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MacKenzie: Why the declaration matters to my people

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When Canada terminated the Innu people's right to their land and flooded
their hunting grounds, Armand MacKenzie took it personally.

Born and raised by his parents and grandparents in the traditional caribou
hunting territory of the Innu people, Mackenzie learned to trap, hunt and
live off the land as part of his upbringing.

"We were poor, but it was a good life, very rooted in my language and
culture," he said. "We lived off the trap line: that's how we made our
money. We were rich in terms of land and our culture, and I was fortunate
to have that. But my father thought education might improve my life, and I
was sent to residential school when I was 13."

There he began to learn about the discrimination and racism that Indian
people were subjected to in Canada, including being punished for speaking
their language and for resisting conversion to Christianity.

"I saw how much injustice there was toward our people and how we were
treated with racism -- despised, even," he said. "I began to see how white
people were living, improving their economic conditions, making a living
off our land with all these hydro projects and mining companies.

"I decided to go to law school and study more about human rights and
equality under the law."

After years working in Labrador and Quebec's legal systems as a highly
trained attorney, MacKenzie again saw discrimination and biased treatment
toward Native people. Of particular concern was the language barrier that
prevented many Native clients from understanding the laws by which they
were judged and often jailed.

But it was the total termination of the Innu people's rights to their land,
resources and way of life that inspired his deep-rooted commitment to fight
for protections for Indian people under international law.

In the 1960s, Newfoundland officials contracted with Hydro-Quebec to dam
Mista-shipu, a major river in traditional Innu hunting grounds, and flood
the region to create the third-largest artificial lake in the world.
Newfoundland's premier, Joe Smallwood, named the new reservoir after
himself.

"My mother's land and traditional hunting grounds were flooded by
Hydro-Quebec," said MacKenzie. "The government officials never consulted us
or got our consent. When Innu burial grounds were going to be flooded, they
exhumed the remains of her relatives and sent them to Montreal to study the
bones.

"My mother kept talking about it. We asked that the remains be sent back to
our community so we could have another burial service," he recalled. "It
took 10 years to get them returned. They sent them back in a cardboard box,
the kind you use for files."

His father's family home was razed and destroyed, without consent or
compensation, to make way for a new road being built in the province.

"They just destroyed it," MacKenzie said. "They wouldn't do that to white
people -- and if they did, they would be compensated. But that's not the
case with Indians -- it's normal to flood our lands, to dig up our
relatives, to deny us our rights. It's just the way it is. I had a duty to
do something about that."

Then fresh out of law school, he was asked by his community and his family
to help in the fight against one of the world's most powerful nations
because in addition to a law degree, he possessed traditional knowledge and
spoke Innu, French and English.

At 23, he was hired by the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations,
Ovide Mercredi, and sent to the Vienna Conference on Human Rights to help
establish basic human rights and equality for Indian people.

In the 15 years he has been working in the international arena, he also
learned Italian and some Spanish, languages that serve him well while
lobbying nation-states about the rights of Native peoples.

"When we hear at the United Nations that in no case should indigenous
peoples be deprived of their means of subsistence, it has a personal
meaning for me. That's what happened to my people -- that's our reality,"
he said.

"All the principles that are in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples have a practical meaning to me, to my family, to my
community, to my people."

Article 27 of the declaration, which is still being negotiated, asserts
that indigenous peoples have the right to redress and restitution for
lands, territories and resources which have been confiscated, occupied,
used or damaged without the free and informed consent of indigenous
peoples.

"The right to redress says we should have lands back in size, quality and
the same condition as what was taken. That's one way we can address what
happened with unilateral extinguishment of our land rights," he added.

"I look at the declaration in a very practical way because each of those
provisions will have an impact on our people. The influence of the
declaration is not just a theory -- it will affect the reality we are
living at home. I can see it and it's going to happen."