In which The Nation’s intrepid reporter gets bogged down in acronyms, lost luggage and expensive taxicabs.
We grow up thinking of the United Nations as a magnanimous body representing justice and equality, one that protects our fundamental human rights when governments fail to do so. The first image we see is the warm light blue colours on the flags, signs and berets. And when dealing in human or Indigenous rights all roads eventually lead to Geneva. Since 1982 and the creation of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP), Native groups from around the globe have made a pilgrimage each summer to this city set in the Swiss Alps to testify about the atrocities and violations inflicted upon them by governments, large corporations and organizations.
Geneva is a beautiful city, set on a beautiful lake with fountains springing up everywhere, all to the backdrop of soaring mountains. In fact, just outside of Geneva is the famous Mont Blanc, where they grow those expensive pens. Yes, it is also one of the most expensive European cities to visit. To give you an idea, when I ordered a cab, the meter was already at $18 before we left my hotel. In Europe, it did not take long to master the trains and buses.
I arrived in Geneva with the clothes on my back. It would be a day or so before my luggage would catch up with me. The first day, I made my way down the hill from my hotel to the main entrance of the Palais des Nations (United Nations). In front of the gates is a huge wooden chair, maybe three or four stories high, and missing a leg. It is a monument to the international campaign against the use of land mines and in remembrance of those who have lost lives or limbs. This would explain the missing leg.
After going through security to get my pass for the week, I noticed that many international organizations, thousands really, are all around the UN. With my pass in hand, I walked through the front gates. There are rows upon rows of flags from every country in the world who are members of the UN. It is amazing to stroll down the main pathway between these flags, all the while approaching the entrance of what looks like a palace. I worked my way through a number of UN buildings and stairwells until I made it to the room where this session of the Working Group would be held. Being a seasoned UN veteran since my New York experience, instead of going right in, I turned the corner and proceeded to the coffee break area. Immediately I spotted a table of good friends who had stepped out for a coffee or cigarette.
After a few minutes of getting caught up, we went into the meeting room where groups were already making presentations. I quickly gathered materials deposited on the tables at the back of the room. These papers not only highlight the presentations, they go beyond to direct you to more detailed information the Indigenous groups cannot fit into the meager time they are allotted to speak. However, the presenters at these forums are quickly becoming masters of the system and know that the vocal presentations only whet the appetite of those truly concerned with the issues. There will be those who will come by and draw you out into the coffee break area to engage in real discourse. But for now, I find a seat in the main chambers, put on my headphones, turn the dial to English, and let out a small sigh – I’m back.
First let me give you a brief history about the 21st Session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP). The WGIP is a United Nations body comprised of five experts from the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. This year was particularly important for the WGIP as the Economic and Social Council would decide its future. On the agenda for July 23 was the General Secretary’s Report on all existing mechanisms within the UN concerning Indigenous matters. This would include the newly created Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Office of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights and Fundamental Liberties of Indigenous People, created in 2001, and the Working Group created in 1982. This year’s theme was Indigenous Peoples and Globalization. The proposal of creating a Second Decade of Indigenous Peoples will also be brought before the UN General Assembly as it is felt by Indigenous leaders and organizations much of what was proposed for the decade remains unfinished – namely, the adoption of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Indigenous Caucus is another part of the Geneva experience. At each session of the Working Group or Permanent Forum, the Indigenous people present, gather, and form a body known as the Indigenous Caucus. The reason is simple – it allows the Indigenous delegates to unite and discuss issues common to them all and make statements before the UN bodies as a collective. Caucus statements are more representative of the widespread concerns and seriousness of issues impacting Indigenous communities throughout the world. It creates a stronger voice, hopefully translating into more attention by governments to these issues.
This year at the Indigenous Caucus, we discussed: a) the possible shutting down of the WGIP; b) the state of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; c) the collective statement on the impacts of globalization; d) the issue of allowing academics who work closely with tribes to have a voice in the Caucus meetings, and e) the structure of the Caucus. The strength, and sometimes the point of contention within the Indigenous Caucus, is each Indigenous group is at a different stage of development or realization of their rights. This is a strength as one group can provide support and encouragement for another. It is a problem at times as advancing a collective statement can lead to generic language which does not necessarily recognize the differences between the situation of Indigenous peoples in developing and developed countries.
At the 21st Session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, John Sinclair, the Canadian Senior Assistant Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs, delivered the representation on behalf of Canada. Sinclair highlighted the need for more detailed databases on Indigenous concerns throughout the world. Also, he spoke of the conference on Aboriginal Policy Research Canada funded last year and pointed out Minister Robert Nault had set up a National Working Group on Education. The principle mandate for this Group was to address the gap between the quality of education non-natives and natives receive in Canada. The Group’s recommendations called for an education system grounded in Indigenous knowledge and for those Aboriginals who are highly educated to return to their communities. Also, the Canadian government has committed $600 million over the next five years to provide Aboriginal communities with clean, safe drinking water.
The Government of Canada further believes the key to Native women’s rights is to address concerns of matrimonial property on reserves in the event of a divorce. This will be the focus of the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights in Canada, to study the issue of matrimonial property as an abrogation of human rights. Of course, this issue brings up concerns; land on reservations is communally owned (by the whole First Nation), when we start becoming private owners then the land loses its protection. So, policies would have to reflect assets or allocated housing on reservations – not real property.
Sinclair said the Canadian government is also firmly committed to addressing issues of non-compliance with historic treaties with the First Nations in Canada. So, they will give more power to the treaty commissions and set up more offices in the provinces to specifically deal with treaties. This leaves me to wonder, who exactly do they think is in violation of the treaties? Perhaps, investing money into fulfilling treaty obligations and complying with Section 35 of the Constitution is on next year’s agenda.
The Government of Canada further stated it has just entered into another Comprehensive Claims Settlement Agreement (i.e. James Bay type Agreement) with the Tlicho Dene people of the Northwest Territories, giving them fee simple title over land about twice the size of El Salvador. It is an interesting comparison, I had no idea what El Salvador’s size was until I looked it up.
I guess, the Canadian version would read ‘the land is a little more than half the size of Prince Edward Island or 4,000 times the size of my backyard.’ This would be the first land claim settlement since the Nisga’a Agreement was signed and important for both parties as the development of natural resources is impacting the Tlicho Dene traditional territories.
Sinclair praised the Second Session of the Permanent Forum. He said Canada views this as an important development in Indigenous issues in the international arena. Regarding the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Canada’s position is that the language must be changed if it is to be adopted before the end of the International Decade of Indigenous People in 2004. Finally, Canada announced it will host the Special Rapporteur on the situation of the human rights and fundamental
freedoms of Indigenous people in 2004 for an official visit on the situation of Canada’s indigenous peoples.
It was a surprise to hear the presentation of Richard Preston from the Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers), who spoke of the relocation of the community of Nemaska as a hallmark story of success and cooperation. It is not every day that one hears the name of a Cree community being presented in the UN. Richard Preston spoke of the roles of consultants as they helped but did not interfere with the community as it planned its relocation. This non-interference policy was to ensure that the people of Nemaska viewed the community plan as their own. He spoke of how Chief George Wapache told him in the year 2000 that out of the 119 items on the wish list they made in 1977 during the relocation that 105 have thus far been realized. The collaborative consultation process is one that seeks to bring information to the community to let them make more informed choices. To finish his presentation to the Working Group, Preston said that this James Bay Cree community relocation should serve the world as an example of the positive influences of globalization.
In the end, there were many presentations on the effects of globalization on Indigenous peoples from governments, UN organizations, NGOs, experts, and from Indigenous peoples attending the Working Group, including one from our own Romeo Saganash. The impacts on the Indigenous peoples carried a common theme of injustice, victimization and violations of Indigenous rights and lands. In some cases, this meant governments or corporations had armed groups making incursions into Indigenous lands to kill or forcibly remove Indigenous communities from areas where organizations had an interest in natural resource exploitation. It meant those peoples who were marginalized and impoverished in the world community, would no longer be neglected, they would be targeted because they sat on untapped and previously protected resources. On a positive note, organizations like the World Bank, which work in global trade and international banking, were listening and telling Indigenous peoples they were developing policies that would prevent money payments to projects, organizations or governments who impact Indigenous rights. The Working Group session ended as it began, with an Indigenous prayer for guidance and hope.
Geneva is a place of many fine restaurants and cafes catering to any of your culinary desires. So, with old friends and new ones, we chose different restaurants each night to dine at and discuss the many important issues that did not make the agenda. This is where you get a chance to know someone and understand their conviction for Indigenous issues and hear of the many strategies and fights they have been in on behalf of their people’s rights or lands. It is in these discussions which often carry you over into closing time and beyond where you learn things you will never see in an article, meeting or classroom. You learn what it means to be Indigenous in different parts of the world.