Canada removing objector status to UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Canada will remove its permanent objector status to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says.

Liberal government will adopt and implement landmark UN Indigenous rights declaration, Carolyn Bennett says

Canada changes course on indigenous rights

6 years ago
Duration 3:33
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett's announcement greeted at the UN's plenary session with joyful hoots and hollers

Canada will remove its permanent objector status to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Monday. 

The declaration — first adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007 — recognizes Indigenous people's basic human rights, as well as rights to self-determination, language, equality and land, among others.

"We are fully adopting this and working to implement it within the laws of Canada, which is our charter," Bennett said. 

The announcement came at the UN in New York City, where Bennett and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould are attending the opening session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

While Bennett offered few details on exactly how Canada would implement the declaration, she said that an official announcement would be coming on Tuesday.

'Platitudes' repeated

The lack of specific details in Monday's announcement frustrated some.

"I was so disappointed that there was nothing new or substantive added to the conversation," said Hayden King, director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. 

"[The Liberal government] just repeats these platitudes and these commitments, but it has not demonstrated or indicated any concrete action."

King also had concerns about Bennett and Wilson-Raybould's comments that Indigenous peoples in Canada are already protected and that the UN declaration "breathes life" into Section 35 of the Constitution Act, which recognizes and affirms their rights.

He said previous governments have relied on Canadian courts' interpretation of Section 35, which he calls narrow and limited.

Shifting position

More than 140 nations passed the UN declaration in 2007, but Canada — which had been involved in drafting it — initially opposed it, along with the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.

The then Conservative government had concerns about the declaration's wording on provisions addressing lands and resources, as well as an article calling on states to obtain prior informed consent with Indigenous groups before enacting new laws.

Wilson-Raybould, who addressed the Permanent Forum on Monday morning, said that the issue of consent could still be a challenge moving forward.
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould addressed the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the United Nations in New York City on Monday. (Rick Bajornas/United Nations)

"There are many facets to the question, differing perspectives, and a number of options," she said, before quoting the late South African leader Nelson Mandela.

"Beyond the necessary truth telling and healing, reconciliation requires laws to change and policies to be rewritten. We intend to do so in full partnership."

Not legally binding

Unlike UN conventions, declarations are not legally binding. When the previous Conservative government finally officially endorsed the declaration in 2010, the government referred to it as an "aspirational document."

Since then, Indigenous leaders have been calling for more action on the UN declaration. Among the 94 calls to action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015 was for all levels of government to adopt and implement the declaration.

More recently, New Democrat MP Romeo Saganash tabled a private member's bill calling on Canada to "harmonize" the country's laws with the UN declaration — the second time he's done so.

Bennett applauded the work of the NDP member, who has been travelling the country seeking support for this bill — and who for two decades has been part of the international effort that went into crafting the declaration. But she said that Canada would need to consult with First Nations, Inuit and Métis before implementing the UN declaration.

"I don't think we can go forward based on a private member's bill without proper consultation."

Shortly after the 2015 federal election, Bennett announced the new Liberal government would implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as part of its effort to rebuild its working relationships with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.

As part of her trip to New York, Bennett is leading a delegation that includes leaders from the Native Women's Association of Canada, Métis National Council, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, as well as elders and youth. 

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde will also be leading a delegation to the United Nations on Thursday.


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Assembly of First Nations would be part of a delegation to the UN led by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett. In fact, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde will lead a separate delegation on Thursday.
    May 10, 2016 4:01 PM ET