It would be nice to think that once the federal Liberals won the election last October, they started going through the files they’d inherited, came across one marked “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” and thought, “Oh gee, we may not be able to keep this promise after all.”
Nice, but not likely. Justin Trudeau and his troops were well aware it would be next to impossible to adopt the UN declaration wholesale, as they’d pledged time and again. Any number of experts said so. It was in all the papers. The previous government explained, in quite clear language, that there were serious legal and constitutional concerns making it impracticable. OK, as far as the Liberals were concerned everything the Tories said was a lie, but the government’s explanation was backed up by learned scholars, legal authorities, and even some Liberals not blinded by the immediate need to win votes.
“Simplistic approaches such as adopting the United Nations declaration as being Canadian law are unworkable”
The declaration is vague and vulnerable to competing interpretations. Ken Coates, a noted scholar, explained just before the election campaign began: “Long before the Conservative Party was in power, the Liberals before had some big issues with [the contents of the declaration]. … Not because it said things that were upsetting to the governments of the country … but because of concern that the requirements in the declaration interfered with and overlapped with a bunch of Canadian laws and regulations, including things like modern land-claims treaties.”
But the Trudeau Liberals ignored all that, pledging in no uncertain terms to put the declaration into law. Trudeau told the 36th general session of the Assembly of First Nations, almost exactly a year ago: “We will work with you to enact the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, starting with the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
The promise was included in the Liberal platform. Even after gaining power, the new minister of aboriginal affairs, Carolyn Bennett, proclaimed: “We intend nothing less than to adopt and implement the declaration in accordance with the Canadian Constitution.”
An unsuspecting native Canadian could have been forgiven for believing they really meant it. That they were being truthful and honest. Until Thursday, that is. Which is when Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould pulled the rug out. Speaking at the 37th AFN assembly — 12 months after Trudeau’s all-encompassing pledge to the same audience — Wilson-Raybould changed the story. Turning the declaration into law simply makes no sense, she said. Or, in her words:
“Simplistic approaches such as adopting the United Nations declaration as being Canadian law are unworkable and, respectfully, a political distraction to undertaking the hard work actually required to implement it back home in communities.”
“Simplistic approaches?” Like, for instance, the one to which her party pledged itself, with the microphones on, the cameras pointing at them and everyone listening?
You have to hand it to Liberals, no one can carry out a barefaced retreat like they can. Wilson-Raybould explained that the new plan will incorporate elements of the declaration into Canadian law over time, with the help of aboriginal groups, ensuring they fit neatly with the Constitution. “What we need is an efficient process of transition that lights a fire under the process of decolonization but does so in a controlled manner that respects where indigenous communities are in terms of rebuilding,” she said.
Great statement. It includes all the key buzzwords to offset critics: “transition,” “decolonization,” “respect.” But note also the crucial qualifiers, “in a controlled manner … that respects where indigenous communities are in terms of rebuilding.” That is, under Ottawa’s control, when we think you’re ready.
Maybe Trudeau meant to make clear a year ago that he considered wholesale implementation of the declaration a “simplistic approach,” but just forgot to say so. Must have slipped his mind that adopting the UN standard would be piecemeal and depend on natives bringing forward proposals and ideas that can be adopted without upsetting the apple cart. Oh well, you give a lot of speeches, things happen. No biggie.
The basis of the Liberals’ ardent wooing of aboriginal Canadians was a pledge to do better. To stop breaking promises. To quit mouthing sweet words empty of meaning. To reform the relationship and move away from the traditional paternalism and deceit. To bring about, in Wilson-Raybould’s words to a UN forum on indigenous issues in May, “meaningful and systemic change.”
So far they’ve increased funding to native groups, which is the easy part. You just borrow the money and hand it over. And there have been some swell photo ops featuring the prime minister on distant reserves. But the paternalism continues, along with sweet words that are open to interpretation. At heart, Wilson-Raybould’s message was, “we mean well, trust us.”
Abandoning the UN declaration is the Liberals’ first broken promise to Canada’s aboriginals, but it’s a whopper. It will have to be followed by others. Trudeau really laid on the commitments before he took office, pledging to adopt all 94-plus recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, many of which make the UN declaration look like a stroll in the park. For instance, the report demands full “language rights” for native languages, of which there are more than 50, plus dialects. It wants monuments in every capital; an annual statutory holiday; an “elite” athletic program for native athletes; more jobs at the CBC/Radio-Canada for natives; programs for coaches, trainers and sports officials; and a new oath for Canadian citizenship.
The best-intentioned government couldn’t possibly deliver on it all. So Trudeau will have to send more ministers to explain that, sorry, we may have made the promise but we can’t keep it. Or even say so himself.
Will native Canadians be any more willing to accept temporizing from a popular Liberal prime minister than from all the previous leaders who made promises they couldn’t keep? Sure Trudeau means well, but so did they. Sweet words, but empty.
First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde called the Truth and Reconciliation demands, and the UN declaration “our guide to true reconciliation and a brighter future for us all.” Is this what he had in mind?
National Post -Kelly McParland | July 18, 2016 10:44 AM ET