By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Canada’s most recent positioning during UN debates on indigenous peoples rights has left one of the main players with the commission delving into the dark history of residential schools wondering if he can ever reconcile with this country.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission Commissioner Willie Littlechild said Canada recently argued that the collective rights of indigenous peoples were not human rights. He said Canada made the argument during debates last week at the UN Human Rights Council.
“When a state takes the floor and attacks indigenous rights and freedoms in that way by using a tactic that is old…to bring that back again, is a giant step backward,” said Littlechild, who attended the sessions in Geneva. “For me, as a commissioner and a former student, to tell me to reconcile with someone who keeps doing that, that is a very difficult proposition.”
The debate centred on a single letter in a “pro forma and procedural” resolution, according to another observer.
The resolution was aimed at extending the three-year mandate of an UN official tasked with monitoring and investigating indigenous rights issues across the world, said Alberto Saldamando, general counsel for the International Indian Treaty Council.
Canada objected to an amendment to place an “s” at the end of the word people in a resolution, which described the official as the “Special Rapporteur on the situation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people,” said Saldamando, in an interview from San Francisco.
Saldamando, who was present during the informal debate, said that Canada, along with the U.S., Poland, Sweden, the U.K., and Russia, objected to the “s” because they believed it crossed the line into equating human rights with collective rights.
“It was Canada’s contention…that collective rights are not human rights,” said Saldamando. “They felt that any reference to human rights and fundamental freedoms (should) only refer to the individual rights of people and not the collective rights of peoples as human rights.”
Saldamando said Canada’s argument is an old one and casts doubt on the authenticity of its declared intentions to support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Stephen Harper government switched their opposition and promised in this year’s Speech from the Throne give a qualified endorsement to the declaration. Former Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said the change of heart was prompted by the amount of grief they received from First Nations leaders across the country on the issue.
Littlechild said it appears the Canadian government didn’t really have a change of heart. Littlechild said he viewed Canada’s most recent argument as a direct “attack” on the country’s indigenous peoples.
“The Canadian delegation was taking the position to deny that we are humans,” said Littlechild, during a teleconference with reporters Tuesday afternoon. “I will challenge anyone who tries to deny those rights, at any level, any forum…We have, for example, sacred ceremonies we do in our own cultures, our own languages, that we believe are fundamental rights and we see that as a direct attack to those kinds of beliefs we hold as indigenous peoples.”
Littlechild said the experience in Geneva prompted him to take Canada to task during an appearance before a Senate committee for not signing the UN declaration.
The Senate committee on Aboriginal Peoples invited the three commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to testify on the progress of reconciliation since the 2008 residential school apology.
Littlechild told Senators that Canada’s refusal to endorse the declaration was hindering reconciliation.
“How can we as a country…keep denying that there are rights that exist for indigenous people?” said Littlechild, during the hearing Tuesday morning.
He was criticized by Conservative Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen, a close advisor to Harper, who suggested they should instead stick to domestic issues.
“I would hope that energies, monies, funding, are not being devoted to an international effort when we need every ounce of energy focused (on the TRC),” said Stewart Olsen.
Littlechild later said Stewart Olsen went a bit far in her criticism.
“It is very difficult for me as a former student to witness what I saw last week…and it caused me to say what I did,” said Littlechild. “It challenges the integrity of the independence of the commission when we are told we can’t do things in a certain way by anyone. I think we need to safeguard our independence as well.”
Saldamando said that after much debate among indigenous representatives they decided to support a watered-down resolution describing the UN official as a” Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon’s office said they were looking into the issue.