Canada Shamefully Shuns The UN’s Scrutiny

By Peter Russell

This week's column is devoted to a story that has received a good deal of coverage in Aboriginal news media but has been almost totally ignored in our mainstream media. It is a story that is important for all Canadians so I hope this column will contribute to overcoming our two solitudes.

It is about the Canadian government’s persistent refusal to grant a visa to James Anaya, the UN’s Indigenous Peoples’  “rapporteur."

The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs invited Dr. Anaya to come to Canada in February 2012.

In response to that request, Dr. Anaya communicated with the Government of Canada, requesting its consent to come to here to examine and report on the human rights situation of indigenous peoples in the country.

That request has simply been ignored, as have two subsequent requests, one of which was made a few weeks ago.

Dr. Anaya says in his letter to the government that while Canada has issued a standing invitation to special rapporteurs who hold mandates from the UN Human Rights Council, he cannot enter the country on an official visit without the formal consent of Ottawa that would include agreement on dates and terms of the visit.

The UN “rapporteur” plays an important role in holding UN member states accountable for their treatment of indigenous peoples within their borders. 

This role was important when indigenous peoples had only the protection of general UN declarations and covenants on human rights.

It becomes all the more important with the UN’s adoption of the Declaration of Indigenous Peoples Rights in 2007.

Although Liberal and Progressive Conservative Canadian governments had been strong supporters of developing the UN Declaration, the Harper Conservative government made Canada one of only four countries to vote against adopting the Declaration.

In November 2010, Canada finally signed on. 

It took a quarter of a century to develop the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and secure its acceptance by the great majority of the world’s countries.

It is not legally binding on states that adopt it.  But it sets a standard of decent conduct by states towards the approximately 300 million people in the world whose distinct and long-standing societies exist within the member states of the UN.

Among the Declaration’s 46 Articles, one that might be pertinent to assessing Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples is Article 32, pertaining to land and resources. 

This Article recognizes that “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development and use of their lands…” It goes on to require that states must obtain indigenous owners' “free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands…” and provide “effective mechanisms to mitigate adverse, environmental, economic, social, cultural or spiritual impact.”

In the light of the pipeline proposed to cross indigenous peoples’ territories in British Columbia, and the discarding of environmental protection of lakes and waters in the Harper government’s omnibus bill, one can understand why the government of Canada might be embarrassed by James Anaya’s proposed visit and report.

But simply ignoring the UN rapporteur’s request will not do.

James Anaya is one of the world’s leading scholars on the rights of indigenous peoples. He has held professorial positions at several American universities, and has been a visiting professor at the University of Toronto.  When it was published, his book, Indigenous Peoples in International Law, the leading text on this subject, was hailed for its “prodigious research and deeply analytical jurisprudence and pragmatic insights.”

On March 8 of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada found that the failure of Canadian governments 140 years ago to implement effectively, and in a timely fashion, this country’s solemn commitment to allot lands to Metis children in Manitoba was incompatible with “the honour of the Crown” in dealings with native peoples.

Surely we don’t have to go to the Supreme Court to determine that it is dishonourable for our government to make it impossible for the UN rapporteur to respond to a request from indigenous people in Canada to see how we are doing in meeting the standards set by the UN Declaration, which our country has accepted.

All Canadians are dishonoured by such shabby conduct by their national government. 

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : March 19, 2013

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