Aboriginal leaders have taken the government of Canada to task at a United Nations conference on Indigenous peoples.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde told delegates at the close of the meeting in New York this week that the federal government’s words to the world differ from its actions on the homefront.
“It is frankly disturbing that the government of Canada claims that Indigenous rights and Indigenous peoples are a priority at international forums and in front of the international community yet their actions at home are serving to undermine Indigenous rights and peoples,” Bellegarde said after delivering his closing remarks to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
For its part, the federal government laid out its progress and priorities for First Nations, including steps to address suicide and mental health and economic development.
Françoise Ducros, senior assistant deputy minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, told delegates last week that Ottawa has “removed obstacles to concluding treaties.” She did not mention that, according to several reports, one of the main obstacles has been the government of Canada.
Canada has also taken steps to ensure First Nations have access to safe, clean drinking water by passing the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act. Officials are now working with First Nations to develop regulations for reserves, she said.
Ducros also told conference delegates that the federal government recognizes the serious issue of violence against Indigenous women, a high-profile issue that has drawn attention not just at home but abroad and before the UN.
“As you are aware, there has been considerable discussion within a number of countries, including Canada, regarding the issue of violence against Indigenous women,” Ducros said in her statement to the forum.
“The government of Canada recognizes that addressing violence against Indigenous women is a shared responsibility across all levels of government, including at the community level. That is why we are working with all levels of Canadian government, police, the justice system, and with Indigenous communities and organizations to take action and address this important issue.”
She highlighted a $200-million action plan announced last fall but did not did not mention the war of words between the Conservative government and many First Nations leaders over a public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
But at the heart of the dispute before the international forum is a private member’s bill enshrining the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as law.
Ducros told delegates that Canada endorsed the declaration 4 ½ years ago and “remains committed to building a positive relationship.”
However, the government has said that the legislation could amount to a veto for First Nations over any development or legislation with which they disagree.
Bellegarde said that’s not so.
“The UN Declaration provides for an approach based on reconciliation, healing, justice and peace,” he told the UN forum. “Giving life to its principles will help close the gap in the quality of life between First Nations and Canadians and bring honour to Canada.”
He asked delegates to “highlight the unprincipled positions and actions of those States, such as Canada, that undermine Indigenous peoples’ human rights and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
The forum wraps up on May 1.