On Monday, April 7, seven months after it was introduced and the rest of the world signed on, the New Democratic Party managed to get the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples before the House of Commons, a declaration the Conservative government is refusing to sign.
Three NDP party members – Jene Crowder, Irene Mathyesson and Paul Dewar – had motions to bring the declaration before the House but it was Mathyesson, the critic for the Status of Women, who managed to get it through in a concurrent motion.
Said Crowder, the NDP critic for Aboriginal Affairs, “Mathyesson did get the motion through the committee and what happens is, is that you can move what they call a concurrent motion which means it can be debated in the House for three hours. So on Monday Irene moved the motion, which meant that we were debating the fact that we were calling on Canada to support the UN declaration. After a three-hour debate on Monday, the vote was on Tuesday night. The House passed the motion but the Conservatives voted against it.”
Though all of the opposition parties were in favour of Canada becoming a signatory of the bill, the Conservative government still won’t budge. “In the past the Prime Minister has said that the House should honour the majority will of the House but they have clearly signalled that they don’t intend to do that,” said Crowder.
Through this however, the NDP has every intention of being persistent with the declaration and bringing it up in the House as often as possible.
“What they do is that they just completely disregard it. See the thing about the UN declaration and any other UN convention is that whether Canada becomes a signatory or not does not actually come to the House of Commons for a vote. The government can unilaterally come to whatever decision it wants to in this case and we have to support a majority of the House for it. The Conservatives decided not to be a signatory and so we are trying to pressure and shame them into becoming a signatory. My intention is to continue to raise this at every opportunity. This week, every time I got up to give a speech that was remotely related to Aboriginal interests, I have been inserting parts of the UN declaration into it and I will continue to do that,” said Crowder.
The Conservative government has come up with many different excuses for not signing the declaration, indicating that the bill would interfere with current land claims. Now Crowder says public pressure is the way to go. “What we actually need is some pressure from the Canadian public to tell these guys to live up to their obligations. Writing the Prime Minister is the most effective way. But, if you have a Conservative MP you should write to them as well,” she said.
Though Ghislain Picard of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador is pleased about the motion going before the House, he is still seeing shades of the past. “It’s a very positive move on the part of the opposition parties to make sure that the declaration makes it to the House and that it gets a vote in the House, a positive majority vote and that is what happened. With that being
said, we will remember that the same opposition parties made a lot of efforts in order to commit this government, the Conservative government, into implementing the Kelowna Accord. There again we had no difficulty and the House rose in a majority support of the Kelowna principals. And, there again the Conservatives said that they were supportive of the principals of this but it doesn’t mean that they voted any funding along the lines of the Kelowna deal,” he said.
When asked about the current land claims interference that the Conservatives keep arguing is keeping them from signing the declaration, Picard refuted the claim. “I could say that one of the major key arguments of the government is that somehow this concept of collective rights is interfering of this concept of individual rights. It has been stated time and again that a lot of articles of the declaration, at least a good dozen of them, refer to individual rights of indigenous people. So, to say that the declaration is in contradiction with this whole motion of individual rights is completely false. There again the argument about the Canadian government does not carry weight,” said Picard.
The Liberal Party is also up in arms over the Conservative’s refusal to sign the declaration. For Tina Keeper, Liberal MP for Churchill, a Manitoba Cree and former star of North of 60, the issue is personal. “There is this ongoing dynamic of blaming First Nations as though we have chosen to live in these dire circumstances,” she said.
Though Keeper also will continue to bring the issue of the declaration up in Parliament, fighting for the rights of Aboriginal people in the House is still a difficult task when the ruling party won’t take the issues seriously. “This is a really regressive government. It’s a paternalistic government. I think that there is a Reform agenda which doesn’t believe in special interest groups or special status of Aboriginal peoples. I think it is underlying in their decision-making on how to move forward,” said Keeper.
Though all three opposition parties are going to continue to push the declaration until it is signed, the best recourse for Canadians to get it adopted is public pressure, which is not going to be easy as the national media has been ignoring the issue thus far. Already the Assembly of First Nations is calling for another day of action on May 29 with stepped-up pressure tactics and the NDP is calling on all Canadians to write the government. Without the support of the media however, it’s only a matter of time before the Aboriginal peoples of this country will be back on the streets protesting, erecting blockades and taking every measure possible to be heard in a world that is seemingly deaf to their needs.
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