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Canada sought to weaken declaration

Kahnawa’kehró:non Kenneth Deer was among those that helped draft the wording of the United Nations (UN) declaration for the protection of Indigenous rights. File photo

Newly unsealed documents reveal Canadian officials were actively colluding with the Australian government behind closed doors in the early 2000s to write a weakened version of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Cabinet documents recently made public by Australia’s national archive show that as of 2003, Australian ministers worked alongside the Chrétien Liberal government to write an alternative version of the declaration, replacing terms such as “self-determination” with softer ones like “self-management,” for instance. It also removed wording from its original draft relating to land restitution, cultural genocide, and demilitarization.

The contents of the cabinet documents were first reported on by The Guardian in late December. The documents were recently unsealed as per an Australian law that all cabinet documents become public after 20 years.

They reveal it was the Canadian government that first proposed the idea of an alternative text. At the time, the UN’s working group on Indigenous populations was adamant against any changes to their 1993 version of declaration. The two Commonwealth countries hoped their weakened version would trigger a divide between the working group’s “hardliners” and its more “moderate” members, who they hoped would back their proposed amendments to the declaration.

“Divisions are beginning to appear in the Indigenous caucus between hardline adherents to the original (UN declaration) and those Indigenous representatives who are prepared to contemplate negotiated compromises,” reads one Australian departmental memo to cabinet from 2002.

“Refusal by hardline Indigenous groups to discuss a substitute text prepared by Australia and Canada may necessitate the activation of strategies to wind up the working group.”

Kahnawa’kehró:non Kenneth Deer was actively involved in the development of the declaration from 1987 up until its adoption by the UN in 2007. He said he wasn’t too surprised when he read The Guardian’s report. The Canadian government had stopped collaborating with the UN working group in the early 2000s once it became apparent the group wouldn’t budge on changing any part of its 1993 draft of the declaration.

“We held very strong on maintaining our position on critical items, like self-determination, lands and territories, and collective rights,” said Deer, who was involved with an Indigenous caucus that opposed changes to the original draft. 

He also objected to how members of the working group were characterized by the Australian government in the cabinet documents. 

“When the government says hardliners, they’re talking about people like me,” he said. “We’re not hardliners, we were just people defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

The office of Gary Anandasangaree, minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, and the office of Patty Hajdu, minister of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), reacted to the revelations in a joint statement this Thursday – writing both ministers are committed to addressing the failures of former governments.

“Throughout history, successive Canadian governments have been getting things wrong when it comes to advancing Indigenous rights and self-determination,” the offices of the ministers wrote in the statement. “Our government has been working hard to change that.”

The statement mentioned the federal action plan put in place to ensure Canada’s laws are in accordance with the UNDRIP in particular.

“The action plan involved extensive collaboration with Indigenous partners and annual reports will be tabled to demonstrate progress and maintain accountability,” it added.

The two Commonwealth countries were among those who voted against the adoption of the declaration in 2007 alongside New Zealand and the United States. The wording contained in the original 1993 version was modified ahead of then, Deer noted, following 2004 when the declaration was “broken open” for changes.

“It’s amazing,” he added. “Here we are in the 2000s – and these states were still scheming in the background to reduce the rights of Indigenous Peoples and deny us equality.”


This article was originally published in print on January 19, in issue 33.03 of The Eastern Door.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.