Nothing for Indigenous people in Canada to celebrate on 10th anniversary of UN rights declaration

Ten years ago this week — on Sept. 13, 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN’s General Assembly (although Canada did not officially adopt it until last year).

But in my opinion, for grassroots Indigenous peoples in Canada, there is nothing to celebrate on the 10th anniversary of the UNDRIP — not until Canada speaks to its assertion of sovereignty and claim to underlying title to the land, which they take as a given and do not question.

On behalf of the Algonquin First Nations of Barriere Lake, Timiskaming and Wolf Lake, whose rights are being ignored and denied by the Trudeau government, I traveled recently to Geneva, Switzerland to appear before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), where the government of Canada was scheduled to appear on Aug. 14 and 15 to report on, among other matters, their treatment of Indigenous peoples.

There was a large contingent of Indigenous representatives in Geneva to provide information to CERD members about Canada’s violation of Indigenous land rights so the CERD members could question Canada about its efforts to eliminate racially discriminatory land claims and self-government policies used against Indigenous peoples in negotiations.

Top-down, non-transparent approach

In my remarks to the CERD members, I told them since forming the government in 2015, the Trudeau government has taken a top-down, non-transparent approach to changing law and policy affecting Indigenous peoples, without including the Indigenous rights holders, peoples from the communities themselves.

I said that the federal government issued 10 principles on Indigenous relationships without consulting even the three national Indigenous leaders, let alone Indigenous peoples.

The UN CERD committee obviously listened to our voices. Its Aug. 31 report said, “the Committee is further concerned that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) Action Plan has not yet been adopted, while noting the ministerial working group established in 2017 to bring laws into compliance with obligations towards Indigenous peoples.… The committee recommends that the state party … ensure that the ministerial working group is transparent and inclusive of Indigenous peoples.”

The committee also said it is “deeply concerned” by Canada’s continuous violations of the land rights of Indigenous peoples, “in particular environmentally destructive decisions for resource development which affect their lives and territories continue to be undertaken without the free, prior and informed consent of the Indigenous peoples, resulting in breaches of treaty obligations and international human rights law.”

Collective land rights of Indigenous peoples present a cornerstone of the UNDRIP, according to which Indigenous peoples enjoy the right to own, use, develop and control their traditional lands, territories and resources as a key aspect of their culture and identity.

Canada criticized in report

The CERD report criticizes that for Indigenous peoples in Canada, “costly, time-consuming and ineffective litigation is often the only remedy in place of seeking free, prior and informed consent” and the committee was highly concerned that “permits have been issued and construction has commenced at the Site C dam, despite vigorous opposition of Indigenous peoples affected by this project”.

The committee urged Canada to “immediately suspend all permits and approvals for the construction of the Site C dam” in British Colombia and to “incorporate the free, prior and informed consent principle in the Canadian regulatory system.”

Indigenous protesters camped out near the Site C dam project in northern B.C for several months in 2015 and 2016. (Yvonne Tupper)

Additionally, the committee was alarmed at the continued high rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls, urging Canada to take immediate action.

The report also found that despite its previous recommendations and multiple decisions by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, “less money is reportedly provided for child and family services to Indigenous children than in other communities, and that this gap continues to grow.”

According to the UNDRIP, states must “take measures, in conjunction with Indigenous peoples, to ensure that Indigenous women and children enjoy the full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination.”

However, systematic discrimination of Indigenous women and children remains and Canada has failed so far in addressing root causes of this ongoing violation.

Move away from ‘colonial doctrines of discovery’

The Trudeau government needs to stop cherry picking the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommendations, such as splitting the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada department into two departments. Like the 10 principles the federal government has established respecting its relationship with Indigenous people, this also seems to be a unilateral federal decision, again excluding even the three national Indigenous leaders, as National Inuit leader Natan Obed has publicly said.

There needs to be a bottom-up transparent approach to implementing UNDRIP involving the legitimate rights holders, the grassroots Indigenous peoples and communities — not the national Indigenous leaders, at least from my perspective.

The Assembly of First Nations national chief is not mandated under the AFN charter by Indigenous (First Nation) peoples to enter into such discussions with Crown governments. AFN is a national chiefs’ organization.

If Canada was serious about meeting its international obligations, it would have to move away from its reliance on the colonial doctrines of discovery.

Canada should comply with the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s rejection of the colonial doctrines of discovery as a racist basis for the claim to sovereignty, jurisdiction and title.

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.

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