Wednesday afternoon’s panel discussion on the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples included Kenneth Deer, Jennifer Preston, Romeo Saganash, Marie Wilson, with moderation by APTN’s Monika Ille. (Jessica Deer, The Eastern Door)
As the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples turned 10 years old, experts in human rights gathered in Montreal this week to discuss some of the challenges Indigenous Peoples faced to get the document adopted.
“The struggle was for equality, and that’s what inspired me (to be involved) because I felt there was injustice,” said Kahnawa’kehró:non Kenneth Deer.
“When I first went to Geneva ‘87, it was amazing that not only states were saying that we weren’t peoples, but also academics. Because we weren’t peoples, we didn’t have a right to self-determination, so therefore we didn’t have a right to land, we were less than other people.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Deer spoke alongside NDP Member of Parliament Romeo Saganash, Truth and Reconciliation commissioner Marie Wilson, and Jennifer Preston, the Indigenous rights program coordinator for Canadian Friend Service Committee.
The panel, “46 Articles: Defending Our Rights” was one of two organized as a part a day of activities from the City of Montreal, Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO to celebrate the 10th anniversary of UNDRIP.
Deer has been advocating for Indigenous Peoples’ rights at the United Nations for three decades.
He spoke about the history of Indigenous people participating in the UN and some of the struggles they’ve faced over the years leading up to the declaration’s partial adoption in 2007.
In the early 1980s, a working group was started to draft the declaration. When Deer first got involved in 1987, there were 12 articles in the draft. Each year, more paragraphs were added.
The declaration was finally adopted by the United Nations General Assembly during its 61st session at UN Headquarters in New York City in 2007, with four countries in opposition: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United States. Those four countries have since endorsed or expressed support for the declaration.
Preston spoke about the role non-governmental organizations played in its adoption.
“The message we very much wanted to share is that this is not an Indigenous issue, this is a human rights issue. Through colonialism, Indigenous Peoples have been the most marginalized and the most vulnerable around the world, and had their human rights most disrespected,” she said.
“When that is the case, it’s the responsibility of everyone who is working for human rights to acknowledge that and work to change that situation. So, that was our role.”
Marie Wilson talked about the connections between the declaration and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“I’ve said many times that reconciliation is really reconcili-action. The UN declaration is not a declaration, it’s a verb. It talks about ongoing work, the spirit of unfolding relationships and activities. It’s very clearly intended to be an unfolding and a continuation, not a moment in time or flavour of the month, but rather a new way of being,” said Wilson.
Moderator Monika Ille ended the discussion by asking each panelist what could be done to promote the declaration and its 46 articles.
“All over the country, people are asking what can we do? I always say, not as a joke, but start by reading the 94 calls to action of the TRC and you will see that in our own preamble, we say very specifically that the UN declaration should be seen as a framework for reconciliation,” said Wilson.
Preston expressed similar sentiments, emphasizing the need to “find yourself” in the documents.
“Don’t just read it from an abstract sense. If you work in health care, if you work in education, if you are a student, if you work in government – whatever it is that you do, you will find yourself in both of those instruments. You don’t have to say, ‘I don’t know how to implement an international instrument,’ You take it, you find yourself, and go from there.”
For Deer, the declaration is about fostering long-term changes.
“Racial discrimination is ingrained in legislation, in the constitution, policies, universities, and all institutions in Canada. People can’t see it, maybe it’s not visible to you, but we feel it,” he said.
“All the things that dis-empower Indigenous people is totally ingrained in the Canadian consciousness, and that has to change. That is not going to happen over night.”