On November 12, the Canadian government finally signed the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights. Canada was one of the four countries to vote against granting these rights to its Aboriginal Peoples three years ago. This after the previous federal governments spent years supporting and encouraging Aboriginal Peoples around the world to support the declaration.

In looking back the Crees were part of when First Nations entered the world political arena. In 1989, Chief Ted Moses, of the Grand Council of the Crees in Canada, was the first Indigenous person elected to office at a UN meeting to discuss the effects of racial discrimination on the social and economic situation of Indigenous peoples. Obviously the Crees have supported the need for the declaration while saying it never went far enough and had been watered down.

Realistically though everyone knew that creating such a declaration would be an uphill battle and in the end not everyone would be happy. Indeed, while some First Nations leaders have applauded the move, others are worried over the federal government’s press release, which stated, “While the declaration is not legally binding, endorsing it as an important aspirational document is a significant step forward in strengthening relations with Aboriginal peoples.”

A Grand Council insider granted it was not unlike a criminal signing an agreement that he or she wouldn’t commit a crime but since it wasn’t legally binding could do so again with a more or less clear conscience. In effect, the signing really means nothing but is more of a symbolic move.

Other First Nations are more hopeful about what it can ultimately mean. Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada John Duncan said, “Canada has endorsed the declaration to further reconcile and strengthen our relationship with Aboriginal peoples in Canada.”

Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said, “In endorsing the UN declaration, Canada is committing to work with us as a true partner to achieve reconciliation as instructed by the courts in Canada.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his government backs up words with actions. He said the formal apology to survivors of Canada’s Native residential schools resulted in the government’s decision to set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so real gains will be seen by the decision to sign the UN declaration.

Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee questions, “We can’t understand why it took Canada three years to offer such a lukewarm endorsement? In supporting the UN declaration, Canada took a step forward in its relationship with First Nations, but when it added conditions to the main components of the declaration, Canada took two steps backwards.”

He points out what First Nations leaders’ hope that will be an argument in their favour. “If they persist in this approach – and continue to ignore court decisions saying we must be consulted on issues affecting our territories – the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be the tool we use to take our grievances to the international community,” said Madahbee

Grand Chief Stan Beardy from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said the government had finally did the right thing and agreed with Madahbee. “Although the UN declaration is not legally binding it has a legal effect as it allows the Supreme Court of Canada to have a liberal interpretation of our social, cultural, economic, political, spiritual and environmental rights.”

Just to the south the Algonquin Nation has said they welcome Canada’s move but will “remain vigilant.” Grand Council Chief of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council, Lucien Wabanonik said only when First Nations look at law enforcement and government decisions that they will be able to judge the real commitment by Ottawa to respect the declaration. “It will require the government to realize that many of its policies go against the text of the declaration that they’ve just adopted,” said Grand Chief Wabanonik.

Nevertheless, the announcement by Duncan is seen as a positive step forward.

Canada’s decision brings to 144 the number of signatories to the declaration.

Perhaps the last hold-out, the United States, will follow Canada’s lead and sign the declaration while not accepting it as legally binding on future and past actions.