It was all supposed to go so smoothly.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper entered the House of Commons on June 11 accompanied by a queue of honoured guests, among them 104-year-old Marguerite “Granny” Wabano, the oldest survivor of the residential school system.
It was to be a rare day in the life of the 39 th Parliament — one free of partisan skirmishes, where the Prime Minister would offer a formal apology for the residential school policy on behalf of all Canadians. Opposition leaders would then have a chance to respond.
It all went off without a hitch until Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe got his turn. As part of his own party’s apology, he first conjured the image of a community without the sound of young children laughing.
Then he dropped a bombshell.
“Finally, it’s been a Canadian disgrace, the refusal of the Conservative government to endorse the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples.”
A packed audience watching a live feed of the apology at the Chief Joe Mathias Centre in North Vancouver applauded rapturously as he said this. The volume of the reception was matched only by that which greeted Beverley Jacobs, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
A little background: the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is a non-binding resolution that recognizes “minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world.”
Among other things, it espouses the rights of indigenous peoples to live in “freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples” and to exercise their right to self-determination. The UN adopted the Declaration on Sept. 7, 2007, with 143 member states voting in favour and 11 abstentions. Four countries voted against it — the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
The federal government had a long list of grievances with the Declaration. Chief among them, according to a 2006 Indian Affairs document titled “Canada’s position,” is that the Declaration, then only a draft, did not give enough “practical guidance” to states in the course of establishing strong relationships with their aboriginal populations.
“Canada’s position” says that Canada requested more time to discuss this issue, but that they were overruled by other members of the UN’s Human Rights Council.
The document goes on to say that the Declaration’s provisions on lands, territories and resources are “broad, unclear and capable of a wide variety of interpretations.” It also says the declaration could be interpreted to give “veto power” to indigenous peoples over national security activities that could impact the wider population.
Here the government’s position is a little alarmist. The Declaration states in Article 30 that military activities cannot take place in indigenous territories unless they are “justified by a significant threat to relevant public interest.” It also states that exceptions can be made when the activities are agreed to by the peoples concerned. Doesn’t exactly smack of a “veto” to me.
Casting this position aside, the government does not seem to have come to this decision haphazardly. But the decision nevertheless sticks out like a sore thumb for the federal government, and it eats away at the sincerity of its commitments under the residential schools apology.
Nowhere, in “Canada’s position,” did I see anything about how not adopting it could be perceived by indigenous people themselves. For some of the people at the Chief Joe Mathias Centre, it made them look at the apology in a cautious manner.
“They still need to accept the UN’s work,” Ian Campbell, a hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation, said of the government. “Their actions are still very detrimental to… our people.
“An apology is great, it’s an acknowledgment, but now we have to do the work, we have to roll our sleeves up and sit down together equally.”
Leonard Andrew, chief of the Lil’Wat Nation, seems to share his concern.
“People have been wondering why, in our community, why isn’t (the Prime Minister) addressing this in a positive manner, don’t we count?” he said. “Hopefully he’ll give it a second thought in regards to that, because, you know, there’s only, how many, three major countries in the world that don’t want to address it.”
Once the resolution passed without Canada’s support, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl went on the defensive. He said it was “significant” that the U.S., Australia and New Zealand voted no.
Strahl neglected to mention that Australia’s “no” came from John Howard, a Prime Minister who steadfastly refused to apologize to his own country’s “stolen generation.” Howard’s successor, Kevin Rudd, didn’t hesitate.
Chief Campbell is right when he says there’s a lot of work to be done. It could start with the government clarifying the paradoxical message it is sending to Canada’s indigenous peoples. It’s hard to believe the government is truly sorry when it doesn’t support an international agreement extolling the “minimum rights” of indigenous people. It’s harder still to take the Prime Minister at his word.