussion for many, many years. They have been dragging their feet -- their problem seems to be fears around the wording of peoples and rights of nations to governance."

More Information on Nations & States
More Information on Indigenous Peoples
More information on Emerging States & Claims to Autonomy and Independence


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.