The Toronto Star
Thursday September 13, 2007
By Barbara Hall
Member countries of the United Nations will vote today at a meeting of the General Assembly on whether to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The declaration is the culmination of more than 20 years of international consultation in which Canada has played a significant role, negotiating common ground between indigenous peoples and participating countries, and helping to draft many key articles.
The declaration sets out much-needed international standards to protect the rights of indigenous peoples, who in many parts of the world lack even the minimal protections afforded to Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples.
I was, therefore, deeply disappointed when Canada led a failed vote against the declaration at the Human Rights Council last year and recently made public its continued opposition to the declaration.
This past month I wrote the Prime Minister of Canada to urge the government to reconsider its position and vote in support of the declaration.
Indigenous peoples are among the most marginalized and dispossessed in the world. They endure prejudice, discrimination and violations of human rights that threaten their cultural survival.
Indigenous groups, especially in developing countries, report abuse, land losses, disappearances and worse by governments that refuse to recognize their status or title.
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently said, discrimination affects more than 370 million indigenous people around the world with disproportionate rates of extreme poverty.
I am sure I don’t need to remind readers of the significant frustrations facing aboriginal peoples in Canada. Many endure higher levels of poverty, worse living conditions and far less control over their lives and lands than do non-aboriginal Canadians.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is urgently needed to bring attention to these serious human rights concerns and to galvanize efforts to address them around the world.
The Canadian government has expressed concern that the declaration would impact on national efforts to balance aboriginal land claims and self- governance with competing national interests.
However, these concerns are not valid. The declaration is not a document that creates new rights but one that would actually help clarify Canada’s existing obligations under domestic and international law. It is non-binding and is specifically required to be interpreted in light of existing laws, standards and the rights of non-aboriginal populations.
An independent poll commissioned by Amnesty International (Canada) shows that the majority of Canadians support the declaration and feel Canada needs to take a leadership role in this area of human rights.
By supporting the UN declaration, Canada would be affirming its commitment to the rights of indigenous peoples who are increasingly alienated by the inaction of governments in this country, and would further their relationship with those governments.
The commission urges the government of Canada to withdraw its opposition and vote in favour of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the UN General Assembly today. To do otherwise would seriously weaken the leadership position this country has long enjoyed in the global human rights movement.
(See our letter to the Prime Minister on the Ontario Human Rights Commission website, www.ohrc.on.ca)
Barbara Hall is chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.