Canada’'s UN arguments trouble TRC commissioner


Jorge Barrera, APTN National News –

Date of publication: 
28 September 2010

Canada’s most recent positioning during UN debates on indigenous peoples rights has left one of the main players with the commission delving into the dark history of residential schools wondering if he can ever reconcile with this country.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Commissioner Willie Littlechild said Canada recently argued that the collective rights of indigenous peoples were not human rights. He said Canada made the argument during debates last week at the UN Human Rights Council.

“When a state takes the floor and attacks indigenous rights and freedoms in that way by using a tactic that is old…to bring that back again, is a giant step backward,” said Littlechild, who attended the sessions in Geneva. “For me, as a commissioner and a former student, to tell me to reconcile with someone who keeps doing that, that is a very difficult proposition.”

The debate centred on a single letter in a “pro forma and procedural” resolution, according to another observer.

The resolution was aimed at extending the three-year mandate of an UN official tasked with monitoring and investigating indigenous rights issues across the world, said Alberto Saldamando, general counsel for the International Indian Treaty Council.

Canada objected to an amendment to place an “s” at the end of the word people in a resolution, which described the official as the “Special Rapporteur on the situation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people,” said Saldamando, in an interview from San Francisco.

Saldamando, who was present during the informal debate, said that Canada, along with the U.S., Poland, Sweden, the U.K., and Russia, objected to the “s” because they believed it crossed the line into equating human rights with collective rights.

“It was Canada’s contention…that collective rights are not human rights,” said Saldamando. “They felt that any reference to human rights and fundamental freedoms (should) only refer to the individual rights of people and not the collective rights of peoples as human rights.”

Saldamando said Canada’s argument is an old one and casts doubt on the authenticity of its declared intentions to support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Stephen Harper government switched their opposition and promised in this year’s Speech from the Throne give a qualified endorsement to the declaration. Former Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said the change of heart was prompted by the amount of grief they received from First Nations leaders across the country on the issue.

Littlechild said it appears the Canadian government didn’t really have a change of heart. Littlechild said he viewed Canada’s most recent argument as a direct “attack” on the country’s indigenous peoples.

“The Canadian delegation was taking the position to deny that we are humans,” said Littlechild, during a teleconference with reporters Tuesday afternoon. “I will challenge anyone who tries to deny those rights, at any level, any forum…We have, for example, sacred ceremonies we do in our own cultures, our own languages, that we believe are fundamental rights and we see that as a direct attack to those kinds of beliefs we hold as indigenous peoples.”

Littlechild said the experience in Geneva prompted him to take Canada to task during an appearance before a Senate committee for not signing the UN declaration.

The Senate committee on Aboriginal Peoples invited the three commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to testify on the progress of reconciliation since the 2008 residential school apology.

Littlechild told Senators that Canada’s refusal to endorse the declaration was hindering reconciliation.

“How can we as a country…keep denying that there are rights that exist for indigenous people?” said Littlechild, during the hearing Tuesday morning.

He was criticized by Conservative Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen, a close advisor to Harper, who suggested they should instead stick to domestic issues.

“I would hope that energies, monies, funding, are not being devoted to an international effort when we need every ounce of energy focused (on the TRC),” said Stewart Olsen.

Littlechild later said Stewart Olsen went a bit far in her criticism.

“It is very difficult for me as a former student to witness what I saw last week…and it caused me to say what I did,” said Littlechild. “It challenges the integrity of the independence of the commission when we are told we can’t do things in a certain way by anyone. I think we need to safeguard our independence as well.”

Saldamando said that after much debate among indigenous representatives they decided to support a watered-down resolution describing the UN official as a” Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon’s office said they were looking into the issue.


Open Letter to Minister Lawrence Cannon

5 October 2010

Dear Minister Lawrence Cannon,

Thank you for your response to our joint letter of June 2010.

While our organizations appreciate your assurance that Canada will fulfil its promise to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, we feel strongly that such endorsement will only be meaningful if it reflects a genuine commitment to standards and principles set out in the Declaration and other international human rights instruments.

We are concerned that for the past four years the Canadian government has not fulfilled its constitutional duty to consult Indigenous peoples and accommodate their concerns in respect to the positions that the government has taken on the Declaration. Canada’s actions on the UN Declaration are a matter of utmost concern to Indigenous peoples. We respectfully request that, prior to announcing its endorsement, the government hold consultations with Indigenous peoples so that there can be a genuine dialogue on the measures needed to implement this standard in the spirit of partnership and co-operation called for by the Declaration.

We would like to bring to your attention recent actions in international fora that are inconsistent with these standards and principles and lead to the appearance that the commitment to endorse the Declaration is not in good faith.

This September at the UN Human Rights Council, Canadian officials played an obstructive role in the negotiation of two procedural resolutions to renew the mandate of UN bodies and mechanisms. Canadian officials took the position that the collective rights of Indigenous peoples affirmed in international human rights instruments such as the Declaration are not human rights. This position is contrary to both national and international jurisprudence and accepted practice.

Further, Canadian officials argued against the use of the term “Indigenous Peoples” with an “s”, which is the conventional means in international and domestic law to refer to the status and collective identities of Indigenous nations and societies. The Canadian Constitution affirms the rights of Aboriginal Peoples with an “s”. Inexplicably, and contrary to many years of Canadian practice, Canadian representatives at the Human Rights Council obstructed the proceedings by attempting to substitute the term “Indigenous people”, without an “s”, a term that is often interpreted as referring primarily to individual rights.

In recent meetings negotiating a protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Canadian officials submitted text that could make the recognition of Indigenous rights to genetic resources and traditional knowledge subject to national legislation. The Declaration explicitly affirms Indigenous peoples’ rights to genetic resources and traditional knowledge. In effect, Canada was trying to use the protocol process to to undermine the Declaration. These actions are harmful to the human rights system as a whole by suggesting that Indigenous peoples’ enjoyment of inherent human rights should be contingent on the will of States.

These actions are not consistent with a genuine commitment to endorse and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. True reconciliation entails a clear commitment to change, and to taking positive and collaborative action, including consistent actions of Canadian officials. In its May 2010 report, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues urged that Canada’s “endorsement and implementation honour the spirit and intent of the Declaration, consistent with indigenous peoples’ human rights”. We expect no less, and look forward to your response.

cc Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Michael Ignatieff, Leader of the Official Opposition
Gilles Duceppe, Leader, Bloc Québécois
Jack Layton, Leader, New Democratic Party
John Duncan, Minister of Indian Affairs
Rob Nicholson, Minister of Justice
Todd Russell, Liberal critic
Jean Crowder, NDP critic
Marc Lemay, BQ critic


Amnesty International Canada
Amnistie internationale Canada francophone
Assembly of First Nations of Québec and Labrador/Assemblée des Premières Nations du Québec et du Labrador
Canadian Arab Federation
Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers)
Chiefs of Ontario
Ermineskin Cree Nation
First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada
First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centers
First Nations Summit
First Peoples Human Rights Coalition
Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee)
International Organization of Indigenous Resource Development
Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitiohkwa Language and Cultural Center
Louis Bull Cree Nation
Montana Cree Nation
National Council of Women of Canada
Native Women’s Association of Canada
Quebec Native Women / Femmes autochtones du Québec
Samson Cree Nation
Union of BC Indian Chiefs