Globe and Mail
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett confirmed Monday that Canada was officially retracting its concerns.
The federal Liberal government has formally removed objections lodged by its Conservative predecessor to parts of a United Nations resolution calling upon states to obtain the consent of Indigenous peoples when enacting laws and undertaking development that will affect them.
A year ago, the government lifted any qualifications the Conservatives had placed on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). But there was no specific acknowledgment at that time that Canada was removing its objections to two paragraphs of a 2014 document related to the declaration spelling out the right to free, prior and informed consent.
Applause erupted Monday at the UN forum on Indigenous issues, a session marking the 10th anniversary of the declaration, when Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett confirmed that this country was officially retracting its concerns.
“We thought that it was clear,” Dr. Bennett said in a telephone interview from New York. But, she said, it was important to Canada’s Indigenous leaders that the retraction of the objections be publicly acknowledged.
“I think that we feel very strongly that Canada now is seen to have an important role in reconciliation and decolonizing, and it was very important for the Indigenous people to make sure that our record was clear,” Dr. Bennett said. “They want any question about Canada’s commitment clarified so that we can go forward in a good way.”
The former Conservative government objected to some elements of the 2014 “outcome document.” It said the wording could be seen as giving a veto to aboriginal groups and could not, therefore, be reconciled with Canadian law.
But the Liberal government does not agree with that interpretation. Dr. Bennett said “free, prior and informed consent” merely means there is a commitment to developing policies in conjunction with Indigenous people on matters that will affect them.
“This is about making decisions together” from the inception, the minister said. “It means not putting some fully baked project in front of people and getting them to vote yes or no.”
As a case in point, the government said earlier this month that it would overhaul its environmental-assessment regime for major development projects by giving more decision-making power to indigenous people.
And while some resource companies have expressed frustration at the length of time it already takes to complete the approval process for projects, it has become standard practice for industry to work with Indigenous communities when development is proposed.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, for instance, has said the commitment to implement the UNDRIP presents an opportunity for progress that will benefit all Canadians.
Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is in New York this week to attend the UN forum, where he will speak on Tuesday on behalf of the Coalition on the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Mr. Bellegarde praised Dr. Bennett’s public retraction of Canada’s objections.
“We call on all levels of government, both federal and provincial, to look at ways and means to breathe life into the UN declaration from both a practical and a legal perspective,” the National Chief said.
When asked if the UNDRIP gives Indigenous people veto power over development, Mr. Bellegarde repeated his long-standing assertion that it gives them the right to say yes and the right to say no.
“Before you try to build anything, before you try to build a pipeline, before you try to build a mine,” he said, “you build a respectful relationship with Indigenous peoples, one that respects inherent rights and Indigenous people’s rights.”
One of the most contentious issues to be addressed at this year’s forum is the request by Indigenous governments to be represented at the United Nations General Assembly. That is expected to be a main point of discussion on Tuesday.
Canada unequivocally supports that proposition, Dr. Bennett said.