Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise in this House at any opportunity, especially in relation to aboriginal issues. These are the most important issues to me over the last two years that I have been in this House. As a parliamentarian of Métis descent, it is always a great honour to speak in relation to these issues.
Canada's decision to not support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has resulted in some controversy and, of course, we have seen some of that today. In my opinion none of it is warranted.
By voting against the adoption of this declaration at the UN, Canada put on record its disappointment with both the substance and process. At the time of the vote, Canada indicated our understanding that this declaration was not a legally binding instrument. It has no legal effect in Canada and its provisions do not represent customary international law.
I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate this core message. The declaration is not a legally binding instrument. However, hearing the opposition parties speak about it, they would have us assume that in fact it should be implemented in Canada.
The opposition parties are calling upon our government to implement the standards in the declaration. Yet, United Nations declarations are statements only of political commitments and objectives. While they reflect the aspirations of states which support their adoption, they are not intended to be legally binding instruments.
Second, in the context of this particular declaration, let me remind everyone that Canada has voted against its adoption. This means that the concerns of Canada were such that it could not support the text as drafted. Therefore, calls to implement the standards of this declaration are misguided since Canada did not support the declaration internationally. It does not support it at home in light of many of the issues that I have been raising here in the House this afternoon.
For over 20 years Canada helped lead international efforts toward a declaration that would promote and protect the rights and freedoms of every indigenous person, as well as recognize the collective rights of indigenous people around the world.
In the final analysis, however, the declaration was seen to be a flawed instrument that lacked clear practical guidance for states and is subject to competing interpretations. As such, Canada could not support its adoption.
As a country committed to the protection of aboriginal rights, Canada takes the precise wording of this declaration very seriously. Canada is not willing to support this instrument simply because it is expedient to do so. Voting against adoption of the UN declaration was of course a gutsy, if not difficult move, one that put actions above rhetoric and principle above posturing.
I have already referenced how the previous Liberal government was quick to sign on to the Kyoto accord, but of course had no intention of following up any of its founding principles.
Our government takes international declarations seriously and as such we have chosen not to sign on or vote for this draft declaration.
Canada has taken numerous concrete actions to ensure that the rights of indigenous people are safeguarded both within Canada and around the world. On the domestic front we have introduced two key pieces of legislation that will extend legal protection to first nations people who currently do not have access to either the Canadian human rights tribunals or provincial and territorial courts that would protect their matrimonial real property rights.
The interesting thing about both of these initiatives is that they are being opposed by the very parties that are currently creating such a fuss about Canada's refusal to support the UN declaration. Without putting too fine a point on it, it strikes me as ironic, if not somewhat hypocritical, for certain aboriginal organizations and opposition parties to condemn the government for its principled stance on the UN declaration, while at the same time creating such enormous obstacles to the passage of both Bill C-21 and the Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act.
In the last few years Canada has taken enormous strides in rectifying past wrongs and moving forward on initiatives that will ensure protection of the rights of indigenous people here in Canada. Indeed, aboriginal and treaty rights are protected in our Constitution and are safeguarded under numerous self-government and land claims agreements, federal legislation, and through judicial decisions going as high as the Supreme Court of Canada.
Recently, we introduced Bill C-30, legislation that was developed jointly with the Assembly of First Nations. This bill would establish an independent specific claims tribunal, thereby bringing greater fairness to the specific claims initiatives and would be handled in a way that would speed up the resolution process. This government is working with willing partners on a host of other key initiatives, including housing, water, child and family services, education and self-government.
Why did Canada vote against the UN declaration? As I have already said, it was a flawed document that, upon its final ratification, was not incorporating the key elements that we suggested, as a country, be brought into it.
Over the course of the past 20 years, Canada worked hard for a declaration that would promote partnerships and harmonious relations between indigenous people and member states that would strike an appropriate balance between the rights of indigenous people and the rights of others. The final text of the declaration did not meet these objectives.
For example, in relation to indigenous rights to lands, territories and resources, the provisions in the declaration are unclear and open to interpretation. The declaration states that:
Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.
The member opposite from the Bloc just referenced how her province has a number of signed agreements since the founding of Quebec, but of course what is contemplated here sets that aside, though she did not mention that in her answer.
This statement could be used to support aboriginal claims to ownership rights over much of Canada, even where such rights have been dealt with lawfully and in good faith in the past.
Another problematic issue is that of self-government for aboriginal people. While the document expresses an ideal shared by many Canadians, it lacks the clarity and definition that would make the actual implementation of self-government feasible. For example, there is no effective guidance about how indigenous governments should interact with provinces, territories and municipalities and, of course, the Government of Canada. Nowhere does the document provide explicit direction on matters of jurisdiction and financing.
Yet again, this is an issue on which Canada is leading the way. Our country has amassed considerable experience in the area of aboriginal self-government and has developed an array of effective tools. Our aboriginal people travel around the world talking about the very successful aboriginal governments that they are engaging in Canada.
Canada's Constitution provides for the recognition and affirmation of existing aboriginal and treaty rights. Our courts interpret the content of this recognition and protection. In many ways, an endorsement of the UN declaration would represent a step backward for Canada. It could well negate much of the progress already made on self-government, reignite divisive debates, and ultimately erode popular support for aboriginal and treaty rights.
In spite of Canada's decision to vote against the UN declaration, we continue to embrace numerous human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Canada continues to take action on the basis of such instruments and within our domestic legal framework.
One of the key, modern day challenges facing indigenous people around the world is equitable access to digital communications technologies. To ensure that aboriginal people in this country, particularly those living in remote communities, can access digital technologies, the Government of Canada established the SchoolNet program more than a decade ago. The program continues to provide Internet connections and supportive services to remote first nations schools. Another program, the Aboriginal Canada Portal, significantly improves access to a broad range of content relevant to aboriginal people.
Canada has also played a lead role in connectivity for indigenous people around the world. In 2002, when the United Nations endorsed a proposal for a world summit on the information society, Canada took action to ensure that indigenous people would participate.
Thanks to this country's diplomatic efforts and financial support, indigenous groups from around the world took part in the Geneva and Tunisia conferences. As a result, the final statement from the summit includes this article, which states:
In the evolution of the Information Society, particular attention must be given to the special situation of indigenous peoples, as well as to the preservation of their heritage and their cultural legacy.
The world summit process also led to the establishment of an international indigenous web portal. Owned and operated by indigenous people, the portal aims to foster links among indigenous communities around the world and that portal is an invaluable tool that will help indigenous people advance and protect their rights and interests.
Another fine illustration of Canada's commitment to international indigenous groups is a program funded by the Canadian International Development Agency. The indigenous people partnership program is a pilot program that links aboriginal groups in Canada with indigenous partners in Latin America and the Caribbean.
These cross-cultural projects generate valuable opportunities to forge new partnerships, exchange best practices and share knowledge, experience and expertise as a means of contributing to the improved well-being of indigenous people throughout this region. These projects enhance the capacity of local organizations and these indigenous communities to become self-sufficient.
Canada has also played a leading role in ensuring that aboriginal people are represented in international decision-making bodies. The Arctic Council, for example, was established through the Ottawa declaration in the early 1990s. The council was a high level intergovernmental forum that engaged inhabitants of our Arctic Region, including indigenous people, on these important issues, such as sustainable development and environmental protection.
Canada is also a leading supporter of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a non-governmental organization that represents some 150,000 Inuit living in four countries. The council promotes Inuit unity, rights and interests.
Canada has worked tirelessly with the United Nations to advance the rights and interests of all people of the world, including indigenous people. This country has played an active role in creating the UN permanent forum on indigenous issues, arguably the most important mechanism to recognize and promote interests and rights of indigenous people.
Canada has also contributed to the creation of the expert mechanism on the rights of indigenous people and supports the renewal of the mandate of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people.
These actions clearly demonstrate Canada's determination to advance the rights and interests in indigenous people throughout the world, but especially in Canada.
Unlike these agreements, the UN draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people, as I have said, lacks clear, practical guidance for states. Canada, along with other key nations, did not participate in the negotiations that produced the final text.
I am convinced that once my hon. colleagues carefully consider the motion now before us, they will recognize its imprecise language, reject its faulty logic, and join me in voting against it.
The opposition parties have said that Canada's concerns are overstated, yet proponents of the adoption of this draft declaration are calling on aboriginal groups to use the declaration in their negotiations in Canadian courts and to demand that the federal government bring policies in line with the declaration itself.
In a country like Canada, with strong democratic institutions, it is easy to take the issue of human rights for granted. Here the rights of indigenous people are recognized and affirmed in our Constitution and in our legal system. Regardless of the declaration, Canada will continue to take effective action at home and abroad to promote and protect the rights of indigenous people across our country, and of course, we will also work on extending existing human rights obligations and commitments.
Such effective action, I must be clear, will not be undertaken on the basis, though, of this declaration.