Dickens started off his classic novel A Tale of Two Cities with the timeless sentence, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Perhaps that statement can sum up what most North American First Nations peoples felt on September 13. Certainly, most of the world’s indigenous peoples felt a lot better than that.
Hailed as a victory for indigenous rights around the world, the declaration passed with a vote of 143-4 with 11 abstentions. The four naysayers were Canada, United States, Australia and New Zealand – all countries, not surprisingly, with significant Native minorities.
The Declaration spells out the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples, including their right to traditional lands and resources; their right to give their free, prior, and informed consent before governments take actions that negatively affect them.
Both of these points, says the Canadian government through Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, are inconsistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights. Or, he says, are impractical because consulting with 650 recognized First Nations is too difficult; or can’t happen because non-indigenous Canadians must be protected.
The Canadian government was silent on the Declaration’s clause guaranteeing freedom from genocide and forced relocation, or rights to indigenous languages, cultures and spiritual beliefs.
The Declaration took longer to write than any other United Nations international agreement, finally going to the vote after 25 years. During this time indigenous people complained their peoples were continuing to be killed, villages were still being razed, their people displaced, and their lands and resources appropriated.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the Declaration “marks a historic moment when UN member states and indigenous peoples reconciled with their painful histories and resolved to move forward together on the path of human rights, justice and development for all.”
Unfortunately, Canada is not in step with the rest of the world. The Harper government marches to the beat of a different drum.
Chief Stewart Philip, of BC’s Leadership Council said, “It is truly ironic that the four First World countries that have become prosperous through the exploitation of the lands and resources of the indigenous people, including Canada, chose to oppose the adoption of the Declaration.”
Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, while in New York, said it was a proud day but the negative vote put a black mark on Canada.
Grand Chief Edward John of the Tl’azt’en Nation, speaking for the AFN, said Canada cannot present itself as a champion and promoter of human rights internationally while “in its own back yard it votes against the human rights of indigenous peoples.”
Lez Mayer, chair of the Global Indigenous Caucus, was even more scathing when he said, “In this case, Canada and the others are finding themselves in a situation where their policies are being found out, and are showing they are not prepared to commit themselves to fair treatment of indigenous peoples in their countries.”
Canada also overstepped the bounds of decency when, according to the African Indigenous Caucus, it tried to use international aid as a bribe to convince other countries to reject the Declaration. “Canada was committing a crime,” said one caucus cocoordinator.
Meanwhile, the Grand Council of the Crees is curiously silent on Canada’s no vote. After all, the present government is doing okay by the Crees – at least if the present new relationship is ratified.
Canada has protected its non-indigenous population quite well. They have less people below the poverty line, less suicides, a lower rate of diabetes (over 16 per cent for Crees compared to Quebec’s rate of 3 per cent), less overcrowding in houses, a far lower percentage of the population in jail compared to non-Natives, lower unemployment rates, and fewer children in foster homes, and on, and on, and so on.
If only Canada could remember that the First Nations population needs some protecting as well. Perhaps in another 25 years we will see Canada finally sign on and understand the necessity of the UN Declaration.