Montréal UUs learn about the UNDRIP and Canadian law

Top photo: CUSJ Québec Chapter members Susan Czarnocki, Cym Gomery, Genevieve Patterson and Christina Duvander with the speaker, Elisabeth Patterson.

On February 11, 2018, I made my way through the icy streets of Montréal to the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, to attend Elisabeth Patterson’s talk on the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and how this document has influenced Canadian law. The talk was hosted by the Montréal Branch of the World Federalists Movement, as part of their annual luncheon. About 35 people attended, and a quick scan of the room revealed many Unitarian Universalists, with diverse affiliations beyond the WFM, including the Unitarian Church of Montréal and the Canadian Unitarians for Social Justice, Québec Chapter.

Christine Jacobs introduced Elisabeth Patterson, a lawyer at Dionne Schultz who advises Aboriginal governments and diverse organisations on Aboriginal, commercial and international law.

Christine Jacobs introducing the speaker

Ms. Patterson began by explaining that the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (“the Declaration”) had been adopted on Sept. 13, 2007. The UN site states that “(The) Declaration is the most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of indigenous peoples. It establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world and it elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms as they apply to the specific situation of indigenous peoples.” Indigenous Canadians, Patterson explained, are distinct from other visible minorities in that they have pre-existing claims to the land—in other words, they lived here before Canada was colonized by white settlers.

I was surprised to learn that Canada (together with the US, New Zealand, and Australia) was one of only four nations who voted against the Declaration when it was first presented. (Which, upon reflection, is not so surprising, considering that these four nations all have significant indigenous populations.) The four rogue nations have since come on board, although Canada stipulated that its acceptance excluded the sections after Article 35. (Some of the post-35 sections state that treaties must be respected and enforced-Article 37, and that indigenous peoples have the right to financial assistance-Article 39).

Elisabeth Patterson explained that Canadian lawyers and judges view the UNDRIP as an “interpretive tool” rather than a binding document. Ms. Patterson revealed disturbing realities of Canadian law with regards to the indigenous peoples:

  • Aboriginal land title cases are often subjected to delay tactics that call to mind the infamous strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) used by corporations to discourage the public from protesting questionable activities, by engaging citizens who do speak out in prohibitively expensive lawsuits.
  • When it comes to the Indigenous peoples’ right to “free, prior, and informed consent” in situations where the State wishes to (for example) relocate them, pass legislation, or occupy or damage their land (Articles 10, 19, and 28), the Canadian legal system’s unspoken rule is that Indigenous peoples will be consulted, and they can give any answer they want… as long as that answer is “Yes, we consent”. Which seemed to me rather hypocritical.
  • Regretably, the recently introduced Bill C-69, which would affect environmental impact assessments, makes no mention of The Declaration.

A glimmer of hope: Bill C-262

Ms. Patterson mentioned another significant event for indigenous peoples and those who care about them—in February 2018, Romeo Saganash, a Cree MP, tabled Bill C-262,  “An Act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” The federal government passed this bill by a vote of 217 to 76 (the nay votes all being Conservatives). This bill binds only the federal government, which is unfortunate, since First Nations schools, egregiously underfunded, fall under the purvue of the provincial government, a situation that illustrates the unacknowledged Apartheid foisted upon indigenous Canadians.

Patricia Philip (foreground), member of the UCM Social and envrionmental concerns committee, with Elizabeth Patterson, and Juliette Patterson (background)
  Genevieve Patterson of CUSJ Québec and the UCM SECC, and Blair Rourke of WFM.

Note: I extend my sincere compliments to the MBAM chef, who prepared a special plate for me (and one assumes, any other vegans present at the luncheon), with a grilled portobello mushroom steak, beet coulis and tidbits of root vegetables—absolutely delicious!

Back to reality

Freezing rain had begun to fall by the time I left the museum. As I hurried along to find my car, I was surprised to notice that a homeless person whom I had passed on my way in, was still huddled on the sidewalk, face buried in hands, arm extended, holding a paper cup… I noticed that the cup was still empty. On impulse, I stopped, and bent down to touch this person’s arm. A young man looked up, and our eyes met. He was Indigenous.

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