First Nation groups condemn federal government's "indefensible attack" on Indigenous rights at UN meeting

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation at Peoples' Climate March, ahead of the UN Climate Summit in New York. Photo by Zack Embree.

First Nations groups are expressing outrage at the Canadian government's stance toward Indigenous rights, expressed at a United Nations forum on Indigenous rights.

"It is deeply concerning...that Canada continues to embarrass itself on the world stage," Assembly of First Nations interim chief Ghislain Picard said. "These actions are not consistent with our much-needed work toward reconciliation between First Nations and the crown." 

The Canadian government posted an official statement earlier this week, criticizing the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples Outcome document and voicing disagreement about Indigenous people's rights around consent, which it said could be misconstrued as a veto.

"Free, prior and informed consent, as it is considered in paragraphs 3 and 20 of the WCIP Outcome Document, could be interpreted as providing a veto to Aboriginal groups and in that regard, cannot be reconciled with Canadian law, as it exists," the government statement said. 

"Agreeing to paragraph 3 of the Outcome Document would commit Canada to work to integrate FPIC (free, prior and informed consent) in its processes with respect to implementing legislative or administrative measures affecting Aboriginal peoples.  This would run counter to Canada’s constitution, and if implemented, would risk fettering Parliamentary supremacy."

The government argued that "Canada’s position on this issue is well known" and said "we regret that our concerns were not taken into account." It emphasized that Canada "cannot associate itself" with elements in the document relating to First Nations' consent. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had earlier snubbed the UN Climate Summit while in New York, also skipped the two-day long UN Indigenous peoples meeting. Environment minister Leona Aglukkaq, however, was in attendance.  

In response to Canada's objections over the non-binding document on Indigenous rights, high-profile First Nations groups issued a strongly-worded joint statement condemning the federal government's stance:  

Indigenous peoples' organizations and human rights groups are outraged that the federal government used a high level United Nations forum on Indigenous rights as an opportunity to continue its unprincipled attack on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

On Monday, the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples -- a high level plenary of the UN General Assembly in New York -- adopted a consensus statement reaffirming support for the UN Declaration.

Canada was the only member state to raise objections.

Chief Perry Bellegarde, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, said, "The World Conference was an opportunity for all states to reaffirm their commitment to working constructively with Indigenous peoples to uphold fundamental human rights standards. Alone among all the UN members, Canada instead chose to use this forum to make another unprincipled attack on those very standards."

The Outcome Document, the product of many months of negotiations between states and Indigenous representatives prior to the World Conference, calls on member states to take "appropriate measures at the national level, including legislative, policy and administrative measures, to achieve the ends of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."

The Outcome Document also affirms provisions in the UN Declaration that decisions potentially affecting the rights of Indigenous peoples should be undertaken only with their free, prior and informed consent.

After the Outcome Document was adopted, Canada filed a two page statement of objections, saying that it could not commit to uphold provisions in the UN Declaration that deal with free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) if these provisions were "interpreted as a veto."

The notion that the Declaration could be interpreted as conferring an absolute and unilateral veto power has been repeatedly raised by Canada as a justification for its continued opposition to the Declaration. This claim, however, has no basis either in the UN Declaration or in the wider body of international law.

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