by Ed John, The Vancouver Sun
Opinion: Indigenous peoples demand action on reconciliation
Indigenous peoples worldwide represent among the poorest and most marginalized of all peoples. In many states, violations of Indigenous peoples’ human rights are deep, systemic and ongoing. These violations include serious negative impacts arising from state-approved resource development of lands and resources in Indigenous territories. Impacts from development of mining, oil and gas and major hydro projects represent some of the most flagrant violations. In many Latin America countries, many Indigenous activists, protesting impacts from these developments, are routinely killed. I was advised recently, in one Latin American country, that last year was a good year: only three Indigenous leaders had been killed.
There is an estimated 370 million Indigenous people globally. This year, we will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples. It took some 27 years to negotiate. As well, four advisors, two ambassadors and two Indigenous experts, appointed by the president of the UN General Assembly, are consulting widely with state and Indigenous representatives to prepare a resolution on how Indigenous peoples will be able to participate in the UN, including in the General Assembly. It is expected this resolution will be considered in the current session of the UN, which ends in September.
In 2011, I was appointed as an expert from the North America region, one of seven regions, for two three-year terms to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Established by the General Assembly 16 years ago, it is one of three key advisory bodies to the UN on Indigenous issues.
The 2007 Declaration builds on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the newly formed United Nations following the massive human rights violations, including the Holocaust, in Europe during the Second World War. It establishes minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous peoples.
Following the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, in the “outcome document” adopted by the General Assembly, there were many commitments on the implementation of the Declaration’s 46 articles. The UN agreed to set up a UN-wide “systems wide action plan” and states agreed to develop, in cooperation with Indigenous peoples, “national action plans”.
In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its 94 “calls to action” recommended that the declaration be fully adopted and implemented as the framework for reconciliation and that Canada develop a national action plan to achieve the goals in the declaration. This was necessary, the commission said, because of one fundamental truth: that in the last 150 years, the impacts of Canada’s laws, policies and practices directed at Indigenous peoples amounted to “cultural genocide”.
In the colony of B.C., Governor James Douglas issued his Feb. 14, 1859 proclamation declaring all lands in the colony belonged to the Crown in fee. It was as if no Indigenous peoples lived here. There were no discussions, consultations or agreements with Indigenous peoples. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s statement of apology of June 2008 to residential school survivors said the government’s twin objectives of removing Indigenous children from their families and to assimilate them into the dominant culture “were based on the assumption that aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal”. This apology was not gratuitous. It came mainly as a result of the Supreme Court of Canada “Blackwater” decision where 27 former students sued because of physical and sexual abuses by a supervisor in the Port Alberni Indian residential school.
Current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated the most important relationship for him and for Canada is that with Indigenous peoples. His government accepted all of the commission recommendations and said it will start by implementing the declaration. Since then, his ministers have advised the UN that Canada supports the declaration, without qualification, and that the articles in the declaration will help inform how Canada’s constitutional commitments to Indigenous peoples will be applied. Canada’s position has been well-received internationally. The world is watching.
Trudeau recently announced the appointment of six ministers who, in consultation with Indigenous peoples, will review federal laws, policies and practices to ensure compliance with international standards. Government resource development decisions, which end up in the courts and where access, adversarial positions and costs are prohibitive, will not pave the way for reconciliation. In this regard, current consultations with Indigenous peoples regarding fisheries, navigable waters and processes for environmental reviews and approvals are constructive and timely. Federal comprehensive claims policies, a serious impediment to land rights negotiations in B.C., must be revised.
It is the hope and expectation of Indigenous peoples that the government will not see or conduct this process as an exercise in public relations. Time will tell.
Grand Chief Ed John is a member of the First Nations Summit Political Executive.