Caution on native rights


Canada is taking considerable heat for joining only three other countries in voting against a United Nations declaration on aboriginal rights that was more than 20 years in the making.
The UN General Assembly adopted the declaration Thursday by a vote of 143-4, with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States opposed, and 11 abstentions. Since then, aboriginal and human rights groups have denounced Canada's opposition to the document, with some calling it "a stain on Canada's international reputation."
Despite this criticism, it would have been difficult for Canada to support the declaration in its current form. Its fuzzy wording and overly broad guarantees threaten to undermine our legal framework for addressing aboriginal rights, which has been hammered out over decades of constitutional developments and court decisions.
As imperfect as our current system is, John McNee, Canada's ambassador to the United Nations, was right to register Canada's "significant concerns" about this flawed declaration and vote against it.
Particularly troubling is the "right to self-determination" in article 3. Notwithstanding last-minute changes to the declaration that purport to protect the territorial integrity of existing states, could this phrase go beyond encouraging legitimate aspirations for native self-government and empower full-blown secessionist movements?
Based on the declaration, it's hard to tell. That's worrisome.
Also wide open to interpretation is article 26, which says aboriginal people "have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired." Canada already recognizes aboriginal land rights both in treaties and in a well-established, if cumbersome, land-claims process.
The effect of the declaration is unclear. It is anyone's guess whether natives could use it to reopen long-settled treaties, or claim large parts of urban Canada, with UN backing, because they once fished there.
Article 19, which says governments should consult aboriginals "in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent" before adopting laws that affect them, also leaves too much to the imagination. Of course, Canada's native people should have a say in such circumstances. But if the upshot is to oblige the government to sound out every native community in the country and give them a virtual veto over any measure that could possibly touch them, the potential for legislative paralysis across Canada would be profound.
True, the declaration is non-binding. But even without legal teeth, it still carries a moral weight that could seriously undermine the relationship between natives and non-natives in Canada.
Canada has little to be proud of in its dealings with native peoples. Too many live in dire poverty. Many still carry the emotional scars of forced assimilation in residential schools. And the government has only fuelled frustration by dragging its heels on land claims.
But by signing an international document that leaves many questions unanswered, Ottawa would have done this country a disservice.

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