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 Indigenous Peoples.
Canada's strident opposition to the declaration is a "crime" that flies in the face of Ottawa's avowed desire to promote democracy, said 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 York.
This, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper "is trying to dictate to developing nations what they should do," he said. "Indigenous people in Canada must be going through hell."
The non-binding declaration is expected to be adopted Sept. 13 by the UN General Assembly.It sets out global human rights standards for indigenous populations.
Its success would thwart what critics claim 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.
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.
Aligned with Russia, Colombia
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 opinion."
Ottawa's position under the Conservatives changed, sothat 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 are on or beneath disputed lands.
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 issue."