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Canadian Politics: Reneging On The U.N. Declaration of Indigenous Rights

For the past twenty years or more, a special working group of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has been working on a draft resolution for a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to be presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations. The working group was comprised of forty-seven member countries, including Canada, India, Cuba, Japan, and Security Council Members, United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China, plus representatives of over 200 hundred Indigenous organizations from around the world.

The final draft resolution was approved on June 29th by an overwhelming majority of thirty in favour, two against, twelve abstentions, and three absenteeism's. Aside from affirming that Indigenous peoples deserve the same treatment as other people under the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law, the resolution also allows for them to maintain and strengthen their culture and traditional ways of being, while at the same time actively participate in the life of the state.

What's most telling, and probably the biggest bone of contention, is that it also guarantees the right of self determination. In the eyes of most people self-determination implies at least some degree of autonomy or self-governance; decision-making powers over education, and other state within the state authorities. Already countries like the United Kingdom which voted in favour of the resolution are qualifying their support by saying things like it has no legal standing, and that it shouldn’t interfere with individual state law.

There is also a certain amount of irony, or even cynicism, in seeing countries like Mexico and Guatemala publicly endorsing and voting in favour of the declaration. Both countries have abysmal records when it comes to the treatment of their native population with the latter being particularly notorious for its policies of persecution and oppression. In fact across Latin America the treatment of indigenous people is so bad that it makes North American efforts look exemplary in comparison.

The fact that countries like Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Uruguay joined their fellow Latin states above in adopting the resolution despite their records of indifference makes it all the more incomprehensible that Canada would be one of the two nations along with Russia to vote it against it entirely. (The United States was not part of the working group, but they have declared their opposition to the declaration and intent of opposing its passage in the General Assembly) What makes Canada's refusal to adopt the resolution so frustrating for native and human rights groups in Canada and elsewhere is the key role the country has played in the last eleven years in its drafting.

But within the last year Canada had started to be obstructionist to the proceedings. Not only did they call this vote in an attempt to defeat the resolution, (the agreement was supposed to have been by consensus) but also they had previously failed to pass a counter resolution to have a decision delayed so further discussion could take place. The only reasons the new Canadian government have given for the sudden policy change from previous administrations is that some of the provisions of the Declaration are incompatible with Canadian law.

This is an argument without any basis. Remember what the United Kingdom's delegate said about it not being legally binding on any state? Well if it's not legally binding how can it be incompatible with any laws in Canada. The only law it's in contravention of is the law of the Conservative Party of Canada to gut the work started by the previous governments on advancing the rights of indigenous people in Canada.

There still has been no announcement of any new policy to replace the Kelowna accord that Steven Harper and his boys blew out of the water with their budget by not providing the funding agreed upon by the provinces and the previous federal government. At the time they said they would put forward their own policy because they had hesitations about accountability measures.

It's funny how they only have those concerns when it comes to Natives. Why don't they just come out and say: "They're only going to drink it all anyway", or "they're so corrupt that the leadership will pocket it and nothing will get done and we will be right back where we started from."

You can almost see them tipping the wink to the audience when they say shit like "wasting taxpayer's money" and talk about the poor or Natives in the same breath. Remember this is still the same folk who were the Reform party years back whose Native policy was "they lost the war, what do they want?" They don't word it quite that way anymore, now it's just through winks and innuendo.

Obviously Native leadership in Canada is feeling a little blindsided by their country's complete about face on the Declaration. Phil Fontaine, Assembly of Firs Nations National Chief was obviously thrilled with the passage of the resolution of support, but less enamoured of the Canadian government's role in the proceedings.

"It is very unfortunate that in trying to stand in the way of the Declaration, Canada has done so much harm to its credibility and influence…" sums up the feeling of most Canadian natives who participated in the process. Kenneth Deer, who represents Mohawks at Kahnawake and the United Nations Council of Chiefs, took it even further by saying he felt betrayed and found it ironic that " that for 11 years they (Canada) carried the resolution and at the end they voted against the declaration and against their own work." He also warned of strained relations between the Canadian government and Indigenous people's in the future.

It doesn't take much of a crystal ball to see that coming. Phil Fontaine had staked his personal reputation on the Kelowna accord. He has preached patience for the entire length of his term in office to his constituents, promising them great results in return. For the space of about four months it looked like their faith in him had paid off. Not only did he succeed in negotiating a great deal for his people, but he also accomplished something that had been rare in the past; Native people of Canada were unified in their support of their leadership.

If I were the paranoid type I'd say that one of the government's main reasons for letting the Kelowna deal fall by the wayside was to sow discontent among Native Canadians for their leadership. Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book, it's much easier to pick off your enemy one small unit at a time, then having to deal with a large scale opposition.

Individual flare-ups like the occupation of the housing development in Caledonia Ontario by members of the Six Nations Reserve can be easily ignored and or stomped out when necessary. If the people start to lose patience with Mr. Fontaine and start working against him, the coalition he has put together will fall apart.

Confrontations like Oka and Caledonia are made to order for this government. They can start spouting off about criminals and not being held hostage by the demands of a few armed fanatics. They can easily turn sympathies against the natives behind the barricades through announcements expressing their concern for the public's safety, implying that the public is in danger whether or not any exists.

The Conservative Party of Canada under Steven Harper is looking to turn back the clock in anyway and anywhere they can. Whether social issues like daycare, same sex marriage, and the decriminalization of marijuana, or political issues like the rights of Indigenous peoples.

There was no way they could have signed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Doing so would have admitted that Canada's First Nation's people have rights and our government has a responsibility to ensure they are fulfilled. Judging by their actions so far I wouldn't be surprised if the Conservative Party of Canada was considering bringing back Residential Schools and assimilation as Canada's new Indian Act.

Whatever they do end up doing, you can rest assured they are not going to have anyone's but their own best interests at heart. Or at the very least, it sure won't be the people of the First Nations who will be their primary concern when they finally replace the Kelowna Accord.

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