Harper government went against own endorsement of UN indigenous rights declaration

Harper government went against own endorsement of UN indigenous rights declaration

By voting against an NDP private member’s bill that sought to harmonize Canadian laws with the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, the government has gone against its own endorsement of the UN document, according to indigenous law and human rights experts.

The Canadian government endorsed the UN declaration in 2010 after what critics say was deliberate attempt to derail or weaken it.

“[But] this Canadian strategy has continued to be implemented for the past 9 years,” said Paul Joffe, a lawyer and international human rights expert, at a panel discussion during the final days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa on Monday.

The endorsement, Joffe said, did not change the way the Canadian government dealt with or treated indigenous issues.

Joffe referenced a recent bill tabled in the House of Commons by NDP MP and residential school survivor Romeo Saganash that would have forced the federal government to align its laws with the UN declaration.

Conservative MPs voted against the bill, claiming it’s an impossible piece of legislation to support, “so they went against their own endorsement,” he said.

The UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples was adopted at the United Nations General Assembly in 2007. Although it isn’t legally binding for countries that sign onto the document, it is, according to Joffe a “visionary step towards addressing the human rights of indigenous peoples.”

The document says indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of culture and that states must provide effective means to prevent the dispossession of culture, as well as means for redress.

Joffe said the declaration also sets out a framework for states to build or rebuild relationships with its aboriginal peoples and can be used to promote reconciliation for past wrongs, and ensure damaging history does not repeat itself.

“Apologies should be followed by rehabilitation,” he said.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is wrapping up its seven years studying the Canadian Indian Residential School system and hearing from survivors and their family members over a few days of events in Ottawa. A summary of the final TRC report will be released Tuesday.

The Monday afternoon panel included other legal experts and advocates who talked about what the UN declaration means for reconciliation in Canada. Other panelists noted the importance of culture and, in particular, language in the reconciliation process.

Joffe also noted, to loud applause in the room, that the new NDP government in Alberta under Premier Rachel Notley has promised to make the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples law in the province.