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True reconciliation begins with Declaration

Out of 144 nations expressing support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, only three “no” voters remain: the United States, Canada and New Zealand. Australia, one of the four original nations to vote against its adoption, last month changed its position and gave its support to the Declaration, declaring the move “another important step in re-setting the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.”

In light of that historic announcement, New Zealand is said to be reconsidering its view.

Canada, despite its pledge to pursue meaningful reconciliation with indigenous peoples of the north, is facing growing public pressure to move ahead with the implementation of the Declaration. Some recent, tense situations between the Canadian government and First Nations peoples demonstrate both the need for true reconciliation and the rocky path that lay ahead.

There is a world of positive change promised by the principles within the Declaration, but it must be implemented.

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Last month, Pope Benedict XVI expressed “sorrow” to a delegation from Canada’s Assembly of First Nations over the abuse that Indian children suffered at residential schools run by the Roman Catholic Church. While a few First Nation leaders, including AFN Leader Phil Fontaine, himself a survivor of the residential school system, called the statement “significant,” many survivors did not feel the Pope’s words went far enough.

In First Nations communities where the legacy of physical, emotional and sexual abuse runs deep through generations, many felt the visit was a missed opportunity. They wanted more pressure on the church to acknowledge the institutional oppression waged against indigenous people worldwide in the name of Christianity.

Today, remnants of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and indigenous resistance of it can be seen throughout Indian lands in North America. In the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne, at the physical and political heart of the struggle to remain free and independent of U.S. and Canadian government policies, there is a unique resistance taking place. Plans to arm the Canadian Border Services Agency officers with handguns to “enhance border security and officer safety” are underway, and have met peaceful protest by residents of the Mohawk territory. It is the only point of entry into Canada that is situated within a First Nations reserve, located in a residential area of a small island in the St. Lawrence River. Understandably, the presence of the CBSA has been a tense issue for decades. Incidents of intimidation and racial profiling are documented, and complaints have been filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. According to a spokesperson for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the responses have so far been unfavorable.

There is a strong need for implementation of the principles of the Declaration in places like Akwesasne, where policies of (several) neighboring governments continue to chip away at the sovereignty of indigenous peoples. Any movement in the direction of an endorsement is met by cautious optimism, but optimism nonetheless.

This week a brief statement sent the world of indigenous rights activism abuzz: “The position on [this issue] is under review.” These few words by a spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the United Nations caught the ear of many who hope President Obama is reconsidering America’s position on the Declaration. Obama, a constitutional law scholar with affability toward Native people and nations, who has several Native women advisors, could be the best hope for a new U.S. position on the rights of indigenous peoples. There is a world of positive change promised by the principles within the Declaration, but it must be implemented. President Obama should not hesitate to make that change possible.