Matthew Coon Come is the Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) and the chairperson of the Cree Regional Authority.
The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP), an historic two-day meeting, began on Sept. 22 at the UN General Assembly in New York.
I and other indigenous leaders attended the meeting with heads of government, ambassadors and ministers. We went there to witness and contribute to a new chapter of our history. We went to celebrate indigenous peoples’ human rights and new and renewed commitments by UN members states in international law.
Unfortunately, Canada’s prime minister did not attend. Nor did any minister from Stephen Harper’s government. Since its election in 2006, the government has refused to acknowledge within Canada that indigenous peoples’ collective rights are human rights.
The idea for WCIP arose in 1993 at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria. However, it was indigenous leader Evo Morales who worked to achieve the WCIP. Upon his election as president of Bolivia in 2006, he pledged that he would propose a WCIP. It was the impetus of Morales that resulted in the UN General Assembly officially agreeing to hold a WCIP in 2014.
The highlight of this conference was the General Assembly’s adoption by consensus of an outcome document, which includes the commitments of UN member states on a wide range of issues. Key matters are addressed such as indigenous youth, health, language and culture, access to justice, and violence and discrimination against indigenous peoples and individuals, in particular women.
Only Canada questioned ‘free, prior and informed consent’
The centrepiece of the document is the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In his opening remarks, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared,“I am proud that the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples during my first year in office … that set minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples. … And we are joining forces with indigenous peoples to reach our common goals.”
Regretfully, Canada was the only state in the world that chose to request an explanation of vote. In regard to the outcome document, Canada claimed it cannot accept the two paragraphs on “free, prior and informed consent,” which is widely accepted in international law.
Canada implied consent may constitute some kind of absolute “veto,” but never explained what the term means. Canada also objected to the commitment “to uphold the principles of the declaration,” since it was somehow incompatible with Canada’s constitution.
Arguments ‘contradict own endorsement of UN declaration’
These arguments are false. They contradict Canada’s own endorsement of the UN declaration in 2010, which concluded: “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.”
Canada failed to disclose this conclusion to the General Assembly. In so doing, Canada has misled the General Assembly, member states and indigenous peoples globally. Canada has failed to uphold the honour of the Crown.
Such actions against the human rights of indigenous peoples betray Canada’s constitution. Good governance is not possible without respect and protection for indigenous peoples’ human rights. Harmonious and cooperative relations — which is also highlighted in the UN declaration — require no less.
For years, the Harper government has refused to consult indigenous rights-holders on crucial issues, especially when it involves international forums. This repeated failure to consult violates Canada’s duty under Canadian constitutional and international law.
In his opening remarks, Ban declared to indigenous peoples from all regions of the world, “You will always have a home at the United Nations.” Yet in our own home in Canada, the federal government refuses to respect democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
For thirty years, the James Bay Crees have always defended and advanced indigenous peoples’ rights at the UN and other international forums. And we will continue to achieve success.
Canada’s low standards have not and cannot prevent the increasing influence of the UN declaration in Canada and worldwide.