Monday, April 26, 2010

Harper government accused of stalling on aboriginal-rights document

Harper government accused of stalling on aboriginal-rights document

OTTAWA — A recent promise by the Harper government to “take steps” toward endorsing an international document that recognizes indigenous rights is being questioned by aboriginal leaders and opposition critics, who say it appears the Conservatives are “stalling.”

The problem, aboriginal leaders say, is that without a specific timeline and outright endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the benefits of the document are moot.

The declaration — which could ostensibly include more aboriginal consultation in policy-making, for example — was adopted by more than 140 countries in 2007.

Canada was one of four countries that voted no because it deemed the document overly broad, but the government reversed its position in this year’s March 3 throne speech, saying it would “take steps to endorse this aspirational document in a manner fully consistent with Canada’s Constitution and laws.”

Indigenous representatives argue the document is rendered ineffective if endorsed only with conditions — something the Canadian government is now suggesting it will do.

“It is difficult to measure the intent here because there’s no very specific commitment beyond the throne speech itself, and of course we’ve already expressed our concern about the fact that the declaration would have to be conditional on what the Canadian Constitution says, and the Canadian law,” said Ghislain Picard, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador.

“We’re still hoping for a closer relationship, a closer working relationship with the Canadian government, but yet we fail to see it,” said Picard, who was in New York for a UN forum on indigenous issues.

Canada’s initial concerns surrounding the declaration, which an Indian Affairs spokeswoman said are concerns that continue to exist, is that it was overly broad in its treatment of issues including lands, self-government and the possibility of an aboriginal veto “over virtually any legislative or administrative matter, even where such matters concern the broader population,” according to government documents.

Academics have argued, however, that other articles within the document — which is not legally binding and described as “aspirational” — ensure that nothing can infringe upon the rights of other state citizens.

When New Zealand moved to endorse the document last week, Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl re-affirmed the government’s position in the Commons, telling MPs the government is “putting together a package of ideas on making sure that, when we follow through on our throne speech promise to support the declaration, it will be done in a way that not only aboriginal people are comfortable with but all Canadians can be very proud of.” A similar view was expressed by the prime minister last week.

Of the original four dissenters in 2007, Canada and the United States are the only two who have not officially endorsed the declaration. The U.S. said last week it is reviewing its position, and Canada has made a commitment to endorse it “in a timely manner.”

But some wonder when and if that promise will be fulfilled, and if it will do justice to the declaration, which one Canadian aboriginal leader, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, called the “undeniable international standard” for the treatment of indigenous people.

“It’s stalling,” said MP Jean Crowder, Indian affairs critic for the Opposition NDP. The Conservatives, “needed to say something, so they made a very qualified measure. And when they’ve been asked about it, they’ve just reaffirmed that position. So they haven’t indicated what it is they have to do, by when,” she said.

“Canada has had a reputation of being a protector of human rights, of a country that tries to advocate for human rights, and it damages that reputation,” said Crowder.

Phillip, who represents the union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, called the declaration a “landmark victory for our people.”

The fact that Canada initially refused to endorse it and has since said it intends to do so in a way consistent with Canadian law, “underscores the colonial and neo-colonial mentality of some governments when it comes to indigenous rights, our land rights and our human rights. They’re still fighting tooth and nail to deny the existence of our rights,” he said.

“The Conservative government has been very adversarial toward the aboriginal people in this country, and that’s consistent with their ideology,” he said.

© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service

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