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Advocates denounce Chrétien-era bid to weaken UN Indigenous rights declaration

Then-prime minister Jean Chrétien  at the Liberal Biennial convention in Ottawa on March 17, 2000. Newly released documents show the Chrétien government led efforts to weaken the recognition of Indigenous rights at the UN. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Then-prime minister Jean Chrétien at the Liberal Biennial convention in Ottawa on March 17, 2000. Newly released documents show the Chrétien government led efforts to weaken the recognition of Indigenous rights at the UN. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Indigenous leaders always suspected certain countries of colluding behind closed doors to undermine their rights at the United Nations.

But now, after newly released Australian cabinet papers showed Canada led efforts to weaken the original draft declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples at the UN, secretly crafting a state-friendly substitute with Australia in 2002 and 2003, they have some evidence to prove it.

And they're far from shocked.

"We all knew that Canada was in the back rooms trying to counter everything," said Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaw lawyer and chair in Indigenous governance at Toronto Metropolitan University.

"Not just Canada, but Canada was a main instigator, so to have this on the record from another country just backs up everything that Indigenous peoples have been saying for decades."

Pam Palmater, originally from Eel River Bar First Nation, says Canada's Indigenous peoples have spent too much time any money going to courts and the United Nations to have their rights affirmed. She expects more and more First Nations will be rolling out fisheries and other resource-based initiatives.
Pam Palmater, originally from Eel River Bar First Nation, says Canada's Indigenous peoples have spent too much time any money going to courts and the United Nations to have their rights affirmed. She expects more and more First Nations will be rolling out fisheries and other resource-based initiatives.

Pam Palmater says the documents show Canada knew the declaration could have significant legal impacts. (Lisa MacIntosh)

Indigenous leaders completed their original draft in 1993, approved it in 1994, and aimed to finish it by 2004. But around that time, pressure from opponent states sparked negotiation of what became a diluted version that the UN general assembly adopted in 2007, said Charmaine White Face, who remembers it vividly.

"The original one was very strong," said White Face, or Zumila Wobaga, spokesperson for the 1894 Sioux Nation Treaty Council in South Dakota.

White Face wrote a book analyzing the different versions of the declaration, Indigenous Nations' Rights in the Balance. She argues the UN betrayed Indigenous nations by weakening the original draft.

"It doesn't surprise me at all," she said.

"We knew way back in 1994 that the English speaking, colonizing states were going to try. They don't want to recognize us as nations with legitimate international treaties with them."

Canada 'disingenuous' on Indigenous rights: historian

Today, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or UNDRIP, is considered a legally non-binding instrument outlining minimum human rights standards. Four states voted against it in 2007: Canada, Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand.

In the early 2000s, the Canadian government, then led by Jean Chrétien, proposed developing the state-friendly substitute, was willing to commit significant resources to the initiative, and saw Australia as its most promising partner, the newly released documents say.

Canada and Australia hoped their draft would "counter the status of the existing draft and prevent it from attaining the status of customary international law." They also predicted their "non-transparent, bilateral" tactics would attract strident criticism.

They asked three other countries to join them, but none did. Norway was "non-committal," the U.S. joined as an observer only, and New Zealand asked to "remain at arms-length for domestic reasons," the papers say.

Sean Carleton, a historian at the University of Manitoba, said the documents provide important evidence to back what Indigenous leaders long argued and suspected.

"These documents help us see the disjuncture between the ways Canada presents itself on the world stage and what it's doing behind closed doors," he said.

"There's a disingenuous nature to the way that Canada presents itself and the work that it does to facilitate ongoing colonization."

Minister calls efforts 'a stain' 

Earlier this week, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu tried to distance the Trudeau Liberal government from these initiatives, saying every act of colonization and undermining of Indigenous rights leaves a "stain" on Canada.

"We've taken a long leap away from those early thoughts of elected leaders of all stripes who looked to undermine and weaken Indigenous rights in this country," she said.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu rises during question period in the House of Commons on Dec. 1, 2023 in Ottawa.
Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu rises during question period in the House of Commons on Dec. 1, 2023 in Ottawa.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu rises during question period in the House of Commons on Dec. 1, 2023, in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

But Russ Diabo, a Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) policy analyst, said he believes the comment is disingenuous, too.

"I think it's nonsense," said Diabo.

"I see them achieving a lot of what they wanted to do under Chrétien's agenda from over 50 some years ago, under the guise of implementing the UN declaration and saying it's self-determination."

Chrétien is a controversial figure among First Nations people because he authored the Pierre Trudeau government's 1969 White Paper, a widely rejected policy proposal to assimilate First Nations into mainstream society.

As prime minister, Chrétien also enacted policies on First Nations land claims, rights and governance that remain in place, Diabo said. He contends these policies are inconsistent with the declaration.

Chrétien-era Indigenous and foreign affairs ministers could not be reached for comment.

After Stephen Harper's Conservatives won the 2006 federal election, the Liberals, from their new seats on the opposition benches, attacked him for voting against UNDRIP. Harper eventually endorsed the declaration as an "aspirational document" in 2010.

Justin Trudeau's government enacted legislation to implement the declaration in 2021, for which Palmater gives them due credit, but she said Canada still violates it on the ground.

"You still see them forcing pipelines or mining through Indigenous territories. You still see them sending in the RCMP," she said.

Kenneth Deer, who is Kanien'kehá:ka from Kahnawà:ke just south of Montreal, was involved in developing the declaration from 1987 to 2007. He said opposition to Indigenous rights is deeply entrenched in Canada's bureaucracy, not just any one party.

"It's not just Chrétien," he said.

"It's the institutions in Canada that were resisting the rights of Indigenous peoples."