Ottawa urged to uphold UN aboriginal pledge

Canada signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but isn't honouring it, a group of human rights advocates on Parliament Hill said Monday.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan recently announced a new agreement with the Assembly of First Nations to improve the lives of First Nations people in Canada. Advocates called on the government Monday to take action on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada signed on to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but isn't honouring it, a group of human rights advocates on Parliament Hill said Monday.

The human rights and social justice organization Kairos led a news conference calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government to start acting on the declaration that it backed last fall. Kairos has drafted a petition to back up its call and has organized a number of events across Canada to raise awareness about the UN document.

Corkery said a sustainable clean water strategy, ensuring there is prior consent before development on indigenous land and increased funding for First Nations education and are specific measures Canada could implement to meet the intent of the delcaration.

"It's clear that Canadians want action on indigenous rights and on the declaration," said Mary Corkery, executive director of the church-based organization. "There's a momentum for action."

Canada originally voted against adopting the declaration at the UN in 2007 but later reversed its position and announced its support last November. The non-binding declaration prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples, outlines their rights and promotes their participation in matters that concern them.

Kairos and the other supporters said Monday that the declaration is crucial for protecting the individual and collective rights of Canada's indigenous groups.

Ellen Gabriel, one of the advocates, said the UN document also fosters social justice and reconciliation.

"It contains political, social, cultural, spiritual and environmental rights necessary to prevent the further dispossession and marginalization of indigenous people which remain under current laws and policies practiced by the government of Canada," she said at the news conference.

Colonialism is still built in to government policies and practices, said Gabriel.

"It is time for Canada to let go of the archaic practices and embrace the spirit and principles of the UN declaration," she said.

The group is meeting with Liberal and NDP MPs on Monday, but the Conservative MPs who were asked to meet with them did not accept the invitations, Corkery said.

Auditor general report critical of conditions

The call for the federal government to take more action comes in the wake of a highly critical report from former auditor general Sheila Fraser. Her last report, tabled June 9, said Ottawa is still failing to improve the lives of aboriginal Canadians and that a disproportionate number of First Nations people still lack basic necessities such as education, clean drinking water and adequate housing.

Fraser said in a country as rich as Canada the disparity is unacceptable and that the federal government needs to increase the participation of First Nations groups to truly find long-lasting solutions to the ongoing problems.

At the same time as Fraser's report was released, the federal government announced a new "action plan" with the Assembly of First Nations to improve the lives of First Nation peoples. Education and economic development are two of the specific focus areas of what is being called "a new phase" of the AFN and federal government working together.

"Three years ago the prime minister apologized to aboriginal peoples for the wrongs done during residential schools. To me, reconciliation means not saying sorry twice," Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said at Monday's press conference. "What really counts is the way the government of Canada is treating this generation of First Nations children."

Blackstock described the lack of funding and support for education and child welfare services as examples of the disadvantages faced by First Nations peoples.

"All of this could be remedied if the government of Canada did not feel that racial discrimination against First Nations children was a legitimate fiscal restraint measure," she said. The government knows about the inequities and has the resources to deal with them, Blackstock said.

"But it's chosen to spend those funds on meetings with the eight richest nations in the world, on fighter jets and other priorities," she said referring the billions of dollars committed to last summer's G8 meeting in Ontario, and the plan to buy 65 new planes for the military. "And meanwhile, they're funding that on the back of First Nations kids and that's got to stop," she said.