Canada was cast Thursday as a bad actor that aggressively
campaigned alongside countries with tarnished human-rights records in its
failed bid to derail the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of
The non-binding declaration is expected to be adopted Sept. 13 by the UN
Its success would thwart what critics say was a well-financed campaign
under Canada’s new Conservative government to undermine a process supported
by the Liberals.
The Conservatives say the declaration is flawed, vague and open to broad
interpretation. Provisions on lands and resources could be used “to support
claims to broad ownership rights over traditional territories, even where
rights … were lawfully ceded through treaty,” says a synopsis of Canada’s
position on the Indian Affairs website.
“The fact is that no previous Canadian government has ever supported the
document in its current form,” said Ted Yeomans, spokesman for Indian
Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl.
“The wording is inconsistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and
Freedoms, our Constitution Act, previous Supreme Court decisions, the
National Defence Act and policies under which we negotiate treaties.”
In fact, documents released to Amnesty International under the Access to
Information Act show that the government fought the declaration despite
advice from its own officials in Foreign Affairs, Indian Affairs and
National Defence, all of them urging its support.
The declaration sets out global human rights standards for indigenous
populations. Native groups, especially in developing countries, report
abuse, land losses, disappearances and even murder at the hands of
governments who refuse to recognize their status or title.
Discrimination helps ensure that more than 370 million native people around
the world suffer disproportionate rates of extreme poverty, UN
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said earlier this month.
Canada’s strident opposition to the declaration is a “crime” that flies in
the face of Ottawa’s avowed desire to promote democracy, says Joseph Ole
Simel, co-ordinator of the African Regional Indigenous Caucus.
“It’s a crime against indigenous people globally, and it’s a crime against
indigenous people in Canada,” he told a news conference Thursday in New
This, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper “is trying to dictate to developing
nations what they should do.
“Indigenous people in Canada must be going through hell.”
Canada has over the last year aligned itself with such countries as Russia
and Colombia in its bid to derail the declaration.
“We are working with like-minded countries to make positive changes to the
document and we will determine our position on voting at a later date
depending on the outcome of our talks,” Yeomans said.
While the U.S., Australia and New Zealand have also expressed concerns,
Canada has become “the prominent opponent to the declaration,” says Les
Malezer, chairman of the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus. The group
co-ordinates input at the UN from seven global regions.
Critics ranging from the national Assembly of First Nations to Amnesty
International say Ottawa has never fully explained its related concerns.
They stress that the declaration is a non-binding document that is
specifically required to be interpreted in balance with other laws,
standards and the rights of non-native citizens.
“Their argument that it undermines treaties and agreements … is just not
correct,” says Malezer. “I think they’re making it up. It’s not a legal
The Canadian government not only supported but was a leader of the process
toward drafting the declaration before the Liberals were defeated in
January 2006, Malezer said from New York. The Liberals pushed for
clarifications – especially on land and resource issues – but were clear
proponents, he added.
Ottawa’s position under the Conservatives changed so drastically that by
June 2006, only Canada and Russia voted against the declaration at the UN
Human Rights Council.
“Clearly it was a political flip,” says Malezer. “And that’s just bad
behaviour. It’s not good faith. It’s not about human rights.”
Ole Simel, of Kenya, suspects the real root of opposition can be traced to
the lucrative timber, minerals and other deposits that lay on or beneath
Jennifer Preston, program co-ordinator with the Quaker aboriginal affairs
committee, has watched the process unfold for the last six years.
“I think a lot of states were deeply disappointed by Canada’s behaviour,”
she said from Toronto. “I think they expect better from Canada at the UN.
“The fact that Canada chose to team up with the Russian Federation and
Colombia on this – it’s not what one would hope for on a human rights