The historic two-day World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) began September 22 at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.
I and other Indigenous leaders attended with heads of government, ambassadors and ministers to witness and contribute to a new chapter of our history. We went to celebrate Indigenous peoples’ human rights and new and renewed commitments by states in international law.
Unfortunately, Canada’s prime minister did not attend. Nor did any minister from the Harper government. Since its election in 2006, the government has refused to acknowledge within Canada that Indigenous peoples’ collective rights are human rights.
The idea for this conference arose in 1993 at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria. However, it was Indigenous leader Evo Morales who worked to achieve the WCIP. Upon his election as President of Bolivia in 2006, he pledged to propose a WCIP. His efforts resulted in the General Assembly officially agreeing to hold a WCIP in 2014.
The highlight was the General Assembly’s adoption by consensus of an Outcome Document, which includes the commitments of states on a wide range of issues, including: Indigenous youth; health; language and culture; access to justice; and violence and discrimination against Indigenous peoples and individuals, in particular, women.
The centrepiece of the Outcome Document is, of course, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In his opening remarks, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared: “I am proud that the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples during my first year in office. That set minimum standards for the survival, dignity and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples. … And we are joining forces with Indigenous peoples to reach our common goals.”
Regretfully, Canada was the only state in the world to request an explanation of vote (EOV). In regard to the Outcome Document, Canada claimed it cannot accept the two paragraphs on “free, prior and informed consent,” which is widely accepted in international law. Canada implied consent may constitute some kind of absolute “veto”, but never explained what the term means. Canada also objected to the commitment “to uphold the principles of the Declaration,” since it was somehow incompatible with Canada’s constitution.
These arguments are false. They contradict Canada’s own endorsement of the UN Declaration in 2010, which concluded: “We are now confident that Canada can interpret the principles expressed in the Declaration in a manner that is consistent with our Constitution and legal framework.” Canada failed to disclose this to the General Assembly.
In so doing, Canada misled the General Assembly, member states and Indigenous peoples globally. Canada failed to uphold the honour of the Crown. Such actions against the human rights of Indigenous peoples betray Canada’s constitution. Good governance is not possible without respect and protection for Indigenous peoples’ human rights. Harmonious and cooperative relations – also highlighted in the UN Declaration – require no less.
For years, the Harper government has refused to consult Indigenous rights-holders on crucial issues, especially when it involves international forums. This repeated failure to consult violates Canada’s duty under Canadian constitutional and international law.
In his opening remarks, the UN Secretary-General declared to Indigenous peoples from all regions of the world that we “will always have a home at the United Nations.” Yet, here at home in Canada, the federal government refuses to respect democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.
For 30 years, the James Bay Cree have always defended and advanced Indigenous peoples’ rights at the UN and other international forums. And we will continue to achieve success. Canada’s low standards have not and cannot prevent the increasing influence of the UN Declaration in Canada and worldwide.