Saturday, June 09, 2007

Canada, the UN, and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

In a previous posting on this blog for June 20, 2006, we related news of the Canadian government's opposition to the United Nations' Draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, opposition that has become more marked since Stephen Harper became Prime Minister after the Conservatives came to power in the 2006 elections. While his government's opposition to the Declaration has therefore been known for some time, in this past week a fair amount of controversy has been brewing in both the Canadian parliament and in international media coverage. The Draft Declaration, if it had been supported by Canada, would not have acted as binding legislation. The current, renewed debate seems to stem from the recently concluded assembly of the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues at the UN, as well as discussions in Canada about bringing aboriginal peoples under national human rights legislation.

In some of the leading news about Canada's position this past week, some newspapers have reported that Australian Prime Minister John Howard may have inspired Canada's Stephen Harper to oppose the UN declaration. In
The Globe and Mail for Saturday, June 9, 2007, a story by Gloria Galloway titled, "Did Australia Demand Reversal on Natives?" states: "Canada's decision to withdraw support for the United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples coincided with a visit to Ottawa by Prime Minister John Howard of Australia — a country that strongly opposes the declaration. Shortly after Mr. Howard's meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in May, 2006, Mr. Harper called Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice to tell him to review Canada's position of support, government sources said Friday." While a spokeswoman for PM Harper denied this, the reporter insists "the sources were clear that there was a direct link between the visit of the Australian Prime Minister and the change in policy." It is important to note that previous Canadian governments had in fact played a role in drafting the UN declaration.

The link between Howard and Harper was first claimed in an Australian press report in late May. In Melbourne's
The Age newspaper, Russell Skelton's "Australia 'blocked UN native rights declaration'" said that Tom Calma, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, "claimed Australia had played a role in persuading Canada, which had initially supported the declaration, to oppose the landmark statement."

Amnesty International has also called attention to the turnaround in Canadian policy under Harper's administration (see:, "Canada blocking UN Aboriginal rights: Amnesty"). Amnesty further revealed that staff in three Departments of the Canadian state urged the Harper government to approve the declaration. The staff work in the Departments of Defence, Indian and Northern Affairs, and Foreign Affairs. This was also reported by Gloria Galloway on June 8, 2007, in The Globe and Mail: "Back UN on native rights, Ottawa urged--Bureaucracy at odds with PM's position, documents show."

The future of the Draft Declaration at the UN seems in doubt, as one might expect where the rights of indigenous peoples are contingent upon the good faith of one of the leading institutions responsible for indigenous marginalization: the nation-state. States and not peoples are the members of the UN. While public opinion at home might encourage states to adopt declarations that could limit state sovereignty, it seems that public opinion is very confused. In Canada, feedback to press reports show that while many support approval of the declaration, an almost equal number of respondents feel that Aboriginals are already protected under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms (which is not the case), or that allocating rights on the basis of "race" is racist, or that the United Nations should not "dictate" policy to Canadians, or that the Draft Declaration entails such stark provisions as allowing foreign troops to be based in Canada if invited by First Nations reserves to do so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this comment. I have used it to address issues in the current debate about the Howard government's dramatic election year grandstand on indigenous issues.