North

Implementing UN indigenous rights declaration good for Inuit

Inuit leaders say language, culture and economic growth are a few of the reasons they are pleased that the Liberal government is planning to finally implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Liberals say they'll implement UNDRIP as part of efforts to rebuild relationships with indigenous people

Inuit leaders, like Cathy Towtongie, say language, culture and economic growth are a few of the reasons they are pleased that the Liberal government is planning to finally implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Inuit leaders say language, culture and economic growth are a few of the reasons they are pleased that the Liberal government is planning to finally implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says the new Liberal government will implement the UNDRIP as part of her efforts to rebuild working relationships with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.

The UN General Assembly adopted the declaration in 2007, but Canada, which had been involved in drafting the UNDRIP, opposed it along with the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.

At the time, the government had concerns about the declaration's wording on provisions addressing lands and resources, as well as another article calling on states to obtain prior informed consent with indigenous groups before enacting new laws or administrative measures.

"The Canadian government took a misinformed and distorted position on the international stage," says Cathy Towtongie, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the organization that oversees the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.

"They had the fear that indigenous groups, First Nations, Inuit and Métis would veto development, which was not the case at all." 

Canada did endorse UNDRIP in 2010, but called it an "aspirational document" that would not be legally binding.

The Canadian government renewed their concern in 2014 by becoming the only UN member to refuse adopting the "outcome document" affirming commitment to the declaration.

Towtongie says she's relieved to see that the new Liberal government is finally planning to implement UNDRIP because it can open renewed economic possibilities for Nunavut.  

"There's a lot of interest in the mineral wealth, and oil and gas development in the Arctic, we hold 10 per cent of the oil for Canada."

Towtongie says the implementation will ensure that the culture and human rights of Inuit are respected in light of development and mineral exploration in the region.

'Long overdue'

"I think that's an excellent development, it is long overdue," said Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

"I would like to think that this declaration can mesh with Inuit rights under the constitution and the provisions in the Inuit Land Claim Agreements to create an overarching sense of purpose for the relationship between Inuit and the government of Canada and the Crown." 

Obed says the implementation will open possibilities to work on Inuit language and culture.

He points to Article 14, which states that "Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning."

'I see an opportunity for expanding our role on the international level and being heard in a way that we haven’t necessarily been heard in the past,' said Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

"I think it's quite powerful because our education systems often don't have that flexibility to be able to function in that manner and don't have the funding to do so," he said.

Obed, who is also the vice president of Inuit Circumpolar Canada, says the declaration also opens opportunities for Canadian Inuit on a global scale.  

"I see an opportunity for expanding our role on the international level and being heard in a way that we haven't necessarily been heard in the past," said Obed.

Hunter Tootoo, Nunavut's MP and federal cabinet minister, says the move signals the Liberal government's desire to establish a new working relationship with indigenous groups.

"By supporting the UN declaration we affirm the commitment that this government has made to focus on the rights of all indigenous people including Inuit in the North," said Tootoo.

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