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Canada has removed its permanent objector status to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. While under the Stephen Harper's Conservative government, Canada was one of only a handful of countries that had objected. Is the new move a good or bad idea, and what will it mean for Indigenous and other Canadians? We asked Bernie Farber, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin.


Bernie Farber:

This is an idea whose time had come a number of years ago but for reasons we can only surmise, given the terribly poor relations between the federal Tories and Canada’s Indigenous people, it was never ratified.

How could we have been so uncaring? This non-binding treaty sets out the rights of Indigenous people around the world on issues ranging from health to culture, tradition, identity, language and more.

Good for the present government for its decision to change our position. This speaks to a recognition we are finally embracing that may lead to a more balanced relationship with Canada’s Indigenous people.


John Capobianco:

The Liberal government announced a shift in Canada’s position on the U.N. Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) this week with Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett along with Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould stating that Canada will support the Declaration by removing its "permanent objector status", which was in place from the previous Conservative government.

The Declaration was first adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007 and it essentially recognizes Indigenous people’s basic human rights, as well as rights to self-determination, language, equality and land, amongst others. In 2007, this declaration was passed by more than 140 countries except for Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand

The Declaration and what it stands for is important and necessary – I don’t think anyone would object or oppose Indigenous peoples’ human rights or equality or right to self-determination.

The issue the previous government had was that the Declaration went beyond the “duty to consult” with aboriginal peoples on issues that might affect their interests, and added an onus to call on governments to obtain “free, prior and informed consent,” including in regard to issues related to natural resources.

Bernie, I don't think it was an issue of being uncaring. The issue is not with supporting the Declaration, but there was concern around the “free, prior and informed consent” part of the Declaration, which could act as a potential veto, thereby binding the government on certain key issues relating to natural resources.

Now that the government has supported the UNDRIP, it has to come back with a road map on how this will work out here in Canada.


Tom Parkin:

The New Democrats have been in favour of signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for some time.

In fact, this has been part of the life work of Romeo Saganash, the NDP MP for Abitibi-Baie James-Nunavik-Eeyou.

Romeo introduced a private member's bill April 20 to have Canada sign UNDRIP. He had introduced a similar bill before, under the previous government, which did not pass. The Liberals did vote with the NDP to support Saganash's bill at that time, so he was quite optimistic that in this new parliament, Canada would sign UNDRIP.

In Saganash's view, signing UNDRIP would be a international declaration of support for many of the supreme court decisions that have been forced upon parliament over the past years.

And critically, Saganash believes that signing the UNDRIP would inevitably mean scrapping Canada's Indian Act - which is something that would require a very fundamental re-evaluation of positions and, no doubt, considerable consultation.

Bernie Farber:

Sagnash has indeed been an NDP champion of Indigenous rights, as has Charlie Angus and Jodie Wilson-Raybould and Caroline Bennett for the Liberals. Can't seem to name any Tories who would fit that bill sadly.

And John I am not so sure why free, prior and informed consent should be a stumbling block. Surely that is part of the whole issue of collective rights that First Nations must be a part and key player.

Canada is a wealthy First World country that has simply disregarded the Indigenous populations for a century and more. Genocide, alcohol addiction, drug addiction, poor health and incarceration have been the Third World lot of most First Nations people.

It is time to stop viewing the collective rights of Indigenous people as a threat to Canada. Remember: we stole much of the land from the aboriginal people in the first place. Surely we can begin treating them as true partners in a country that has made us the envy of the world.

Surely it’s time, as Tom has noted, to get rid of the Indian Act, which forces us to treat First Nations as chattel to be controlled rather than partners in Canada’s future.


John Capobianco:

Bernie, you may recall that when the Declaration was being worked on in 2007, Canada was involved in drafting it. Yes, Canada along with the U.S., Australia and New Zealand initially opposed it, but the Conservative government in 2010 officially endorsed the Declaration, referring to it as an "aspirational document".

This issue like everything else will centre around implementation – supporting and acknowledging UNDRIP is certainly a positive step, and as Tom mentions, credit to the work NDP MP Romeo Saganash, who is also critic for Intergovernmental and Indigenous Affairs. But there needs to be details released and a discussion about potential issues that may arise here at home from supporting a UN-based Declaration, which is an international doctrine.

Even though the Declaration carries no legally binding powers (there needs to be an application of domestic law to give this Declaration real power), it can still have ramifications because of our constitution and our legal framework. That is why NDP MP Romeo Saganash is proposing a private member's bill that will need to provide some sort of legislative road map.

Mr. Saganash is quoted saying "What I am proposing to do is rather than debate whether it has application in Canadian or not, I'm just confirming it does have legal application in Canadian law" I think we need to debate what the "legal application in Canadian law" looks like exactly, which incidentally doesn't take away the support for UNDRIP.


Tom Parkin:

Signing onto the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People would not only require Canada to scrap the Indian Act (or, at least that is the interpretation.) It would also have an impact on resources. In the context of energy and pipeline politics, this could be significant.

I wonder, however, if there is a bit more at play in Ottawa around the UN Declaration.

When Romeo Saganash introduced his private member's bill last month, there were a couple of Liberals who stood up for it. However, at the time the minister - Carolyn Bennett - was non-committal. She talked of it being a "large commitment" and "getting it right" but did not say that she would be backing Romeo's bill. There were also comments that the Canadian legislation should include certain tweaks - giving legal definitions to words in the Declaration.

So there are mixed signals.

Justice Minister Wilson-Raybould has recently been talking about a reconciliation framework that would lead to the elimination of the Indian Act. She has said this framework has to be developed one community at a time and will not be a simple or quick solution.

I think we should take it that the government is moving ahead on the file but is really not sure yet that it wants to show its hand too much. For now, it is continuing to push symbolic change.

I think this is a story that will become more involved and more challenging for the Liberals. It's a lot more than a one-day headline.


Bernie M. Farber a human and civil rights advocate is the Executive Director of the Mosaic Institute. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 




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