Thank you very much. It's good to see all of you. I've become a bit of a regular, and it's always nice to be able to have conversations about important indigenous issues such as Bill C-262.
I grew up in an indigenous rights or Inuit rights household. My father went away to work on the repatriation of the Constitution and worked on land claims negotiations for a number of years. The idea of the United Nations declaration and the time that it has taken not only for it to go through the UN processes but then also for Canada to adopt it, still falls generally within my lifetime of a little over 40 years.
I want to start with that, the idea that it has taken over 30 years to develop the declaration. It represented the first time that indigenous peoples worked with states to develop an international instrument. After the declaration was passed by the General Assembly, it took almost 10 more years for Canada to offer an unqualified endorsement of the declaration. Even then, we could interpret this endorsement as including the qualification that the declaration should be interpreted through the lens of Canada's Constitution.
The declaration represents an international consensus regarding the minimum standards of treatment of indigenous peoples as human beings. It's an articulation of the existing minimum standards of treatment of indigenous peoples under international human rights law. The purpose of international human rights law is to ensure that all persons and all peoples do not experience atrocities, are treated with dignity, and may live in societies free of discrimination.
One of the reasons for the declaration is that international human rights law did not adequately protect the rights of indigenous peoples due to our close connections to our homelands, a global legacy of colonialism and genocide, and the collective nature of many of our rights. The point is, the declaration is not a gold standard or a ceiling; rather, it's a minimum standard to avoid genocide and to ensure our dignity as human beings.
International human rights instruments such as the declaration are meant to ensure the protection of indigenous peoples from state conduct that might violate their rights. Failing to address economic, social, and cultural rights as rights means that the socio-economic gap between Inuit and non-Inuit will continue to grow.
The declaration is not a policy instrument. The UN declaration is an articulation of international law standards, which are binding on Canada under international law and which apply to indigenous peoples. It's not aspirational in its list of objectives linked to reconciliation. It actually has the force of law.
Compliance with Canada's international obligations means more than changing program criteria or operational practices in one or two federal departments. Canada's Constitution must be interpreted consistent with the declaration, and not vice versa. This includes section 35 of the Constitution, as well as the constitutional division of powers. They're not valid limits in the implementation of the declaration.
This government talked about section 35 and a “full box of rights” concept when the Canadian government adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. From a very practical, logical standpoint, Inuit would understand, then, that the Constitution would have to be opened up, that we would actually have to place the declaration inside of the Canadian Constitution in order to have the recourse and the restitution that usually accompanies rights.
In the absence of restitution or recourse for violations of our indigenous rights, we still would have to depend upon the courts and upon Supreme Court rulings in order to continue the slow path towards fully understanding how to assert our rights in Canada, rights that the Canadian government does not create and that exist in international law and for indigenous peoples. It would be inconsistent with the nature and character of the declaration or any other human rights to suppress and deny them whenever a country deems compliance to be inconvenient.
The enforcement of human rights involves restraining the conduct of a state. Through this lens, it doesn't make sense to propose requesting the state report to itself on compliance with its own international human rights obligations. Independent oversight is essentially important to the success of Bill C-262. For example, statutory human rights mechanisms across this country are responsible for promoting and enforcing human rights rather than government departments.
Last year we produced two discussion papers on the implementation of the UN declaration. Among other things, these two papers called for a comprehensive legislative approach for implementation and outlined what we consider to be comprehensive.
First, when it comes to understanding an instrument such as the declaration, it's critical to recognize that the rights contained in the declaration are interrelated, interdependent, indivisible, and interconnected. It's not helpful to attempt to approach implementation of the declaration by examining individual articles as specific obligations. In our experience, such an approach leads to very narrow interpretations of the obligations and serves to hinder implementation rather than facilitate it.
Second, many of the standards articulated in the declaration implicate the constitutional division of powers. The federal government has several policy levers that it can use in order to encourage implementation of the declaration sub-nationally, ranging from reporting on implementation in provinces and territories to using the federal spending power to link implementation of the declaration to transfers to provinces and territories. The mere existence of a constitutional division of powers is no excuse to ignore the fundamental human rights of indigenous peoples.
Third, a comprehensive scheme for implementation requires a means of seeking redress for alleged violations to the declaration. If the declaration articulates the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples, then we ask, what is a right without a remedy? ITK has proposed the development of a national indigenous human rights institution operating consistent with the Paris principles to accomplish this. The 1993 Paris principles provide the international benchmarks against which national human rights institutions can be accredited by the the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions.
Finally, reporting on implementation must be done by an independent party. Those who are tasked with implementing the declaration should not also evaluate their own success.
We note that you have already heard from many who recognize that Bill C-262 alone will not accomplish the full implementation of the United Nations declaration. Others have referred to the need for additional reforms, policies, and operational practices. For ITK, full implementation of the declaration requires a comprehensive approach. We would seek to improve Bill C-262 in order to ensure that the legislation fills gaps that cannot easily be accomplished through changes to policies, programs, or operational practices.
I think of language rights in this country and how they have evolved over time. I especially think of the francophone language rights, and I think of francophone language rights being articulated in a complex, overarching, rights-based framework in this country. Even minority francophone populations have the right to go to school and to have school boards within those specific spaces. They have the right to government services in the French language. These are very practical things.
For indigenous peoples, especially in relation to Inuktut, our language, we have rights that are articulated through the United Nations declaration. We now have a government that has pledged to implement those rights, but you cannot compare the implementation of the rights for indigenous languages in this country to the implementation of francophone rights for language in this country.
We want to get to that same space, and the mechanisms and the legislation that we create and the way in which we use the Constitution, federal legislation, and then mechanisms within the provinces and territories will hopefully one day get us to that space where we have the same ability to exercise our rights as other ethnicities do in this country to exercise theirs.
I give that as an example because I think it is a practical one and one that completely overlaps with the way that you can think about Bill C-262 versus the way that you might think about your own place in this country and the rights that you hold.