Language selector

Indigenous Rights Declaration letter

Page controls

September 13, 2007

Page content

For immediate publication

August 9, 2007
The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario  K1A 0A2

Dear Prime Minister Harper:

Re:  Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

I am writing to urge the Government of Canada to reconsider its position opposing the adoption by the United Nation’s General Assembly of the existing draft of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the UN Human Rights Council on June 29, 2006 was an important step forward in building global protection for the rights of Indigenous peoples. It represented the culmination of more than twenty years of international consultation in which Canada has played a significant role.  Canada played a key role in the successful conclusion of the negotiation process, helping find common ground between Indigenous peoples and the vast majority of participating states, and helping to draft many key articles of the Declaration.

Indigenous peoples are among the most marginalized and dispossessed sectors of societies around the world. They endure prejudice, discrimination, and violations of human rights that threaten their cultural survival.  Unfortunately, the same is true for Aboriginal, Inuit and Métis people across Canada. Many endure higher levels of poverty, worse living conditions, and far less control over their lives and lands than do non-Aboriginal Canadians. I scarcely need to remind you of the significant frustrations that have emerged as a result of these from Aboriginal, Metis, and Inuit peoples in Canada. 

I was deeply disappointed to learn that Canada led the failed vote against the Declaration at the Human Rights Council in 2006. More recently, I am even more concerned that, by continuing to call for renegotiation of the Declaration before the General Assembly has a chance to vote on it, Canadian officials are putting the final adoption of this much needed human rights instrument in jeopardy.

In its official position on the Declaration, Canada indicated that it was seeking to clarify substantive issues and to develop specific proposals to achieve the broadest possible agreement.  The official position indicated a number of concerns with the provisions of the interpretations, and which were considered as possible threats to existing national efforts to balance Aboriginal claims for land and self-governance with competing national interests.  While its official position raises items that could be understandable concerns of the Government of Canada, these concerns are simply not valid considering the nature and content of the existing draft Declaration.  The Declaration is simply a tool for interpreting the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights as it applies to indigenous peoples.  It is not a document that creates new rights but simply clarifies obligations Canada already has undertaken.  It can only be interpreted in relation to the full range of existing human rights protections and state obligations.  This is explicitly acknowledged in the Declaration itself. The Declaration explicitly encourages “harmonious and cooperative relations between States and Indigenous peoples.” In fact, the Declaration contains no less than nine preambular paragraphs and 15 operative articles that specify consultations, cooperation and partnerships between Indigenous peoples and States. In addition Article 45 of the Declaration states clearly that:

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act contrary to the Charter of the United Nations.

It is notable that the Declaration has been reviewed by officials in the Canadian Departments of Foreign Affairs and Indian Affairs, and that they recommended that Canada should support the immediate adoption of the Declaration.  An independent poll commissioned by Amnesty International (Canada) shows that the majority of Canadians support the Declaration and feel Canada needs to take a leadership role in this area of human rights.

There exists pressing need for positive international standards for the protection of Indigenous peoples' human rights. Indigenous peoples in many parts of the world lack the minimal protections that are afforded to Aborginals, Inuit, and Metis people in Canada.  A UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is needed urgently to bring attention to these serious human rights concerns and to galvanize efforts to address them around the world.  In addition, by supporting the UN Declaration, Canada would be affirming its commitment to the rights of its own indigenous peoples, many of whom have become increasingly alienated by the seeming in-action of governments in response to their plight. Such a move would have great symbolic value in furthering the relationship between governments and Indigenous people in this country.  Lastly, by supporting the UN Declaration, Canada would be further cementing the leadership position this country has long enjoyed in the global movement to respect human rights.  Canada’s otherwise respected human rights position would be sullied by continuing efforts to oppose the Declaration and slow down the General Assembly’s approval of it.

I urge the Government of Canada to withdraw its opposition to the immediate adoption of the Declaration by the UN General Assembly.

Yours truly,

Barbara Hall, B.A, LL.B, Ph.D (hon.)

Chief Commissioner