Canada rejects UN resolution on native rights

By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register

TORONTO (CCN) — The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops may have to re-fight a battle with the federal government over the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

On Sept. 22 Canada became the only country to object to a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly asking countries to do more to achieve Aboriginal rights. The Department of Foreign Affairs Trade and Development (DFATD) said the UN document — from the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples and submitted to the president of the UN General Assembly — “cannot be reconciled with Canadian law, as it exists.” 

The Canadian representatives at the UN argued that “free, prior and informed consent” to development that affects indigenous land — whether mining, logging, hydro-electric dams or others — could be interpreted as a “veto” and is therefore inconsistent with Canada’s Constitution and undermines the supremacy of Parliament. 

Canada made the same objections when the UN adopted its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010. At that time Canada’s bishops found themselves among many groups urging the federal government to rethink its position. 

The government eventually said it supported the UN Declaration as “an aspirational document,” while maintaining its reservations about Aboriginal consent for development. 

“I’m going to have this put on our agenda for the CCAC (Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council) right now,” Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Murray Chatlain told The Catholic Register. The CCAC is a forum consisting of Aboriginal people, church officials and bishops which makes recommendations to the CCCB on Aboriginal issues. It meets next on Nov. 22. 

Going into the UN high level meeting on indigenous rights, the Holy See was unequivocal about the right of Aboriginal people to be consulted about what happens on their land. 

The Vatican’s permanent observer to the Holy See, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, was particularly worried by mining companies allowed to proceed despite indigenous objections. 

“These corporations must overcome a specific focus on short-term economic advantage and adopt models of authentic development which do not violate the rights of indigenous peoples and encourage a responsible use of the environment,” said Tomasi in Geneva Sept. 17, just before the meeting in New York. 

Violations of the fundamental freedoms of Aboriginal communities is the result of “systemic discrimination and exclusion from political and economic power,” said Tomasi. 

The Canadian objections are mystifying, said Aboriginal rights program director for KAIROS Canada Ed Bianchi. 

“There have been numerous times when Canada has been asked to explain how these articles in the Declaration (on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) that outline free, prior and informed consent constitute a veto, how they undermine Parliament, how they undermine our Constitution,” said Bianchi. “Canada up until now has failed to explain what it means by that.” 

The ecumenical justice organization KAIROS joined with Amnesty International, the Assembly of First Nations, the Quakers and others urging the government to drop its objections and sign the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples outcome document. 

“The notion that the Declaration could be interpreted as conferring an absolute and unilateral veto power has been repeatedly raised by Canada as a justification for its continued opposition to the Declaration. 

This claim, however, has no basis either in the UN Declaration or in the wider body of international law,” said a statement from the coalition. 

In 2008 more than 100 scholars and legal experts signed an open letter to the government saying the UN Declaration is “consistent with the Canadian Constitution and Charter.” 

As a set of “minimum standards for their survival, dignity and well-being” the UN Declaration is essential to more than 370 million indigenous people in 90 countries around the world, said Tomasi, speaking for the Holy See. 

“We have in place a constitutionally entrenched framework that ensures the consultation and accommodation, as appropriate, of Aboriginal interests,” a spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt told The Catholic Register in an email. “This framework also balances the interests of non-Aboriginal Canadians and it has served as a model for nations around the world.”

 
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