Romeo Saganash petitions Harper government to abide by UN Declaration

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It’s an effort to end systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples in Canada. Romeo Saganash, NDP MP for Abitibi-Baie James-Nunavik-Eeyou, has launched a petition to force the Canadian government to implement and abide by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

SaganashRomeo_NDPAfter introducing a private member’s bill, C-469, Saganash is now turning to the public for support to force Canada’s hand. If adopted, the bill would pave the way for change on land rights, education and power over self-determination.

While the Conservative government adopted a motion to support UNDRIP in April 2008 and then endorsed it in November 2010, it has not since respected the letter or the spirit of the declaration.

Saganash spoke with the Nation about what he is trying to do with the petition and the results it could have.

The Nation: Has Canada ever abided by the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples in any way, shape or form?

Romeo Saganash: Canada abides by the UNDRIP in many ways. The Declaration reflects rights already found in legislation like the Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It also reflects what is known as customary international law – legal standards that have become obligatory on states through their widespread use (for example, prohibitions against genocide and slavery).

Many of the principles of UNDRIP were originally found in the New Relationship agreement between the Cree Nation and the Government of Quebec (Paix des Braves), which is already in Canadian law and practice. These agreements are based on the principles of cooperation, partnership and mutual respect. Therefore this is not foreign to Canadian law and practice.

Consider the right to self-determination – Canada has recognized the efforts of Indigenous peoples to act as autonomous diplomatic actors. This is already underway; the Grand Council of the Cree and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference have consultative status at the UN. As of 2013, 20 comprehensive self-government agreements had been signed by the federal government; notable is the Cree-Naskapi Act. The Grand Council is in continual negotiations with both the federal and provincial governments that redefine their relationship and responsibilities. Another example is the Canada-First Nations Joint Action Plan which reflects the economic and social rights that are protected under the UNDRIP. The plan addressed areas raised in article 21 of the UN Declaration.

These examples do not negate the fact that much of the Declaration remains to be implemented in Canada.

TN: Why do you think then that that they endorsed it?

RS: Indigenous peoples in Canada worked with countries for 30 years on the formulation, adoption and implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada was also facing tremendous pressure to sign on from organizations (both Indigenous and non). As the US, Australia and New Zealand were going to accept the Declaration, Canada would have been isolated politically.

TN: What does this say about (Harper’s) Canada?

RS: Canada contradicted its own endorsement of the UN Declaration last month. In its endorsement in 2010, the government stated: “We are now confident that Canada can interpret the principles expressed in the Declaration in a manner that is consistent with our Constitution and legal framework.”

However, at the General Assembly, in their Explanation of Vote the government omitted the above key conclusion. This constitutes bad faith. Canada has failed to uphold the honour of the Crown.

The Conservative government has also consistently failed to honour its own Apology to the Students of Residential Schools and their families and communities or the treaties signed between Nations. This government’s behaviour at the UN last month is part of a pattern of its misunderstanding of Canada’s treaty responsibilities and constant opposition to working with Indigenous peoples.

TN: How would this Bill work to change things for Aboriginal peoples?

RS: By ensuring that Canadian legislation respects the UNDRIP, the demands asserted by representatives of Indigenous peoples and their advocates for decades will begin to be respected within Canadian law. This means that all Canadian laws will be subject to review – as it currently is with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Ratifying the UNDRIP can inform public opinion, influence public policy, and guide future jurisprudence. Indigenous peoples can use it in our pursuit for the full recognition, respect, and implementation of our rights. Human-rights institutions and courts can use the Declaration as a standard to measure how Canada behaves toward our peoples, our communities, and our nations.

Canada will be obligated to cooperate with Indigenous peoples in taking measures to implement and interpret the provisions of the UN Declaration, including providing access to assistance for the fulfillment of the rights guaranteed in the Declaration.

TN: How would this be worked out in the context land and development deals that Canada has underway, for example, the Endbridge Pipeline, as clearly there have been so many Aboriginal groups that have tried to stop it but the Harperites have managed to find ways to circumvent them?

RS: The right to “Free, prior and informed consent (“FPIC”) is generally understood as the right of Indigenous peoples to approve or reject proposed actions or projects that may affect them or their lands, territories or resources.

There is inherent tension between resource development and protection of traditional lands and territories in Canada. However, federal and provincial government responsibilities have constitutional obligations (section 35) to reconcile in a manner that is consistent with what the courts have described as “the honour of the Crown.” Bill C-469 also makes reconciliation of the responsibilities of departmental and agency responsibilities for land resource management activities, including tenure, permitting, and approvals for resource development and protection of the rights of Aboriginal peoples an essential part of how resource management occurs in this country as defined by the Declaration.

TN: Would C-469 give any further protection to Aboriginal groups when it comes to Canada’s latest FIPA deal with China?

RS: Bill C-469 would oblige the government to ensure that it respects the UNDRIP in the same way that it is obliged to respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Initial investigation indicates that FIPA violates the UNDRIP in several ways. FIPA violates Article 19, which provides that state measures that may affect Indigenous peoples cannot be adopted without the FPIC of Indigenous peoples. FIPA violates Article 32, which provides that Indigenous peoples have the right to determine priorities and strategies for the use of their lands or territories and other resources. FIPA violates Article 37, which obliges states like China and Canada to honour and respect Treaties.

However, I don’t know what this would mean for an agreement that is already ratified.

TN: What about funding for schools; as most on-reserve and urban First Nations schools are funded approximately 22% less than their general population counterparts, would C-469 amend this?

RS: There are many articles in the UNDRIP that touch on education, particularly Article 14. UNDRIP implementation (through Bill C-469) would mean putting in place policies developed by and for Indigenous peoples with strong emphasis on traditional culture to improve education outcomes. It would mean recognizing “the right of Indigenous families and communities to retain shared responsibility for the upbringing, training, education and well-being of their children.” It would work towards eliminating discrimination around education.

TN: Are there other areas of government that this new bill could affect?

RS: Essentially, Bill C-469 holds that the Government of Canada, in consultation and cooperation with Indigenous peoples, shall take all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the UNDRIP. It would apply equally to all Canadian legislation.

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