November 12 marked the one-year anniversary of Canada's signing of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and aboriginal and Canadian leaders looked back on an event that sowed seeds of change, what has come to pass since and what it portends for the future.
Both Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan both pointed to the Joint First Nations–Crown Action Plan as a highlight of Canada's first year as a signatory of the UN document.
UNDRIP "sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues," as a United Nations press release put it back when the document was first passed by the U.N. in 2007. "The Declaration emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations. It also prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them, and their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development."
The First Nations–Crown Action Plan recognizes the "enduring historic relationship based on mutual respect, friends and support" that exists between Canada and First Nations, according to the AFN in a statement. Moves such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's formal apology to Indian residential school former students and other measures taken to rectify what went on during the 150 years that aboriginal children were essentially interred away from their families, were also key, Atleo said. He emphasized in particular education, treaties, claim resolution, economic development and policy reform as keys for improving prosperity for aboriginals and Canadians alike.
Over the past year the AFN and other aboriginal leaders have asserted their rights under the Declaration in a number of instances regarding industrial development, firmly holding Canada to its non-binding promise of consultation with First Nations in projects such as proposed mines in the Ring of Fire. Most recently the chiefs of all nine Ojibway and Cree communities of the Matawa First Nations pulled their support for a mining development in the Ring of Fire, a resource-rich swathe of land in northern Ontario, because they feel the government is not doing a thorough enough environmental assessment.
Free, prior and informed consent are the buzzwords for implementing UNDRIP, aboriginals say. In addition, aboriginals are using the Declaration as a jumping-off point for hammering out trade relationships directly with other countries, as on a recent trade mission that Atleo and other leaders took to China.
“Chiefs have clearly instructed us to make the U.N. Declaration a guide to our advocacy and efforts,” Atleo said in a statement. "The U.N. Declaration requirement for approaches of mutual respect and partnership and the clear standards inform everything we do."
He noted how fitting that the anniversary falls close to Remembrance Day, giving a nod to aboriginal veterans and linking their struggle to the overall fight for equality and respect among all peoples.
"Our many veterans were and continue to be proud fighters for freedom and human rights," Atleo said. "The achievement of the U.N. Declaration represents another critical step in this advocacy and effort for respect and human rights. Moving forward now, First Nations have increased opportunity to advance their rights and responsibilities and to achieve lasting change through justice and progress.”
Likewise, the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) also highlighted the Joint Action Plan and pointed out the government's work in the same key areas that Atleo mentioned.
"We continue to take concrete action on important issues like education, economic development, housing, child and family services, access to safe drinking water, and the extension of human rights protection and matrimonial real property protection to First Nations on reserve," Duncan said in a statement from AAND. "We announced a Joint Action Plan with the Assembly of First Nations and launched a National Education Panel. In addition, we have worked in partnership with Métis leaders and organizations to establish the Métis Entrepreneurship Fund. We have also made important investments to Nunavut Sivuniksavut to provide students with a unique education program to learn about Inuit history and prepare for the labor force."
The goal, he said, was to support the attainment of a better quality of life for the country's aboriginals.
"Canada is strongly committed to furthering a positive relationship with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people based on our shared history, respect and desire to focus on delivering tangible results," Duncan said.