United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
On May 14th, 2014, the Yukon Legislative Assembly voted unanimously in favour of a motion to endorse Canada’s Statement of Support on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Apart from the Northwest Territories and of course, Canada itself, the Yukon is one of the first jurisdictions in our country to stand behind such a fundamentally important document. The timing of this symbolic gesture could not have been more apt, a mere two days after James Anaya, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, called attention to the work that remains to be done with regards to the treatment of aboriginal people in Canada, especially in light of the alarming rates of violence against aboriginal women. In the words of the MLA who brought the motion forward, Mr. Kevin Barr, “Adopting this motion […] must be done recognizing that it is just another step along the path toward healing and reconciliation.”
Support from the Aboriginal community
The Yukon Human Rights Commission believes in the principle of “Nothing about us, without us”. Accordingly, the Commission wrote all Yukon First Nations chiefs to seek their advice before calling on the Legislature to endorse the Declaration. The Commission also consulted on the proposed motion with Council of Yukon First Nations (“CYFN”) Grand Chief Ruth Massie, who provided leadership, advice and support, and was present the day of the unanimous adoption. Both Mr. Barr, who is Métis, and Mr. Darius Elias, who is a Vuntut Gwitchin First Nations member, spoke at length of their support of the motion before the Legislative Assembly, as did the leaders of all three political parties amid other MLAs.
Impact of the Declaration
The Declaration itself, although initially rejected by Canada right up until 2010, was drafted with the help of Canadian First Nations over the span of twenty years. Although a declaration is not technically a legally binding document, its endorsement reflects a nearly worldwide willingness to guarantee a certain minimum of rights to indigenous peoples. It includes principles that are present in other instruments of international law that are legally binding, such as treaties, conventions and covenants like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It can help generate new ones, through the development of customary law—some authors argue that it already has. It is also a tool that can be used by the courts to interpret existing laws and policies “in accordance with the principles of justice, democracy, respect for human rights, equality, non-discrimination, good governance and good faith” (article 46(3)). The Human Rights Commission also uses the Declaration as an aid to interpret and apply the Human Rights Act.
Why is the Declaration so important?
The Declaration constitutes a recognition of colonization and dispossession of lands, territories and resources from Indigenous peoples. It sets in place provisions to ensure that this does not continue to happen. One such provision is the requirement of “free, prior and informed consent” of indigenous peoples when their lives or territories stand to be affected by a proposed measure. There are measures of redress set out for the instances where consent has not been obtained. Although our Canadian constitutional law enshrines the duty to consult with First Nations in good faith when their rights are to be affected, the Declaration takes this a step further. The Declaration aims not only to address the harm previously done, but it seeks to level the playing field that has been slanted in favour of the State for so long. It aims to transform the relationship between States and Indigenous peoples from one based on oppression and racism to one that is based on mutual respect, equality and fairness.