Oct 02, 2006

Buffalo River Dene Nation: Canada Opposed the United Nations Draft Declaration of Indigenous Rights

Indian affairs minister, Jim Prentice, says legal conflicts explain the Canadian government's opposition to this declaration

On June 29, 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a Draft Declaration of Indigenous Rights. The Declaration affirms the right of self-determination of Indigenous Peoples, including the right to traditional territory and resources, and the right of Indigenous Peoples to oversee their own education in their own languages. It was passed by a vote of 30-2–- Russia joining Canada in opposition to the Declaration.

There are several high-profile territorial confrontations occurring in Canada today, including the standoff with the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Confederacy) in Caledonia in southern Ontario; the encroachment of multinationals onto the Lubicon Lake First Nation in northern Alberta; the struggle of the Secwepemc people over plans to convert their territory, Skwelkwek’welt, into a ski resort in B.C.; the deforestation of the homeland of the Haida; and the marginalization of the Innu of Nitassinan.

“It is no coincidence that the Canadian government so adamantly opposes the adoption of the Draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” says Adelard Blackman, special emissary for Buffalo River Dene Nation in Northern Saskatchewan. “They believe that it will present a threat because of the power that it will give to Indigenous Peoples, especially in the area of free, prior and informed consent as it applies to lands, territories and resources.”

The people of Buffalo River Dene Nation were removed from their traditional territory in 1952, purportedly to establish the Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range. The territory contains the world’s largest oilsands deposit and Blackman believes the Canadian government knew the land was rich in natural resources. “It was a calculated move by the government and multinationals to gain control of our traditional territory and natural resources contained in it,” he says. Blackman believes the federal government fears the impact the declaration may have on land claims across Canada.

Ghislain Picard, regional chief of Quebec and Labrador, is frustrated that Canada is seen by so many as an international leader in human rights, while it continually undermines the rights of Indigenous People. “It is very disappointing, even frustrating, to see that the government of our own country has such a closed mind towards the protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples,” he says. “All the more so that Canada pretends to be a key player on the level of human rights internationally.”

The Canadian government has been garnering some criticism from the international community regarding its stance on the declaration. The London-based foreign affairs magazine, The Economist –- hardly a left-wing publication -- lambasted Canada’s treatment of Original Peoples, stating that they “are treated with a mixture of ignorance and indifference.” Human rights organization Amnesty International has been critical holding that recognizing the human rights of the world’s Indigenous Peoples is long overdue. “It’s difficult to imagine an important issue of human rights that the governments of the world have taken more time to resolve,” said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

On the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous on August 3, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan noted that of the more than 370 million Indigenous Peoples living in some 70 countries, “Much remains to be done to alleviate the poverty faced by many indigenous people, to protect them against massive violations of human rights, and to safeguard against the discrimination …”

To this end, Annan sees the Declaration as “an instrument of historic significance for the advancement of the rights and dignity of the world’s indigenous peoples.”

Harper’s Indian affairs minister, Jim Prentice, cited legal conflicts between the declaration and Canadian laws as the reason for his government’s opposition. But Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (Canada’s National Inuit Organization) considers this opposition “odd and unsupported,” and Liberal Indian Affairs critic Anita Neville agrees: “The government’s argument that the draft resolution may be inconsistent with Canadian laws is a non-starter.”

The Declaration of Indigenous Rights is now before the 61st session of the UN General Assembly awaiting ratification of the human rights of Indigenous Peoples.