The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
“There are and always have been obvious flaws in a governing system that is designed to maintain a status quo and deny rights to people who power rejects. The process of bringing C-262 along the legislative path has highlighted this for me.”
– MP Romeo Saganash, author of Bill C-262
Amnesty International is appalled by the fact that a crucial piece of human rights legislation will not become law in Canada because of the procedural tactics of a few Senators.
Bill C-262, a bill setting out a framework to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, was passed by the House of Commons more than a year ago.
We are confident that if Bill C-262 had come to a vote in the Senate, it would have been adopted into law. However, a handful of Conservative Senators were able use delaying tactics to prevent such a vote taking place before the Senate adjourned last month.
This happened despite the fact that all parties in the House of Commons supported a unanimous motion calling Bill C-262 a critical piece of legislation and urging the Senate to pass the Bill into law.
Canada is on the brink of a breakthrough to protect the rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. But urgent action is needed to ensure that this historic opportunity isn’t lost.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “the framework for reconciliation.” Last year, the House of Commons passed Bill C-262, a private members bill requiring the federal government to finally move ahead with the work of implementing the Declaration.
Good news: On May 16, the Senate voted to move the Bill to Committee for study. This is the next step on the path to a final vote. Public support for the Declaration and Bill C-262 is clearly having an effect. Thank you to everyone who has sent emails or made phone calls!
Unfortunately, however, passage of the Bill is still far from certain. Time is running out in this session of Parliament. And private members bills are particularly vulnerable to delaying tactics. If Bill C-262 isn’t passed by the Senate before this session of Parliament concludes, this crucial opportunity to advance the work of reconciliation will be lost.
“...resource extraction and other major development projects in or near indigenous territories [are] one of the most significant sources of abuse of the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide. In its prevailing form, the model for advancing with natural resource extraction within the territories of indigenous peoples appears to run counter to the selfdetermination of indigenous peoples in the political, social and economic spheres.”
- former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, 2011.
The governments of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and BC Premier John Horgan have both made welcome and important commitments to upholding the rights of Indigenous peoples, including implementing the key international human rights instrument protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In recent months, the federal government and a number of provinces and territories have made significant, welcome commitments to uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The House of Commons has now passed Bill C-262, which would establish a legislative framework requiring the federal government to work collaboratively with Indigenous peoples to fully implement the Declaration. Bill C-262 will be debated in the Senate this Fall.
With these important developments, the UN Declaration has become the subject of a welcome focus of public policy discussion. Unfortunately, opposition by the previous governing party left a legacy of confusion and misinformation about the Declaration and these misrepresentations continue to be repeated.
“A B.C. government, led by me, will officially adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples…I will work with you to align the actions of my government with the Declaration.” – NDP leader John Horgan, prior to the 2017 provincial election
“It is well established that statements by elected representatives do not fetter decision makers, nor do political speeches constitute legally enforceable promises against the Crown.” – the Government of British Columbia’s written submission to the Site C injunction hearing
BC Premier John Horgan has said many fine words about upholding the rights of Indigenous peoples. He made these promises while running for office and he has repeatedly affirmed them since becoming Premier. But in the most significant test to date of the veracity and integrity of these commitments -- the arguments now being made in front of the crucially important Site C injunction hearing -- Premier Horgan’s government has done the very opposite of what it promised.
"People shouldn’t have to go to court to claim their rights" – federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett, speaking at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, April 2018
In the coming weeks, two governments that have repeatedly promised to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples will be in court to defend a massively destructive resource development project that they approved without ever once considering whether it would violate Canada’s Treaty obligations to the affected First Nations.
The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations are asking the court to halt construction of the Site C dam which would flood more than 100 km of the Peace River Valley and its tributaries.
The environmental assessment of the project found that its impacts on First Nations cultural sites and way of life would be serve, permanent and irreversible. The United Nations’ top anti-racism body, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, has called for a halt to the project as a violation of the rights of Indigenous peoples.
One of the first acts of the recently elected provincial government of British Columbia was to order an independent review of the economic case for and against the massive Site C hydro-electric project. After releasing an interim report in September, the BC Utilities Commission held a series of public meetings across the province. The final report is due November 1 after which the decision on the fate of the project - and the Peace River Valley - will rest with the provincial government.
Gary Ockenden, the Vice President of Amnesty International Canada shared this note from a hearing that he attended:
The Chair and three Commissioners of the BC Utilities Commission came to Nelson, BC on September 26th and held a public hearing on the Site C project. I was fortunate enough to get a five minute slot to present to them as a BC ratepayer.
“Canada is built on the ancestral land of Indigenous peoples but regrettably it is also a country that came into being without the meaningful participation of those who were there first. And even where Treaties had been formed to provide a basis for proper relations, they have not been fully honoured or implemented.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressing the UN General Assembly the day after an interim report on the Site C dam was released
“The joint federal-provincial environmental impact assessment of the Site C dam was clear that flooding the Peace River Valley would destroy hundreds of graves and other cultural sites and cause severe, permanent and irreversible harm to the natural environment on which we rely. All this was pushed aside in the rush to build Site C.” Prophet River Chief Lynette Tsakoza responding to the Site C interim report
Three years ago, the federal government approved one of the most environmentally destructive resource development projects in Canada, over the opposition of profoundly affected First Nations.
"The tragic and brutal story of what happened to us, especially at the hands of governments is well-known.... But today, with the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the United Nations General Assembly, we see the opportunity for a new beginning, for another kind of relationship with States in North America and indeed throughout the world." - Statement to the United Nations made 10 years ago by Indigenous representatives from North America when the UN Declaration was adopted.
The adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was a landmark moment in the advancement of global human rights protections.
For decades, Indigenous peoples had been working within the United Nations and regional human rights bodies such as the Inter-American Commission in an effort to ensure that existing, universal human rights standards were understood and applied in ways that would make a real difference in addressing the many profound abuses faced by Indigenous peoples around the world.
"Let them drink the water we have to drink" - Loydi Macedo, Indigenous community of Cuninico, Peru
Today, as we mark the 10th anniversary of the global adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Amnesty International is releasing a devastating new report documenting the callous failure of government authorities in Peru to address the urgent health needs of Indigenous peoples in that country who live in the midst of intensive mining and oil and gas development.
The human rights concerns set out in this report – the refusal to listen to Indigenous women’s concerns about the safety of the water on which they depend, the reluctance to investigate and hold companies responsible for the contamination of Indigenous lands and waters, and the failure to provide culturally-appropriate health care to those in greatest need – are all too familiar.
"We will continue to bring unrelenting opposition to a project that can only be described as an unqualified disaster." -Chief Lynette Tsakoza, Prophet River responding to Supreme Court of Canada ruling closing off one part to justice in the Site C struggle
Whatever your feelings about British Columbia’s Site C dam, whether you think the hydro-electric megaproject is needed or if you think there are better ways to invest in the province’s future, it should be clear that an unacceptable injustice is taking place.
The 100 km of the Peace River and its tributaries that will be flooded by Site C are part of the territory of Treaty 8, an historic Treaty between First Nations and Canada. Like other Treaties, the rights protected under Treaty 8 are recognized and affirmed in the Canadian Constitution. In other words, they are part of the highest law of the land.
Yet, the federal and provincial governments openly admit that they approved the Site C dam without ever considering whether the “severe”, “permanent” and “irreversible” harms identified by their own environmental assessment would violate Treaty 8.
Almost 10 years have passed since the United Nations voted to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a global standard of human rights protection.
There can be no doubt that the adoption of the Declaration was a landmark moment for human rights globally and a triumph for the Indigenous peoples’ movement in particular.
Before the Declaration could be adopted, Indigenous peoples had to prevail over the reluctance, resistance and sometimes outright hostility of some states.
In doing so, Indigenous peoples were able to advance a vital global human rights instrument, one that repudiates centuries of violence, dispossession and marginalization and closes the gaps in rights protection available to the societies, families and individuals who must contend daily with the legacy of those abuses and with new manifestations of permutations of the same racism and discrimination.
It’s been almost 20 years since the Supreme Court of Canada first ruled that the Constitutional protection of Indigenous rights requires governments to consult in “good faith” with Indigenous peoples so that their concerns can be “substantially” addressed before decisions are made that could affect their rights.
While the federal, provincial and territorial governments now all accept that there is a duty to consult, their interpretation of this duty is often so narrow and impoverished that serious concerns over the impact of planned development are simply ignored. Rather than being a source of reconciliation and rights protection as intended in decisions like Delgamuukw (1997) and Haida Nation (2004), the duty to consult as applied by governments in Canada has been a source of ongoing conflict with projects like Northern Gateway and the Site C dam all ending up in court at tremendous cost to Indigenous peoples.
In an extraordinary victory for Indigenous rights and environmental protection, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador has agreed to measures to reduce immediate risks to Inuit health and culture from the Muskrat Falls dam.
Following almost two weeks of protests, including a hunger strike, occupations of the dam site and a journey to Ottawa, the government met yesterday with Inuit and Innu leaders. The result was an agreement to: