Last month's long-awaited birth of a new international human-rights agency out of the ashes of the old, sordid, and discredited United Nations Commission on Human Rights was a proud moment for democrats, progressives, liberals, and humanitarians everywhere.
But on June 29, during an especially important moment that prompted a standing ovation and tears of joy during the very first session of the newly minted UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Canada disgraced itself in front of the whole world.
It was during the vote on one of the UNHRC's first items of business. It was a declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples, a document that had been the subject of 11 years of debates, arguments, and amendments in various UN commissions and subcommittees.
It came as no surprise that Russia voted against the resolution. Russia is notorious in its treatment of indigenous minorities. Moscow is at war with the Chechens of the Caucasus. It continues to persecute the Meskhetian Turks of Krasnodar, and its abuse of the Finno-Ugric minority of the Mari Republic is causing increasing alarm in Europe.
But Canada voted no too. Of the council's 47 member nations, only Canada joined Russia in voting against the declaration, which isn't even binding and contains nothing more controversial than the kinds of assertions routinely found in the aboriginal-rights judgments of Canada's courts.
The declaration recognizes the rights of indigenous people to persist in their own customs and traditions, to represent themselves, to have a say in their own education, and so on. It acknowledges indigenous rights to land and resources, and the rights of indigenous people to be free from unwarranted military intrusions upon traditional lands.
There are about 300 million indigenous people around the world””people who have become minorities in their own lands because of the dominance of settler cultures. Canada's opposition to the declaration affirming indigenous rights was especially embarrassing because Ottawa had actually championed it until Conservative Stephen Harper ended up in the prime minister's seat in January.
About five percent of Canada's roughly 30 million people are aboriginal and fall into the UN definition of “indigenous” , and Canada had stuck with the resolution from the beginning, following its long and complicated journey through the UN's notorious bureaucracy. So why the about-face?
Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Jim Prentice says it's because the declaration is too vague and could “revive” rights extinguished by treaties, or undermine the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or even interfere with the National Defence Act. How he reaches these conclusions is a mystery to everybody, including the House of Commons Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, which carefully reviewed the draft declaration and recommended, only three weeks before the Geneva vote, that Canada support it.
But this isn't the first time Harper and Prentice have shown themselves to be completely out of step with almost everybody else in the world when it comes to the rights and interests of aboriginal people.
Last November, the federal government, Canada's 10 premiers, three territorial governments, and First Nations leaders concluded the historic “Kelowna Accord” . It was supposed to be a 10-year, $5.1-billion effort to narrow the gap between aboriginal people and other Canadians in the areas of education, housing, health, and income.
Then Harper got elected. In his first budget, there was absolutely no room for any of the provisions of the Kelowna Accord. And after haranguing the previous Liberal government about conditions at Keshechewan, that sad Cree village in northern Ontario where the water is laced with bacteria, the Harper government refused to carry out its predecessors' promises to relocate the reserve on high ground and provide better health facilities.
In his approach to aboriginal issues, Harper is not only out of step with the world, the country's premiers, the Commons committee on aboriginal affairs, Canada's territorial governments, and Canada's aboriginal leadership. He's now even out of step with Canada's Parliament. On June 20, the House of Commons adopted a resolution from the Liberal party's aboriginal affairs critic, Anita Neville, calling on Harper to implement the Kelowna Accord.
What has happened is a complete shift in the relationships between the “three orders” of constitutional government in Canada: federal, provincial, and aboriginal. With Harper's election, the federal government is now openly antagonistic to aboriginal rights and interests, and the provincial governments are proving far more accommodating and conciliatory. This is perhaps especially true of the B.C. government, which has affirmed the spirit of the indigenous-rights declaration in its “new relationship” aboriginal policy.
This is a complete reversal of the usual state of affairs.
The one bright spot in all this is that the indigenous-rights declaration was accepted by the UN Human Rights Council, at least, and it is expected to be adopted by the UN General Assembly in September. And although it's not binding, it does establish benchmarks that can be used to assess a country's treatment of indigenous people.
Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and a spokesman for the B.C. First Nations Leadership Council, said the declaration provides a solid basis of justification for the general direction Canada was taking with regard to aboriginal rights and interests””before Harper came along.
“But given the Harper government's consistent, discriminatory, and prejudicial posture towards aboriginal issues since they came to power, I guess it shouldn't come as any great surprise at all, what happened in Geneva,” Phillips said.
Another good thing about the resolution is that it might prove of some use in focusing an international spotlight on the way the Harper government deals with Canada's aboriginal communities.
“It would add pressure on the government of Canada to recognize the rights of aboriginal people and get on with the implementation of various court decisions,” Phillip said. “Canada is now singled out, ostracized, and exposed as holding a completely regressive policy.”