Mr. Speaker, I move that the third report of the Standing Committee on Status of Women, presented on Tuesday, February 5, 2008, be concurred in.
The motion reads:
|| That the government endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 13 September 2007 and that Parliament and Government of Canada fully implement the standards contained therein.
After two decades of development, on September 13, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 143 to 4.
It is disgraceful that Canada was one of the four nations that voted against this declaration and the Government of Canada was actively lobbying other countries to vote against this historic declaration.
Canada's position in refusing to support the declaration is contrary to the wishes of aboriginal organizations, human rights organizations and even government officials. A ministerial briefing note obtained by Amnesty International stated that:
|| Indian and Northern Affairs and Foreign Affairs Canada initially advised...that they were recommending that Canada support the adoption of the draft Declaration.
Canada's decision to oppose the declaration flies in the face of a long history of championing UN standards to elevate and promote human rights globally.
The declaration recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples to the lands, territories and natural resources that are critical to their way of life, a way of life that honours the earth and her resources.
The declaration also provides guidance measures needed to ensure the dignity, survival and well-being of some of the world's most impoverished and marginalized peoples.
The president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, Beverley Jacobs, states:
|| While the adoption of the declaration brings me great joy, Canada’s unprincipled decision to vote against the declaration demonstrates a lack of commitment, not only to indigenous peoples but to human rights more generally. This is not over. We will be calling on Canada to join us to implement this declaration immediately.
It is a reality that indigenous women confront double or even triple discrimination because they are indigenous, they are poor and they are marginalized.
In Canada, 38% of aboriginal women live in low income situations. The median income of aboriginal women was $12,300, about $5,000 less than the figure for non-aboriginal women.
According to Statistics Canada, aboriginal women represent less than 2% of the general population. However, they experience violence at a rate 3.5 times higher than non-aboriginal women. Close to 35% of aboriginal women have been the target of violence.
Aboriginal women live in remote communities and often have no access to women's shelters at all. These women are making the impossible choice between losing their home and living in fear with an abusive partner.
Young aboriginal women are five times more likely to die from violence than other women in Canada.
Aboriginal women continue to face barriers in attaining post-secondary education. Of aboriginal women aged 25 to 44 living off reserve who had started but had not completed a post-secondary education program, 34% reported family responsibilities as the reason they had not finished their post-secondary education, 21% reported financial reasons, 12% lost interest and motivation, and 8% found a job or had to work.
Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George, British Columbia has been renamed the Highway of Tears because of the more than 30 aboriginal women who have gone missing or have been found murdered along this stretch of highway.
Last spring, at Losha Native Family Healing Centre, a first nations agency in London, marked June 21 with a march and traditional ceremony of remembrance for the loss of our sisters across Canada. It was moving and gentle but it pointed out the despair of those left behind to mourn, those who will never know what happened to the women they loved.
Why are the Highway of Tears' victims mostly young aboriginal women? The answer is poverty.
In 2006 a symposium was held on the Highway of Tears. It produced numerous recommendations to prevent the unnecessary deaths and disappearances of young aboriginal women. I hope that the federal government will do everything possible to implement these recommendations. I hope it will finally listen, because aboriginal women and their children are more likely to experience violence and abuse in their lives than other Canadian women. Eight out of ten aboriginal women are abused.
Racism, the legacy of residential schools, and the lack of housing and educational opportunities work together to make aboriginal women more vulnerable. As a community we have an obligation to make sure violence against aboriginal women, against all women, ends.
The UN declaration is among the first international human rights instruments to explicitly provide for the adoption of measures to ensure that indigenous women and children enjoy protection and guarantees against all forms of violence. According to Foreign Policy in Focus, indigenous peoples have fought for centuries against genocide, displacement, colonization and forced assimilation. This violence has left indigenous communities among the poorest and most marginalized in the world, alienated from state policies and disenfranchised by national governments.
In the Americas, indigenous peoples have a life expectancy 10 to 20 years less than the general population. The same general pattern holds internationally. Because of gender discrimination, the pattern is most entrenched for indigenous women.
Today the human rights and very survival of indigenous peoples are increasingly threatened as states and corporations battle for control of the earth's dwindling supply of natural resources, many of which are located on first nations territories.
One key concern of indigenous women is gender based violence. For indigenous women violence does not only stem from gender discrimination and women's subordination within their families and communities, it also arises from attitudes and policies that violate collective indigenous rights. As Dr. Myrna Cunningham, an internationally recognized indigenous leader, said:
|| For Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous women, exercising our rights--both as Indigenous Peoples and as women--depends on securing legal recognition of our collective ancestral territories, which are the basis of our identities, our cultures, our economies, and our traditions.
That understanding of collective rights has enabled first nations women to create anti-violent strategies that address connections between issues as diverse as women's human rights, economic justice and climate change. These connections are reflected in indigenous women's organizations around the world, for instance, in a Kenyan village run by indigenous women, and in a community development organization on Nicaragua's North Atlantic coast.
Experts believe that crowded housing conditions aggravate the problem of physical and sexual abuse. No woman should have to make the impossible choice between losing her home and living with an abusive partner.
Housing conditions are a major contributing factor to a person's physical and mental health. Aboriginal people face serious housing shortages, as well as substandard quality in their housing.
In Canada 52% of aboriginal households fall below core housing needs. According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation:
|| [This situation] is primarily the result of low incomes that stem from inequities experienced in the labour force and elsewhere by women and Aboriginal people in general. These inequities are amplified by low levels of schooling, and the inability of many to enter the labour force because of child-rearing responsibilities.
First nations housing and infrastructure is in crisis. When a comparison is made to the non-first nation demographic, first nations communities are at an extreme disadvantage. Adequate housing is considered a fundamental human right, one that is critical to the day to day well-being of first nations people. It is a key link to education, health, economic opportunities and employment outcomes.
Aboriginal women also experience poor health, have shorter life spans and are more likely to be disabled. According to the Saskatchewan Provincial Health Council, “health differences are reduced when economic and status differences between people, based on such things as culture, race, age, gender and disability are reduced”.
The poor health status of aboriginal women is linked to factors such as poverty, unemployment, lower social status, instability and violence in their families and communities, and inadequate housing and living conditions. Crowded housing conditions and lack of safe, clean water for drinking and washing aggravate the already poor health of aboriginal women.
The UN declaration is a fundamental international human rights instrument which outlines the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of indigenous peoples. Articles 21 and 22 explicitly mention indigenous women and the interconnectedness of our well-being, our children and our elders to be free from violence and discrimination.
Indigenous women at the international level have fought hard for these provisions. These provisions are not abstract. They reflect the collective realities that first nations face in our communities and how deeply we feel the actions or inactions by the state. We need the Government of Canada to commit to the declaration and the principles, rights and values it upholds.
The International Indigenous Women's Forum stated that the declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples will serve as a comprehensive international human rights instrument for all indigenous women, men and youth around the world. The adoption of the declaration will allow indigenous women and their families to infuse local human rights struggles with the power of international law, and their governments would be accountable to the international human rights standards.
Since 1923, first nations leaders have made attempts to represent their people at the international level. It is time for the Government of Canada to sign the UN declaration. This nation we are building has always championed human rights around the world. It is time to champion those same human rights at home.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the motion by the hon. member for , which states:
|| That this House endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on September 13, 2007, and call upon the Parliament and Government of Canada to implement fully the standards contained therein.
As I am sure the House is aware, on September 12, 2007, the and the issued a statement indicating that Canada could not vote in favour of the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.
The following day, Canada delivered an explanation of vote, setting on the record its position on the declaration. Canada stated, among other things, that the declaration did not provide practical guidance to states and that some of the provisions were overly broad and capable of a wide variety of interpretations.
Since taking office in 2006, our government has acted on many fronts to improve quality of life and promote a prosperous future for all aboriginal peoples. This agenda is practical, focuses on real results, and has led to tangible progress in a range of areas including land claims, education, housing, child and family services, safe drinking water, and the extension of human rights protection to first nations on a reserve.
We are also pushing to have section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act repealed. This would ensure the protection of fundamental human rights for all aboriginal people, including aboriginal women, who are often the most vulnerable.
It should be noted that Canada supports the spirit and intent of the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, but further negotiations were necessary to achieve a text worthy of Canadian support that truly addressed the interests of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world.
Canada's position has remained consistent and principled. We have stated publicly that we have significant concerns with the wording of provisions of the declaration, such as those on lands, territories and resources; free, prior and informed consent when used as a veto; self-government without recognition of the importance of negotiations; intellectual property; military issues; and the need to achieve an appropriate balance between the rights and obligations of indigenous peoples, member states and third parties.
Canada voted against the adoption of the current text because it is fundamentally flawed and lacks clear, practical guidance for implementation. These comments apply to a number of different areas of the law, including intellectual property.
Clarity of language should be an important consideration before a government decides to commit to any document, yet articles 11 and 31 of the declaration include a number of terms where the international community has not been able to come to a consensus as to their nature, scope or legal implications. These terms include, for example, “traditional knowledge”, “traditional cultural expressions” and “free, prior informed consent”.
Let us take, for example, the term “free, prior informed consent”. During the vote on the declaration, the Canadian ambassador stated that some of the provisions dealing with the concept of free, prior informed consent were unduly restrictive. Provisions in the declaration said that states could not act on any legislative or administrative matter that might affect indigenous peoples without obtaining their consent.
While Canada has a strong consultative process, reinforced by the courts, as a matter of law, the establishment of a veto power over legislative or administrative action for a particular group would be fundamentally incompatible with Canada's parliamentary system. Such a comprehensive veto power would impact on intellectual property and other federal and provincial laws.
The declaration also refers to the “violation of their laws, traditions and customs”. Such language could imply the recognition of a body of aboriginal intellectual property law in Canada without having first identified and studied these laws, determining how many such laws exist across Canada, how they interface with federal and provincial laws and policies, and whether they pose any concerns for Canada's ability to honour its international legal obligations.
This concern is increased because there is no explicit reference in the declaration that states such aboriginal customary laws would be subject to Canada's national laws. I would further add that we are not aware of any country, in particular our major trading partners, that recognizes dozens if not hundreds of domestic intellectual property regimes.
Some may suggest that any implications for Canada's intellectual property regime and intellectual property rights holders posed by these two articles would be minimal, as they would apply only to aboriginal communities. Let us not forget that intellectual property law recognizes a property right. One characteristic of a property right, intangible or otherwise, is the ability to exclude others from using the property.
We can consider, for example, that a traditional symbol in the public domain is governed by some aboriginal customary law. If the aboriginal customary law were to be recognized as having priority over Canada's intellectual property regime, it would affect the ability of all Canadians, including other aboriginal Canadians, to use the symbol in a new work, such as a painting, for example. If the symbol were incorporated in an existing trademark held by a foreign rights holder, it would raise questions as to the legal status of the trademark. Recognizing a new intellectual property regime in such a manner and without consulting Canadians is not acceptable to this government.
Supporters of the declaration have stated that Canada should not be concerned because the declaration is not a legally binding instrument, yet there could be attempts to rely on the declaration as an interpretive tool and to demand that the federal government bring its policies in line with the declaration. The precise wording, therefore, is very important. And to this point, the declaration has in fact already been cited in legal proceedings in Canada.
Moreover, such an approach would be inconsistent with Canada's position in ongoing self-government negotiations where Canada has insisted that the Government of Canada retain exclusive law-making authority in relation to intellectual property in areas of federal jurisdiction.
Apart from my comments about the government's concerns with the declaration, I would add that Canada's national intellectual property regime does not discriminate against its aboriginal citizens or any other group of people in Canada. All Canadians, aboriginal or otherwise, benefit equally from Canada's national intellectual property regime within Canada and abroad.
The government is working to better understand the concerns of Canada's aboriginal peoples regarding the interface between their cultural heritage and Canada's intellectual property regime. For example, we have provided funding to allow aboriginal Canadians to take part in relevant meetings of the World Intellectual Property Organization and the Convention on Biological Diversity. We have also accepted invitations to go to aboriginal communities to explain the benefits and limitations of Canada's national intellectual property regime and to learn their concerns about intellectual property law.
We believe that this measured, step by step approach to addressing the concerns of our aboriginal citizens regarding intellectual property represents the best way forward. Adopting a text that is fundamentally flawed and lacks clear, practical guidance for implementation is not to anyone's benefit.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to endorse the motion we have before us, that is, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as adopted by the United Nations General Assembly September 13, 2007.
This is a declaration that has been worked on for many years. Indeed, as my colleague opposite has cited, for over two decades Canada has played an important role in the development of the UN declaration, including the drafting of the document's text.
The declaration, as it now stands, is the result of extensive negotiation between member states and between indigenous people from around the world. It is important to note that this is the first time in UN history that rights holders were actually participants in the process. The current text, as I said, now stands because of these extensive consultations that took place.
Canada was known throughout the world and at the UN as a strong supporter of the UN declaration on human rights.
When this government took over, the 's friends, Mr. Bush and Mr. Howard, had a considerable role in helping Canada to change its position. It was after the visit to Ottawa of the Australian prime minister that Canada indicated its unwillingness to support the declaration. Since February 2006, as I cited earlier, there has been a total failure to consult between Canada and the indigenous people.
When it came time to vote at the UN, only four countries voted against the declaration: Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia.
Canadian officials have repeatedly denied that the federal government has insisted on changes to the provisions in the declaration that were supported by previous Liberal governments. Yet, in amendments dated August 2007, Canada, with Colombia, New Zealand and Russia, sought over 40 revisions. In many instances, Canada actually helped draft the specific measures.
It is important to note that in opposing this declaration, Canada, well-known prior to this government for its advocacy of human rights both nationally and internationally, for the first time, has opposed an international human rights document.
The government says it was not an easy decision, but the gymnastics to justify its position are at best ingenuous. Canada was lobbying against this human rights instrument, we know, in Geneva in June 2006. This was before the government stated to parliamentarians that it was still studying the text. It encouraged opposition against the declaration and aligned itself with countries with highly abusive records, as I said earlier, with Colombia, Russia and with some hard-lined African states.
As described in the December 2007 Amnesty International report:
|| Over the intervening year, Canada was at the forefront of urging the UN to undertake wholesale renegotiation of key provisions of the Declaration, a process that would have greatly delayed adoption and would likely have resulted in a greatly weakened text. In doing so, Canada aligned itself with states with poor records of supporting the UN human rights system and with histories of brutal repression of Indigenous rights advocates.
Now that the declaration has passed, the government continues to ignore the document and ignores its international obligations.
The government, as well, misled the Canadian public. If it were truly convinced that the arguments against the UN declaration were valid, it would not resort to what I believe are false statements to justify its actions.
The minister says that the declaration does not provide a balance of individual and collective rights, although it is cited right in the declaration. He said:
|| In Canada, you are balancing individual rights versus collective rights, and (this) document...has none of that...By signing on, you default to this document by saying that the only rights in play here are the rights of the First Nations. And, of course, in Canada, that's inconsistent with our Constitution.
However, a simple reading of the declaration confirms there are 17 provisions that address individual rights. The federal government is aware that the previous Liberal government took a lead role in promoting article 46, one of the most comprehensive balancing provisions to exist in any international human rights document.
The claims of inconsistency with Canada's Constitution are not substantiated. Canada fails to demonstrate how the declaration is inconsistent with Canada's constitutional framework. The declaration provides uplifting human rights standards. Canadian courts may rely on such progressive international instruments to interpret indigenous peoples' rights.
As the Supreme Court has confirmed, and again I quote:
||—our Constitution is a living tree which, by way of progressive interpretation, accommodates and addresses the realities of modern life.
It goes on to state, “A large and liberal or progressive interpretation ensures the continued relevance and, indeed, legitimacy of Canada's constitutional document”.
I talked earlier about Canada's failure to consult with indigenous people. I will not go back to that. However, we hear members opposite trumpet Bill and the repeal of section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. We support the repeal of section 67 of the Canadian Human Rights Act and we are waiting for that bill to be brought back into the House. It is now over two months since it has left the committee.
In coming to that, I would question the issue of collected versus individual rights. In the many discussions leading up to the final report of the committee on Bill we saw a real effort to subvert the collective rights of indigenous peoples.
We have heard much about the importance of this declaration for women. It is an important aspect of our concern for the full implementation of the Declaration of Human Rights in Canada.
We know aboriginal women are at much greater risk of domestic violence. We know that in many situations it is because of the living conditions. We know aboriginal peoples do not have access to adequate water. In fact, the water supply for aboriginal peoples on reserve is not what it should be.
We know the health opportunities for aboriginal women and their families are far less than those for non-aboriginal Canadians living in urban and rural settings. We know the educational opportunities for children are not there. We know the government is in fact robbing Peter to pay Paul, basically taking moneys designated for education projects in communities in order to transfer them to water projects so they can trumpet what it is doing there.
I am not saying that the water projects are unimportant. In fact, they are very important to the health and the safety of all Canadians. However, it is important that all human rights be honoured. When we focus on women, we must understand that human rights are basic human rights.
I want to quote Beverley Jacobs from the Native Women's Association of Canada. She talks about all of the individual challenges facing first nations people, water, education, health, et cetera. She says:
|| All of these seemingly individual problems stem back to our history where our lands, resources and territories were unjustly taken from us and where our right of selfdetermination was subverted for the benefit of others.
Unfortunately, this is not only an historic problem, but a contemporary one where the order of business has not significantly changed in some respects.
We still see the Canadian government fighting court case after court case to challenge the constitutionally protected aboriginal rights we hold. As indigenous women leaders, we come to our positions not only as defenders of individual women, but as defenders of our lands, our resources and our territories.
Mr. Speaker, it is truly astounding that we are having this debate at all today. Obviously I would rather we did not have to.
However, as someone who has worked at the international level and who was involved when Canada was involved in previous years with negotiations at international fora, I want to say that Canada is usually at the forefront. We are very proud of that. Quite often when there are contentious issues, Canada is one of the few countries known for being the arbiter, helping to bring peace and pulling together.
This is the first time, to my knowledge, that Canada has done the opposite. Not only did it not vote, thus opposing a major human rights document, which is totally unheard of, but it also actually lobbied other countries for this document to be defeated. Again, the most interesting thing is that for this document Canada in fact was very involved in helping draft the text at the time. Again, I find this very disturbing, to say the least.
Some of the arguments that have been made by the government side are that we have it in the Constitution of Canada, so why would we have to do this, and that it does not balance the individual rights and the collective rights.
I actually scratch my head at that and say to myself that the fact Canada has indigenous peoples' rights in its Constitution should be a reason to support this document, to actually encourage other countries around the world, and to become part of something strong to make sure that this does in fact happen. I find it totally contrary to the arguments in this case. It is very sad.
When I hear that Canada has been one of the most active and aggressive opponents to the declaration in lobbying other states of the world to reopen negotiations and to weaken the current document that has been passed, I think that it is bad enough that we voted against it and embarrassed ourselves. It is bad enough that after 20 years of negotiations and helping draft it, we lobbied and voted against it, but now we are still lobbying to weaken the document.
I do not know whether this is a strong biological bias on the part of the government with respect to this document, but contrary to its international obligations as a human rights council member, Canada is severely politicizing the indigenous peoples' human rights, I believe. Otherwise, I do not see the major rationale for any of this.
The declaration is not all that difficult to understand. Very basically, it addresses human rights, because indigenous people are among the most marginalized, impoverished and frequently victimized sectors of the society in which they live. We all know this. We have seen it in different parts of the world, not to mention in some of our own communities in this country.
Why, then, do we not want to make sure that these rights are protected? The declaration has been under development for 20 years. Everyone has said that, so we cannot say that we have not had enough time to talk about it. Sometimes in this place we do a great deal of debating and we think a day or two or a week is a long time, but 20 years is a long time.
I have to say that over these two decades it has become apparent that there is a small handful of governments that are intractably opposed to the declaration for reasons of domestic politics. I think we know this. Obviously this is what is happening within our own country right now.
As I said earlier, some of the things that the declaration does are quite clear. It provides an inspiring vision of a new relationship between states and indigenous people, one that is based on cooperation and respect for the rights of all people. This is very important to maintain.
Again, the declaration affirms that indigenous peoples have the right to maintain their distinct cultural identities and to live free from racism and discrimination. These are not things that one can oppose. How hard is it to support something of that nature?
Other articles provide specific protections against discrimination, forced assimilation and other forms of cultural destruction. We know what forced assimilation looks like. We have had generations of children in our own country put into residential schools. We know what kind of harm, horrible pain and destruction that has brought about.
Again, this part of the declaration simply is trying to address not only past but current practices that are still sometimes going on in many places. It is acknowledging these things. I want to quote very clearly what this does:
|| In particular, the Declaration responds [to] Indigenous peoples' necessity to maintain and pass onto future generations their distinct cultural identities and to the centrality of the land to the practice of this culture and to provide for the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples.
Again, this is not something that is very difficult for us. We are a proud country. In the past, we have been at the forefront. Canada was the lead in setting up the International Criminal Court, for instance. One of our judges who headed that court was Louise Arbour, a famous Canadian, and one, by the way, whom the Government of Canada did not even bother to thank when she left her job most recently, but that is another issue to put aside altogether. Everyone else thanked her for her job except for the Government of Canada, which says something. It sends a message. This is what she had to say with respect to this issue, noting that the declaration:
||--has been 20 years in the making. Its contents are drawn from the experiences of thousands of indigenous representatives who have shared their anguish and their hopes.
|| As we stand at the brink of this historic decision by the General Assembly, it is the time to call upon member states of the United Nations to join as one and adopt the Declaration and thereby establish a universal framework for indigenous peoples' rights, social justice and reconciliation.
That is a strong statement from a very important Canadian, one who has certainly made us proud on the international scene.
However, I think it is also worthwhile to look at some of the statements made by the indigenous people of our country themselves, our first nations people:
|| The Declaration recognizes our collective histories, traditions, cultures, languages, and spirituality. It is an important international instrument that supports the activities and efforts of Indigenous peoples to have their rights fully recognized, respected and implemented by state governments.
Those are the words of National Chief Phil Fontaine of the AFN.
This is how our first nations people themselves are seeing this issue:
|| The First Nations Leadership Council stands together with the indigenous peoples of the world in celebration of this historic achievement.
|| However, we remain shocked and angered at Canada's refusal to support this important international human rights instrument.
The government talks about wanting to work with first nations, and then, at a time when it could seriously show support and respect for them at the international level, it does the exact opposite.
In regard to women, we have talked a great deal today about violence against women in aboriginal communities. Beverley Jacobs, of the Native Women's Association of Canada, talks about all violence, from violence in the home and violence in the streets, to discrimination and socio-economic marginalization in all sectors of native women's lives, from education and housing to health, child welfare and economic sectors. These are some of the issues she and aboriginal women deal with every day.
Beverley Jacobs goes on to say that mothers lose their children to the child welfare system far too often simply because they cannot provide the basic needs for their children in a country where there is no need for this to happen to any family. She says the education system falls apart. This falls far short of providing adequate education for our children.
This goes to the heart of some of the things that are happening in our country. Our committee, the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, also did a report on trafficking. One of the comments was that a large number of women who are trafficked come from aboriginal communities. Earlier, one of our members mentioned the highway of tears.
The fact of the matter is that the government does not seem to listen. Let us look at its record. The Kelowna accord was not just a piece of paper. It was $5 billion for a program to address housing, health, violence against women, and the rights of indigenous people in this country, but the first thing the government did was summarily eliminate the Kelowna accord. Then it proceeded not only to vote against but to lobby against this international document. That completely shocks me.
It is a shameful day when the government of this country goes out of its way to make sure that policies put forward, both domestically and internationally, are to the detriment of our first nations and aboriginal people.
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for , who knows a great deal about women's rights—because this motion comes from the Standing Committee on the Status of Women—and who may go into a little more detail.
First of all, I look forward to the day when this House stops playing politics at the expense of our indigenous peoples. Members of this House have been debating about recognizing the indigenous peoples of the world for 20 years. I remember where I was on June 29, 2006, when the UN Human Rights Council voted 30 to 2 to adopt the text. I was in eastern Quebec, on my way to meet with the Mi'kmaq in New Brunswick and Gaspé.
The first question I asked my assistant was whether Canada had really voted against this resolution. The answer was yes. I could not believe it.
The Conservatives had been in power since January 2006. I do not want to talk further about the Kelowna accord. They did what they had to do: they cancelled it. Yet in 1986, all the parties in this House, including the Conservatives, began working on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Work continued under the Liberals. The point I am trying to make is that Canada has always been an undisputed leader in creating a declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.
When I travel around the world, it makes me extremely uncomfortable to have to say that Canada cannot recognize its indigenous peoples, especially in light of the first article of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Let us look just at this article, because I only have 10 minutes. I do not want to go any further, even though I could talk at length about this. Article 1 is worth examining.
|| Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law.
Whether our Conservative friends like it or not, this declaration was adopted by a vote of 143 to 4. Canada cast one of the four votes against the declaration.
I do not understand and will not accept that, in Canada, indigenous peoples are considered inferior. That is how the Conservative government treats them now, by not allowing them to benefit from the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The full declaration shows that this is exactly what indigenous peoples are calling for.
Today, at precisely 4:30 p.m., the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development will hear from Mr. Erasmus.
Members will recall the Erasmus-Dussault report, at least I hope someone from the other side of the House remembers and that this will ring a bell for someone. Although in 2006 we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the tabling of this report, it has yet to be implemented. We treat aboriginals in Canada as inferior beings, and it is unacceptable. The committee will hear Mr. Erasmus at 4:30 p.m.
The government is trying to implement legislation to shirk its responsibilities. But its primary responsibility should be to recognize the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In a nutshell, the declaration says that the chief expression of recognition of full status as a people is the right to self-determination. This is clear in Article 1, which I read a few moments ago. Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. It is not complicated.
That is what aboriginal people want. They do not want to hear another word about the Indian Act, which is paternalistic legislation, to say the least in parliamentary language. To read the Indian Act the way I have read it in the past few months and the past year is to realize there is no worse legislation in Canada. I do not know of any other country that governs people from their birth to their death—and beyond—and in the way the Indian Act does. It controls aboriginals from time they are born and then, in a very paternalistic fashion, dictates how they will be educated, what schools they will attend and how much schooling they will receive. If by some misfortune, an aboriginal person wants to pursue post-secondary education, he or she needs authorization from the department to get funding.
This has to stop. It is extremely important that we adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Rest assured that when the time comes to vote on this motion, there will be one party standing alone in this House and that is the Conservative Party. I hope that party pays the price for it among the first nations. The claim that the Conservative Party has gotten closer to the first nations is rather dubious.
I do not want to do any advertising—I am not allowed to and I am glad about that—but I invite all those watching me today to see the latest film by Richard Desjardins and Robert Monderie, called The Invisible Nation. The title says it all: they cannot be seen, because others will not look. This film deals with the situation of aboriginals in Canada, just north of here more specifically. For those who do not know it, Ottawa's Parliament belongs to the Algonquians. We are on Anishnabe territory; from here to James Bay we are on Algonquin territory. This film shows how Algonquians have been treated in the past few years.
The best example is Maniwaki, in the riding of the . Aboriginals have been pushed back as far as possible to a reserve that is now called Kitigan Zibi, just before entering Maniwaki.
I will close by saying that the Bloc Québécois will support this motion. It is time we recognized the aboriginals for who they are. They are a people and proud of it. We should adopt this motion as quickly as possible and join the great group of nations by becoming the 144th country to recognize the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to defer to your good judgment and ask that you please give me a signal, because I often digress and lose track of time.
I thank my hon. colleague from for his frank and honest speech. I am pleased to take part in today's debate on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Bloc Québécois is always right in there when it comes to denouncing injustices, especially when they affect the most marginalized members of our society. In this case, we are talking about aboriginal peoples, who are among the least fortunate and most mistreated of all. Their rights are constantly being violated by national governments, even when those rights are enshrined in the law.
This is particularly true in the case of aboriginal communities in Canada, and this is because of the incompetence of various federal governments and because of the Conservative government's ideological blindness. This is why it is so urgent to recognize and protect aboriginal peoples' rights.
This incompetence was confirmed in June 2006 when over 30 member countries of the UN Human Rights Council voted in favour of this declaration, while Canada and Russia were the only two countries to oppose it.
A few weeks later, Canada joined with the United States, Australia and New Zealand to pressure African countries and other governments that had initially declared their support for the declaration.
These actions are unworthy of a country like Canada, which has always been very concerned about defending human rights.
As a Quebecker and representative of the Quebec nation, I am ashamed of this Conservative government's attitude on the world stage. It is doing a disservice to the reputation of Quebec and Canada through its disdainful actions regarding the respect of human rights, equality, non-discrimination, good governance and good faith.
By contrast, the Government of Quebec has taken concrete action in favour of the rights of first nations peoples living within its borders, particularly through the Peace of the Braves and James Bay agreements.
It is high time Canada did the same and stopped considering aboriginal peoples as second class citizens who must live in conditions that are often comparable to those of third world countries.
Since this Conservative government was elected, the leadership and flexibility Canada had shown since the start of negotiations became things of the past.
In the last year, Canada has become one of the fiercest and most aggressive opponents of the declaration, and has pressured a number of countries to reopen negotiations and water down the current declaration.
The Conservative government uses more financial and human resources than any other country, and mainly targets countries that have a less than stellar human rights record.
The Standing Committee on Status of Women decided to look at this declaration because of the horrible situation facing aboriginal women in Canada, and the lack of consideration the Conservative government has shown for them since it was elected in January 2006.
Let us talk about aboriginal women, since in our roles as Bloc Québécois status of women critics, the member for and I have heard all kinds of things at various meetings of the Standing Committee on Status of Women.
The testimonies, figures and statistics are appalling when it comes to describing the situation facing women on and off aboriginal reserves.
According to the organization Quebec Native Women:
|| Violence against women remains a very widespread problem within Indigenous communities in Quebec, as well as in the rest of Canada. Female victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are subject to a number of physical, psychological, economic and social prejudices. Guilt, shame and fear also come into play and have major repercussions on them. The consequences of this violence on the victims’ moral and financial autonomy, on their social participation and on their physical and psychological health as well as their families’ health and welfare, are very serious.
|| In addition, aboriginal women are more likely than any other group of women in Canada to be victims of domestic violence. A number of studies confirm that this population has a higher rate of domestic violence. Although very few statistics are available on the rate of violence against aboriginal women in communities in Quebec in particular, a 2006 Statistics Canada report entitled “Measuring Violence Against Women” shows that rates of spousal violence and homicide are higher among aboriginal women than among non-aboriginal women or aboriginal men. The severity and impacts of spousal violence are also greater for aboriginal women. According to this report, not only do aboriginal women report higher rates of spousal violence, but they are also significantly more likely than non-aboriginal women to report the most severe and potentially life-threatening forms of violence, including being beaten or choked, having had a gun or knife used against them, or being sexually assaulted (54% of aboriginal women compared with 37% of non-aboriginal women). Consequently, aboriginal women were more likely than their non-aboriginal counterparts to have suffered physical injury, received medical attention, taken time off daily activities as a consequence of the assaults and experienced 10 or more separate episodes of violence from the same perpetrator, and were more likely to fear their lives were in danger.
The same agency, in the document entitled “Indigenous Women and Violence”, added the following:
|| Thus Indigenous identity has been broken down for purposes of colonial and later federal policy into the categories of Métis, Inuit and Indian, with the latter further broken down into status and non-status Indians. ... These categories have little to do with culture, upbringing or identity and everything to do with administration, bureaucracy and an apparently continuing federal policy of assimilation that persists to this day. These inequalities breed violence, such as postcolonial structural inequalities, family violence, bloodism, racialized and sexualized violence, and gender violence. They also lead to poverty, lack of access to adequate housing, including the lack of access to matrimonial property rights, lack of access to justice, low education and employment rates, low health status and little or no political participation.
On June 22, 2007, the then Minister of Canadian Heritage and Status of Women announced new funding to help increase funding currently allocated to aboriginal women's shelters. However, that announcement was not publicized at all, which prevented a number of communities from filing applications to meet their critical needs in that area. Once again, the Conservative government managed to turn a good intention into an administrative catastrophe.
On behalf of the Bloc Québécois, I want to reiterate to all aboriginal peoples our support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I also hope Canada's aboriginal women and Canada's aboriginal communities will one day receive the same respect from their government that Quebec's aboriginal communities receive.
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise in this House at any opportunity, especially in relation to aboriginal issues. These are the most important issues to me over the last two years that I have been in this House. As a parliamentarian of Métis descent, it is always a great honour to speak in relation to these issues.
Canada's decision to not support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has resulted in some controversy and, of course, we have seen some of that today. In my opinion none of it is warranted.
By voting against the adoption of this declaration at the UN, Canada put on record its disappointment with both the substance and process. At the time of the vote, Canada indicated our understanding that this declaration was not a legally binding instrument. It has no legal effect in Canada and its provisions do not represent customary international law.
I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate this core message. The declaration is not a legally binding instrument. However, hearing the opposition parties speak about it, they would have us assume that in fact it should be implemented in Canada.
The opposition parties are calling upon our government to implement the standards in the declaration. Yet, United Nations declarations are statements only of political commitments and objectives. While they reflect the aspirations of states which support their adoption, they are not intended to be legally binding instruments.
Second, in the context of this particular declaration, let me remind everyone that Canada has voted against its adoption. This means that the concerns of Canada were such that it could not support the text as drafted. Therefore, calls to implement the standards of this declaration are misguided since Canada did not support the declaration internationally. It does not support it at home in light of many of the issues that I have been raising here in the House this afternoon.
For over 20 years Canada helped lead international efforts toward a declaration that would promote and protect the rights and freedoms of every indigenous person, as well as recognize the collective rights of indigenous people around the world.
In the final analysis, however, the declaration was seen to be a flawed instrument that lacked clear practical guidance for states and is subject to competing interpretations. As such, Canada could not support its adoption.
As a country committed to the protection of aboriginal rights, Canada takes the precise wording of this declaration very seriously. Canada is not willing to support this instrument simply because it is expedient to do so. Voting against adoption of the UN declaration was of course a gutsy, if not difficult move, one that put actions above rhetoric and principle above posturing.
I have already referenced how the previous Liberal government was quick to sign on to the Kyoto accord, but of course had no intention of following up any of its founding principles.
Our government takes international declarations seriously and as such we have chosen not to sign on or vote for this draft declaration.
Canada has taken numerous concrete actions to ensure that the rights of indigenous people are safeguarded both within Canada and around the world. On the domestic front we have introduced two key pieces of legislation that will extend legal protection to first nations people who currently do not have access to either the Canadian human rights tribunals or provincial and territorial courts that would protect their matrimonial real property rights.
The interesting thing about both of these initiatives is that they are being opposed by the very parties that are currently creating such a fuss about Canada's refusal to support the UN declaration. Without putting too fine a point on it, it strikes me as ironic, if not somewhat hypocritical, for certain aboriginal organizations and opposition parties to condemn the government for its principled stance on the UN declaration, while at the same time creating such enormous obstacles to the passage of both Bill and the Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act.
In the last few years Canada has taken enormous strides in rectifying past wrongs and moving forward on initiatives that will ensure protection of the rights of indigenous people here in Canada. Indeed, aboriginal and treaty rights are protected in our Constitution and are safeguarded under numerous self-government and land claims agreements, federal legislation, and through judicial decisions going as high as the Supreme Court of Canada.
Recently, we introduced Bill , legislation that was developed jointly with the Assembly of First Nations. This bill would establish an independent specific claims tribunal, thereby bringing greater fairness to the specific claims initiatives and would be handled in a way that would speed up the resolution process. This government is working with willing partners on a host of other key initiatives, including housing, water, child and family services, education and self-government.
Why did Canada vote against the UN declaration? As I have already said, it was a flawed document that, upon its final ratification, was not incorporating the key elements that we suggested, as a country, be brought into it.
Over the course of the past 20 years, Canada worked hard for a declaration that would promote partnerships and harmonious relations between indigenous people and member states that would strike an appropriate balance between the rights of indigenous people and the rights of others. The final text of the declaration did not meet these objectives.
For example, in relation to indigenous rights to lands, territories and resources, the provisions in the declaration are unclear and open to interpretation. The declaration states that:
|| Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.
The member opposite from the Bloc just referenced how her province has a number of signed agreements since the founding of Quebec, but of course what is contemplated here sets that aside, though she did not mention that in her answer.
This statement could be used to support aboriginal claims to ownership rights over much of Canada, even where such rights have been dealt with lawfully and in good faith in the past.
Another problematic issue is that of self-government for aboriginal people. While the document expresses an ideal shared by many Canadians, it lacks the clarity and definition that would make the actual implementation of self-government feasible. For example, there is no effective guidance about how indigenous governments should interact with provinces, territories and municipalities and, of course, the Government of Canada. Nowhere does the document provide explicit direction on matters of jurisdiction and financing.
Yet again, this is an issue on which Canada is leading the way. Our country has amassed considerable experience in the area of aboriginal self-government and has developed an array of effective tools. Our aboriginal people travel around the world talking about the very successful aboriginal governments that they are engaging in Canada.
Canada's Constitution provides for the recognition and affirmation of existing aboriginal and treaty rights. Our courts interpret the content of this recognition and protection. In many ways, an endorsement of the UN declaration would represent a step backward for Canada. It could well negate much of the progress already made on self-government, reignite divisive debates, and ultimately erode popular support for aboriginal and treaty rights.
In spite of Canada's decision to vote against the UN declaration, we continue to embrace numerous human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Canada continues to take action on the basis of such instruments and within our domestic legal framework.
One of the key, modern day challenges facing indigenous people around the world is equitable access to digital communications technologies. To ensure that aboriginal people in this country, particularly those living in remote communities, can access digital technologies, the Government of Canada established the SchoolNet program more than a decade ago. The program continues to provide Internet connections and supportive services to remote first nations schools. Another program, the Aboriginal Canada Portal, significantly improves access to a broad range of content relevant to aboriginal people.
Canada has also played a lead role in connectivity for indigenous people around the world. In 2002, when the United Nations endorsed a proposal for a world summit on the information society, Canada took action to ensure that indigenous people would participate.
Thanks to this country's diplomatic efforts and financial support, indigenous groups from around the world took part in the Geneva and Tunisia conferences. As a result, the final statement from the summit includes this article, which states:
|| In the evolution of the Information Society, particular attention must be given to the special situation of indigenous peoples, as well as to the preservation of their heritage and their cultural legacy.
The world summit process also led to the establishment of an international indigenous web portal. Owned and operated by indigenous people, the portal aims to foster links among indigenous communities around the world and that portal is an invaluable tool that will help indigenous people advance and protect their rights and interests.
Another fine illustration of Canada's commitment to international indigenous groups is a program funded by the Canadian International Development Agency. The indigenous people partnership program is a pilot program that links aboriginal groups in Canada with indigenous partners in Latin America and the Caribbean.
These cross-cultural projects generate valuable opportunities to forge new partnerships, exchange best practices and share knowledge, experience and expertise as a means of contributing to the improved well-being of indigenous people throughout this region. These projects enhance the capacity of local organizations and these indigenous communities to become self-sufficient.
Canada has also played a leading role in ensuring that aboriginal people are represented in international decision-making bodies. The Arctic Council, for example, was established through the Ottawa declaration in the early 1990s. The council was a high level intergovernmental forum that engaged inhabitants of our Arctic Region, including indigenous people, on these important issues, such as sustainable development and environmental protection.
Canada is also a leading supporter of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a non-governmental organization that represents some 150,000 Inuit living in four countries. The council promotes Inuit unity, rights and interests.
Canada has worked tirelessly with the United Nations to advance the rights and interests of all people of the world, including indigenous people. This country has played an active role in creating the UN permanent forum on indigenous issues, arguably the most important mechanism to recognize and promote interests and rights of indigenous people.
Canada has also contributed to the creation of the expert mechanism on the rights of indigenous people and supports the renewal of the mandate of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people.
These actions clearly demonstrate Canada's determination to advance the rights and interests in indigenous people throughout the world, but especially in Canada.
Unlike these agreements, the UN draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people, as I have said, lacks clear, practical guidance for states. Canada, along with other key nations, did not participate in the negotiations that produced the final text.
I am convinced that once my hon. colleagues carefully consider the motion now before us, they will recognize its imprecise language, reject its faulty logic, and join me in voting against it.
The opposition parties have said that Canada's concerns are overstated, yet proponents of the adoption of this draft declaration are calling on aboriginal groups to use the declaration in their negotiations in Canadian courts and to demand that the federal government bring policies in line with the declaration itself.
In a country like Canada, with strong democratic institutions, it is easy to take the issue of human rights for granted. Here the rights of indigenous people are recognized and affirmed in our Constitution and in our legal system. Regardless of the declaration, Canada will continue to take effective action at home and abroad to promote and protect the rights of indigenous people across our country, and of course, we will also work on extending existing human rights obligations and commitments.
Such effective action, I must be clear, will not be undertaken on the basis, though, of this declaration.
Mr. Speaker, I am proud to speak to the motion today. I thank the member for putting it forward. It is a very important debate on this issue.
I will start with a quote from the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nation. It is with regard to the legal questions around Canada's arguments against the UN declaration.
National Chief Phial Fontaine said:
|| We believe that Canadians are fair-minded people who care deeply about human rights and that they do not want their government to pick and choose when they will apply and respect human rights. Canada has made a commitment to uphold the highest human rights standards in international and domestic law.
|| We remind Canadians that it is not too late for the federal government to reverse its opposition to the UN Declaration, as Australia has promised to do. We expect the legal panel will agree with other legal advisors and international experts by reaffirming that the UN Declaration is consistent with the rights guaranteed under section 35 of Canada's constitution and all other domestic laws and international human rights laws.
I say that because we hear from the government repeatedly that it would not support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People because it did not fall in line with domestic law.
Before I proceed any further, Mr. Speaker, I am splitting my time with the member for .
I will speak to this issue and the UN declaration in terms of women's issues, as put forward by the status of women critic for the NDP. I represent a riding which has numerous aboriginal communities, including first nations and Métis communities. Over the last two years and some months, I have had the great privilege to meet with women throughout my riding. I have had the opportunity to have forums on issues pertaining specifically to first nations women, in particular, as we move forward with the government's legislation, a government that claims to be concerned with human rights for aboriginal women and children. It has been unequivocal in the minds and hearts of aboriginal women in my riding that their priorities are their families and children.
We have had in this current Parliament, under the Conservative government, a rare opportunity to have a true dialogue, a true consultation. In fact, when we talk about legislation and when there is the possibility that we might infringe on aboriginal and treaty rights, there is a legal premise, as laid out in our Constitution, section 35, that the federal government has a duty to consult.
That all sounds very legalese and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People often sounds legalese, but we are talking about the day to day issues. When it comes down to the day to day issues of life as it affects women, aboriginal women have been very explicit. They have said that their concerns are directly related to human rights.
For instance, a motion entitled “Jordan's Principle” was unanimously passed in the House. This would ensure that first nations children residing on reserve would receive health services for their complex medical needs. Hundreds of children in my riding are not receiving health services, a basic human right that the government has made no effort to ensure is provided, even though a motion was passed unanimously.
When we are talking about human rights, we are not talking about some concept that is not applicable in people's day to day lives. That is the very reason we have these laws and conventions. The work at the UN on the rights of indigenous peoples has been critical in terms of our domestic law and how we move forward.
Women were very concerned about the whole process of Bill where the government moved forward without true consultation by claiming that there were 30 years of consultation and that committee hearings fulfilled the duty to consult. We are talking about human rights and yet at the community level we see no new dollars for housing for the people residing on reserves. We have no new dollars for programs to address the issue of violence against women. No effort was made to ensure that the development of the legislation was done in partnership with the Native Women's Association of Canada or the Assembly of First Nations Women's Council.
The government claims that it has the issues and concerns of aboriginal women and children at the forefront and yet it participated in a process toward the development of the matrimonial real property legislation, one of the pieces of legislation in which it chose to participate, in a consultation process, with aboriginal people but when it came down to the actual development of the legislation it did so without the partnership of aboriginal women through the Native Women's Association of Canada or the Assembly of First Nations Women's Council.
I would like to read from a press release that the Native Women's Association of Canada issued. It was the day after the matrimonial real property legislation was tabled. The title of the press release is “'Consultative Partnership' a Sham”. The Native Women's Association of Canada said:
|| The Honourable Josée Verner, Minister of Canadian Heritage who--
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to the motion that the government fully implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Canada was an active participant in the drafting of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People over the course of many years. It was a long, overdue declaration that flowed from 20 years of deliberation. A working group of independent experts worked on it. It was debated and refined at the UN and was passed by the UN General Assembly by a vote of 144 in favour and 4 against.
It, therefore, came as a shock to the international community that Canada was one of the countries that voted against this important effort to advance the cause of human rights.
Canada used to be a leader at the United Nations. We were signatories to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We, therefore, call upon the Conservative government to respect the rights of indigenous people.
I would like to remind the House that one of the first acts of the Conservatives was to cancel the $5.1 billion Kelowna accord, which was an agreement reached under the former Liberal government.
This was an extraordinary agreement that included the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Métis National Council, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Native Women's Association of Canada and, ultimately, the first minister of each province and territory in Canada. It was a plan that was developed over 18 months by experts in 14 governments across Canada and in our aboriginal communities.
We in the Liberal Party consider it unacceptable that the incidence of infant mortality is almost 20% higher for first nations and that suicide can be anywhere from three to eleven times the national average.
Furthermore, teen pregnancies are nine times the national average.
The Kelowna accord would have doubled the number of aboriginal health professionals in 10 years from the current 150 physicians and 1,200 nurses today. Housing would have also been a national priority for first nations. Under the accord, a national effort would have closed the housing gap on reserves by 40% within five years and 80% within ten years.
The Premier of British Columbia, who was the chair of the Kelowna process, stated the following in the provincial legislature:
|| I characterize that agreement...as Canada's moment of truth. It was [our] time to do something that had eluded our...nation for 138 years. It was our chance to end the disparities in health, education, housing and economic opportunities.
Canadians are, therefore, dumbfounded as to why the Conservatives have chosen to abandon this historic opportunity to improve the quality of life of our aboriginal people.
Why has the blown off the surplus without any long term plan on behalf of the federal government to assist first nations? In a country as wealthy as ours, how is it that the Conservatives have no regard whatsoever for first nations? Why do they just pay lip service?
What is it about the UN declaration that they find so difficult to accept? The declaration talks about survival, about dignity and about health and education for aboriginal people. What is it that the Conservatives find so difficult to accept?
When we hear in the House that the Conservatives have done so much for the aboriginal people, it is all rhetoric, all talk, no action and no money.
I am not sure if any members on the government side have gone to the trouble of seeing what it is like to live with a constant boil water order that lasts for years.
I am not sure why the Conservative government is so insensitive to the basic needs of first nations or why it is opposed to an international Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. What is so flawed about it that the minister claims he cannot support? What is it that the Conservatives really want for aboriginal communities?
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to this very important motion moved by the member for .
The Amnesty International report, “The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Righting Historic Wrongs, Embracing a Future of Justice and Hope” talked about the urgent need for the declaration. I am going to read from it because it sets the context for why it is important for the House to support the UN declaration on indigenous rights. It states:
|| Indigenous peoples are among the most marginalized, impoverished and frequently victimized sectors of the societies in which they live. This is true in every region of the world...
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated:
|| For far too long the hopes and aspirations of indigenous peoples have been ignored; their lands have been taken; their cultures denigrated or directly attacked; their languages and customs suppressed; their wisdom and traditional knowledge overlooked; and their sustainable ways of developing natural resources dismissed. Some have even faced the threat of extinction.... The answer to these grave threats must be to confront them without delay.
That is a very powerful statement and why we need to take a look at supporting the UN declaration.
In this context, we have a long sad and sorry history in this country of appropriating lands, removing children from the care of their parents, residential schools, deliberate attempts to extinguish language, and certainly deliberate attempts to extinguish culture. We only have to look at the potlatch laws in British Columbia in the earlier century.
In that context, I want to talk about a couple of issues. One is around children. Of course, many members of the House have children and grandchildren. We know how near and dear those children are to our hearts and how important it is to make sure that our children grow up in environments that are safe, loving and protective.
The B.C. Aboriginal Child Care Society made a presentation in February 2008 on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and, as we can tell from its name, the B.C. Aboriginal Child Care Society's main focus is with children.
In its opening statement it provides a vision and talks about the fact that our children are sacred gifts from the creator and bringing up children is a sacred responsibility, that the well-being of children is indivisible and not separate from the general health and well-being of women, families and indigenous people, communities and nations. Then it goes on to talk about a number of factors that impact on aboriginal children in this country.
It specifically cites a couple of articles from the declaration that directly impact on the ability to protect and care for children in this country. I will not go through all of them but there are a couple that I want to mention. One is article 14 which states:
|| Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching...
|| Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.
Article 15 states:
|| Indigenous peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information.
Those articles talk about a framework for how children are raised and cared for. Sadly, in this country a disproportionate number of children are in care. I am going to talk about that a bit more in a few minutes but I first want to touch on a very special child named Jordan.
In the House last December members unanimously supported Jordan's principle. Jordan's principle is about a little boy who, sadly, in his four short years of life, did not enjoy the benefits of a home.
Jordan was a little boy born with complex medical needs and as a result, his family made the very difficult decision of surrendering him to the care of the province because the family could not get the care he needed in his community. After two years of being in hospital, Jordan's circumstances stabilized to the extent that he was able to go into a foster home where he would be provided with specialized care.
This is the sad comment. When we talk about the rights of children and the declaration of indigenous rights, what we had is a child who then spent a further two years in hospital. Why did he spend two more years in hospital? Because the federal and provincial governments argued over who should pay for his care.
We have this tale of a little child who was removed from his family because he could not get care. The family gave him up, surrendered him because he could not get care. Then governments argued over dollars and cents to the extent that the child died in hospital. They went so far as to argue about who should pay for shower heads.
Unfortunately, this child's story is not an isolated one. In this day and age in this country, many children from coast to coast to coast are in exactly the same circumstances.
The Norway House Cree Nation has 37 special needs children who are currently living with their parents and getting additional care as needed. These are children with complex medical needs. Unfortunately, it is another case of jurisdictional dispute. Many of those 37 children's parents are having to look at surrendering them to provincial foster care because we cannot get the federal government to come to the table and agree on a child centre approach, to agree that children should be put first. If that is not a fundamental human right, what is?
The irony of this is that it would cost the government more to have these children in provincial foster care than it would to keep them in their homes in Norway House Cree Nation.
That is fundamentally wrong. Yet we cannot get the governments to move on this. The federal government could demonstrate leadership, could demonstrate its commitment to human rights by coming to the table and saying that it will pay for those children to stay in their homes where they will get the cultural support, where they will get the language support, where they will benefit from the elders.
Norway House Cree Nation is limping from funding crisis to funding crisis. There is a two month extension right now, but in two months' time, many of those kids could end up in provincial care. That is a shameful crisis in this country.
Jordan's principle has widespread support. There is a coalition of many groups and organizations across this country who support Jordan's principle, which says that we would come from a child centre approach and put kids first.
In its journal, the Canadian Medical Association had an editorial about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It said:
||...we endorse putting the medical needs of First Nations' children first. We also make this recommendation: that if the provincial, territorial and federal governments ignore Jordan's Principle and entangle themselves in financial or jurisdictional battles first, then governments deserve to be sued, in the most winnable test case that First Nations' advocates can manage.
Once again we are talking about forcing first nations into litigation because government will not do the right thing. If we truly care about working and middle class families in this country, if we truly care about their children, we would not force first nations into litigation to make sure their kids are well looked after.
Part of this coalition is called Many Hands, One Dream. “Health care professionals know all too well the need for Jordan's principle,” said Dr. Kent Saylor, a pediatrician in Kahnawake, Quebec and chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society's First Nations and Inuit Health Committee, “We see families struggling to get the services that their children are entitled to, while governments argue over who will pay the bill”.
While we are talking about children, I also want to talk about the fact that unfortunately the Assembly of First Nations and the organization that Ms. Cindy Blackstock works with had to file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. They filed a complaint regarding the disproportionate number of children in care and the fact that many of these children receive less funding as first nations children on reserve than they do if they are in provincial care. In some of the provinces there is a 22% discrepancy. A child in provincial care gets 22% more toward his or her care. In addition, measures are sadly lacking around putting those children first in terms of least disruptive measures, support to their families.
As Ms. Blackstock has pointed out on any number of occasions, for many of these children it is not an issue of abuse, but an issue of poverty. If we want to make the lives of families better and the lives of these children better, we have to look at proactive measures to address the poverty in many first nations communities.
A number of issues around children need to be addressed. The United Nations declaration on indigenous rights goes a long way to providing some benchmarks in order to do that.
As well, I want to talk about education.
Article 13 in the declaration talks about the fact that indigenous peoples have the rights to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures and to designate and retain their own names for community places and persons.
Paragraph 2 of article 13 says:
|| States shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected and also to ensure that indigenous peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.
Article 14, and I referred to this earlier but it is important in this context, states:
|| 1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.
|| 2. Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.
|| 3. States shall, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.
When it comes to education, on any number of levels, we see a violation of human rights in our country.
My colleague from Timmins—James Bay has been leading a fight on a school in Attawapiskat. Attawapiskat is a community where the school was contaminated by a diesel spill, I believe, in 1979. It took many years to have those children taken out of that contaminated school. They were put in portables. The portables have a lot of problems with them. I am sure most of us in the House would say that after our children had been in portables for eight years, some of them the entire life of their school time, it would be time to ensure they had a school.
The declaration talks about a right to education. In Canada, when we talk about the right to education, we talk about an education that provides the full range of opportunities. We want to see our kids in safe schools. We want to see that those schools are well-equipped. We want to see that the students have access to teachers who are well-qualified.
We have schools like Attawapiskat and many other cases across the country where first nations children on reserve are subjected to substandard school buildings. We have stories about the doors not closing properly, or about mould in the schools, or about some kids being farmed out across the community in order to receive their education.
On the K to 12 system, we had testimony at the aboriginal affairs committee. We studied post-secondary education. We heard consistently that education was one of the doorways to raise families and communities out of poverty.
If we are not providing children an opportunity in that K to 12 system to get access to an adequate education so they can graduate from high school and go on to a post-secondary institution, then we are not fulfilling our duty. We know about the honour of the Crown and the fiduciary responsibilities, but we see a government that continues to fail in this.
We recently asked for some statistics on the number of schools that currently needed to be built. The figures we received indicated that 39 schools across Canada needed to be built, which would take approximately $300,000 to build them. With the amount of surpluses we had over the last 10 or 12 years, that was ample money there to build the schools to ensure that first nations children not only had the schools, but also had the operating budgets to ensure they had an adequate education.
In addition, language is a big issue. In my riding of the Cowichan tribes have done a tremendous amount of work around preservation of the Halkomelem language. They are working hard to build a dictionary, to get oral testimony from the elders, to provide language labs in the schools