Last week the secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, Alex Neve, was on the University of Saskatchewan campus where he delivered a lecture on the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
As a former member of the campus Amnesty International group and a strong supporter of the rights of indigenous peoples, I attended his lecture with great interest. I expected to have my support for both of those important organizations bolstered by Neve but sadly, his speech only served to remind me why I quit going to Amnesty’s meetings.
Neve recounted the history of the 2007 declaration, over 20 years in the making. Indigenous peoples, he says, are “among the most marginalized” groups in the societies in which they live, facing encroachment on their traditional lands and, often, policies aimed explicitly at suppressing their language and culture.
Neve targeted Canada’s involvement in particular, showing how the country, once a clear leader in the declaration’s creation, was one of the few countries in opposition by 2007. He attributes this change in position to the election of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
Neve explains that Australia, then governed by conservative Prime Minister John Howard, was vehemently opposed to the declaration. But they had no vote on the human rights council that first passed the declaration — Canada did — so, said Neve, “Prime Minister Howard came calling in 2006 with a very specific mission.”
And he succeeded. According to Neve, “we know, now, that the two prime ministers did indeed discuss the declaration on their first visit.”
Canada suddenly changed its tune, going from supporter to opponent of indigenous rights on the international stage, providing “no specifics and no real rationale” for their decision, Neve said.
On Sept. 13, 2007, 143 countries agreed to the declaration. Only four were opposed — Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
“My own government had chosen to stand on the wrong side of human rights history that day,” he said.
I agree. Something should be done to protect the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples, those original inhabitants of lands colonized during times of imperial expansion, is clear. But I think that Neve has overstated the impact of both Canada’s opposition and the declaration itself.
Neve himself admits, “Declarations aren’t like treaties”¦ they’re not binding, enforceable law.”
This is the problem. Canada’s opposition is merely symbolic. Shouldn’t we instead be looking at practical measures we can take to help the world’s indigenous peoples?
Neve explains that even some South American countries where the rights of indigenous peoples are being violated every day — Colombia, Guatamala, Peru — had the courage to sign the declaration. But I ask, what has changed in those countries since they signed the declaration? Not much says Neve.
He was able to provide a quick list of atrocities inflicted as recently as the last few months to South American indigenous peoples. In Canada, too, problems exist. Too often, the land and resource rights of Canada’s aboriginals are ignored during the exploitation of resources on their traditional lands.
This is a real problem but when looking at the issue from such a broad perspective, at the international level it becomes easier to ignore the real progress that is being made in a country as large and diverse as ours.
Let’s not forget that Canada’s constitution actually formally recognizes and affirms the rights of Aboriginal Peoples in Section 35. What’s more, Section 35 was deliberately left out of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms since the Charter has a notwithstanding clause — a proviso that allows governments to ignore a particular aspect of the Charter.
Section 35 has not been very well articulated, though in the landmark 1990 Supreme Court case, R. v. Sparrow, it was deemed there was an inherent Aboriginal right to fish for food.
What’s more, in many parts of Canada, First Nations are working out self-government agreements with the state, many of which clearly outline land and resource rights.
The territory of Nunavut came about through a land claim agreement between the Canadian government and the majority Inuit population, represented by the Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut.
Also, in lower mainland B.C., the StÃ³:lÅ nation is currently working on a self-government agreement through the B.C. treaty process.
Even though Canada’s history concerning its indigenous population is spotty at best — Canada’s aboriginals could not even vote before 1960 — the country has made great strides over the past few generations.
What Neve holds to be such a dark hour in Canada’s human rights record, with a more nuanced understanding, looks like nothing more than a momentary hiccup spurred on by ideology.
I agree that Canada’s opposition to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is damaging to our country’s reputation as a human rights leader, and is a bit of an international embarrassment. I don’t think it can be argued, however, that it hasn’t had much of an effect. Let’s not forget that UN declarations are not binding, they are simply something to aspire to.
I support Amnesty International and the UN. Both groups have done much to alleviate the suffering of some of the world’s most marginalized. At times, though, both groups seem to place a bit too much importance on activities that are merely symbolic. Trust me, those Amnesty International letter-writing campaigns get old fast.