Winnipeg rally urges MPs to adopt UN declaration on Indigenous rights

A group embarked on a 12-kilometre walk to the University of Manitoba's National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Saturday to urge the federal government to adopt an internationally recognized declaration on Indigenous rights.

"We have to recognize as a society in the denial of Indigenous Peoples to participate fully ... we've actually robbed ourselves collectively as a society from very important and very deep ways of understanding our relationship not only with the land, but also how to be in relationship with one another," said Ry Moran, director of the national centre at the U of M.

The march — which was attended by more than 100 people, including members of the Bear Clan Patrol citizen group — is inspired by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and private member's Bill C-262, which would enshrine the UN declaration into Canadian law.

The bill was tabled in April 2016 by NDP MP Romeo Saganash and is slated for second reading on Oct. 18.

The UN edict is meant to enshrine Indigenous Peoples' right to exist, to ensure their right to live free of discrimination and to legally entitle them to be a self-determined people.

"I feel very strongly, especially in Canada's 150, that ... if we're ever to truly say with sort of a pure heart that we are a great nation, that we have to mend, repair and reset the relationship between First Nations and settler people — thoroughly, not just in word only," said longtime Winnipeg-based singer-songwriter Steve Bell, who helped organize the march.

'Back-pedalling' on calls to action

Canada and three other nations voted against the declaration a decade ago — 144 other states voted in favour — citing concerns over the notion of "free, prior and informed consent" in the declaration. The point of contention was that it could give Indigenous communities the power to veto decisions on developments on ancestral lands.

After the federal election of 2015, the newly minted Liberal government committed to adopting all 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. At the time, Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin described Canada's residential school system and historic treatment of Indigenous people as "cultural genocide."

Recommendation No. 43 in the report is that all levels of governments fully adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework toward reconciliation. No. 44 urges the federal government in particular to develop a nationwide action plan with "concrete measures to achieve the goals" set out in the declaration.

Ultimately, the bill is designed to provide that framework for government "so that moving forward, Indigenous people in this country will have their fundamental rights protected," said University of Winnipeg instructor Leah Gazan.

"Since the Liberal government has been in, they've been kind of back-pedalling," she said.

"The Liberal government under Trudeau is under their third non-compliance order to honour the ruling of the Canadian Human Rights tribunal ruling. For whatever reason in this country, violating fundamental Indigenous human rights, the rights of little children, have become completely normalized. This would end those kinds of practices."

Broad support

The Assembly of First Nations, Conservative MP Candice Bergen, scientist and activist David Suzuki, the United Church of Canada and Amnesty International have all voiced support for Bill C-262.

"I think we need to keep the pressure on to send a very clear message: Indigenous Peoples are on board, churches are on board. Now this current government needs to honour their promise to stay on board," said Gazan.

"Human rights should never be a partisan issue. Human rights should never be something up for debate."

Gazan doesn't support resource extraction on principle, but she says the declaration would clarify the legal relationship between Indigenous communities, Canadian governments and corporations in the event of a proposed development on ancestral lands.

"Things like Muskrat Falls that's happening now, Kinder Morgan, Energy East, all of those kinds of developments would not happen without the free and prior and informed consent of Indigenous people," said Gazan, adding she feels it's important to protect the human rights of everyone.

"When somebody's human rights are impacted, who is to say you're not going to be next?"

'Protection of this land'

Moran says there are clear lessons to be learned from traditional teachings about conservation and climate change that Canadians continue to neglect at their peril.

"The current state of our environment is a very clear example of the fact that we have been prevented from performing what our traditional duties really have been, in being protectors and active participants in the protection of this land," he said.

Moran said the declaration also recognizes that the more Indigenous Peoples are allowed to organize themselves politically, culturally and socially, the more everyone stands to benefit.

Action from feds

Bell draws his musical inspiration from Christianity, and he sees connections between its teachings and what Bill C-262 stands for.

"I think to be a Christian means that these sorts of issues are going to catch your heart and of course, if you say you belong to this tradition or this faith, it certainly implies that one would align one's values with it," he said.

The federal government has shown support for the document in word only, Bell says, and needs to move beyond talk.

"We just need to make it a formal framework legislatively, which Bill 262 does, which gives a guide for this government and present governments saying that we will, not only by duty or by obligation but with joy, respect the rights of Indigenous people in Canada."