Tenth anniversary of landmark UN agreement is a time for tempered celebration

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It was a long struggle to finalize negotiations of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations a decade ago. But it’s proving to be an even longer path to the adoption of the UNDRIP by the Canadian government.

“It all started many, many moons ago with a small group of Indigenous people from around world,” remembered Cree Grand Chief Able Bosum. “It was through presentations at side-forums at the United Nations (UN) that an idea slowly developed to submit something to the main table addressing the common challenges faced by all Indigenous peoples.”

According to Bosum, it took several drafts and much lobbying before the right people would see the document. “But when it was finally received it was quite the breakthrough, not just for the people who worked on it but for Indigenous people around the world,” he said.

The 10th anniversary of the Declaration’s passing at the UN was celebrated in a two-day ceremony September 12-13 in Montreal with a couple surprise announcements.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre unveiled an updated version of the municipal flag at the ceremony. A new symbol now stands at its centre – a white pine that represents the Great Tree of Peace and the five nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

The presentation of the flag was followed by another step towards reconciliation. The street named for General Jeffery Amherst will be changed to reflect the Indigenous population of the city. Amherst was a British military officer during the 18th century who recommended using smallpox-infested blankets to eliminate the Indigenous population.

“If we want reconciliation, I don’t think we should celebrate someone who wanted to exterminate Indigenous peoples,” Coderre said at the press conference. “Goodbye, Mr. Amherst.”

Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador Regional Chief Ghislain Picard was on hand to speak at the ceremony and received the key to the city.

Picard praised the ceremony and gestures of reconciliation but said they must be translated into action. “Montreal is, in a way, leading in terms of actions that should be taken on by UNDRIP. The renaming of a street is more or less a symbol, but it’s very telling of their intentions and carries much weight for the future,” he said.

Picard was less congratulatory to the Trudeau government’s refusal to implement its promise to adopt the UNDRIP with federal legislation. “We have the commitment on the part of the Liberals, we have the TRC’s calls to actions but what we’re seeing is stalling,” said Picard. “The onus is now on Canada to implement UNDRIP and keep their election promises.”

According to Picard, the Liberal flip-flop is based on UNDRIP’s insistence on prior and informed consent by First Nations to resource extraction on their territories. “This is where we seem to be butting heads the most,” said Picard.

Day two of the celebrations began with young Indigenous leaders and activists sharing the stage with veterans of the Indigenous rights movement. MP Romeo Saganash, Kenneth Deer and former Prime Minister Paul Martin were some of the people leading panel discussions that took place throughout the day at Montreal’s Palais des Congrès.

Paul Joffe, a lawyer and legal scholar who’s worked for the Grand Council since 1991 on the JBNQA and UNDRIP, was on hand for the roundtables and was pleased with what he saw. “There was a lot of real substance to the celebrations,” he said.

Joffe has worked on UNDRIP since the beginning, and he was proud to see how far it’s come. But he admits there’s still a long way to go.

“The Grand Council is part of a group called the Coalition for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples which is working very hard right now to ensure there’s a UNDRIP law in Canada, and that the law is an adequate law,” Joffe noted.

“By working together with Indigenous groups from across Canada, we create a common thread and can remain vigilant. In the end, if there is a law, Indigenous peoples will have had a big hand in drafting it.”

Even though it has yet to be officially recognized as Canadian law, it still has legal effect internationally and domestically, Joffe insisted. The statement by former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the declaration was “purely aspirational,” he added, “simply isn’t true.”

Supreme Court judges have the option to consider UNDRIP to interpret Canada’s constitution, Joffe noted. “The problem is the Supreme Court tends to not consider Aboriginal rights, collective rights, as human rights when making decisions.”

The closing ceremony for the celebration took place September 13 in Montreal’s Old Port. Labelled as an Indigenous-music world tour, the concert featured Indigenous drumming, dancing and singing from around the world.

Ashukan Cultural Space Director Nadine St-Louis, who emceed the event, said it was “an amazing platform to educate and advocate for Indigenous issues around the globe.”

“It’s been 10 years since that breakthrough,” Abel Bosum reminisced. “The question now has become implementation.”

The newly elected Grand Chief and former negotiator observed that the Cree have been implementing it for years in agreements with Quebec and Canada.

“We never waited because it’s about the ability to decide your own future,” Bosum emphasized. “Now it’s time for the government to set up a formal process for their own implementation of UNDRIP.”

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