Will the Prime Minister change his mind about international aboriginal rights?
|THE CANADIAN PRESS PHOTO|
|Chief Phil Fontaine and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, June 11, 2008.|
The battle is on to push the Conservative government to redress its failure to recognize aborginal rights at the international level. In September, 2007, Canada stood with only the United States, Australia and New Zealand in opposition to 144 proud countries who overwhelmingly passed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. History was made on a day that ensured 370 million indigenous peoples in 70 countries have a comprehensive universal framework to address human rights violations.
In Australia, new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will soon change the country's position and officially endorse the General Assembly's Declaration, according to a recent report in The Australian. The Rudd government was lauded for its apology earlier this year to the "Stolen Generations" of its own residential school system.
So first Australia, can Canada be far behind?
There was a brief respite from this fight last week in Canada. There were tears, joy and celebration after Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in the House of Commons to Canada's First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples for the system of residential schools. The triumph belongs to the estimated 90,000 who still survive, among 150,000 aboriginal people who, as children, were snatched from their parents and sent to be educated in residential schools, under legislated federal policy now recognized as cruel and wrong-thinking.
Many waited last week for Harper to talk about human rights. "The issue of residential schools is primarily a human rights tragedy and atrocity," lawyer Paul Joffe told this blog. A 30-year veteran of cases involving the rights of indigenous peoples, he added: "Yet, in the Prime Minister's apology, no mention is made of 'human rights' or the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."
The omission wasn't lost on Phil Fontaine. The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations underscored its importance, but recognized June 11, 2008, was the day to mark the official ending of the sad chapter in Canadian history.
That was last week.
Yesterday, in the House of Commons, Liberal MP Tina Keeper, an aborginal activist from the Manitoba riding of Churchill, introduced Bill C-569 to ensure the laws of Canada are consistent with the UN Declaration. Moreover, 101 of Canada's most respected academics, lawyers and social advocates, among them former cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats, recently sent an open letter urging the government to reverse its decision on the UN Declaration. Whatever their professions, all have been strong supporters of the tenets of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Signatories to the petition include Warren Allmand, Paul Copeland, Professor Shin Imai, Barbara Jackman, Chief Wilton Littlechild, Alex Neve, Allan Rock, Maxwell Yalden and many other illustrious names.
The letter pulls no punches:
"September 13 , 2007 was a shameful day for Canada, but a tremendous achievement for the world's indigenous peoples and the international system. It is time for the government of Canada to cease publicizing its misleading claims and, together with indigenous peoples, actively implement this new human rights instrument."
Read the full letter, with a fuller list of signatories.
Now that the number of UN nay-sayers appears to be being whittled down, Canadian activists hope Stephen Harper will rectify what they see as a tragic decision for Canada at the UN. In the spirit of optimism, they believe the day will come.