By: Abeera Shahid

Oct. 24 marked the 71st anniversary of the United Nations. With this milestone in mind, The Hamilton branch of the United Nations of Association in Canada and the First Unitarian Church of Hamilton held a panel to create a space for conversation on Canada’s engagement with the UN, specifically in the context of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The event featured panelists including Stacey LaForme, Chief of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Pete Doolittle, Community Relations Administrator for Brantford Native Housing, Sarah Dover, a lawyer who represents and works with Indigenous people, and Hannah Martin, a Mi’kmaq Indigenous Studies student at McMaster.

The discussion centered around Canada’s official adoption of UNDRIP as announced in May 2016, nine years after the declaration was passed by the General Assembly.

“When the UN formally published their report, Canada voted no, as well as the U.S, Australia and New Zealand… all of those countries have a large Indigenous population. So there were obviously political reasons why those governments said no, we are not going to support this even though majority of the UN did,” said Doolittle.

Panelists provided insight as to why Canada was against the declaration and expressed their reservations about the UNDRIP announcement considering its provisions are challenging to implement and conflict with current legislation.

“Canada was saying we like our native people, we are proud of our Indigenous people. And so the statements they used were one of ownership and Canada doesn’t own native people but yet they treat us that way… some of that has continued on, you get the Indian Act, we are being told as native people how to behave in Canada’s house,” explained Doolittle.

The Canadian government’s historical and ongoing mistreatment of Indigenous people has resulted in a relationship tainted by mistrust. UNDRIP is designed to reconsider the power balance and provide indigenous people with a voice.

“The First Nations people could gain power [through UNDRIP] … to veto projects that the government proposes such as environmental projects … that big corporations try to implement, that of Alton gas in Nova Scotia and the hydroelectric dam in Peace River, BC, and the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, North Dakota,” said Martin.

Hence, consultation with indigenous people will be essential for UNDRIP to go from an aspirational vision to tangible actions.

“I believe that for something like the UNDRIP to be implemented, it needs to happen on indigenous people’s agendas and all indigenous people’s agendas, not just one group because there are many different nations,” explained Martin.

When asked about some of the pertinent Indigenous issues that need to be addressed, the panelists were passionate in sharing how the effects of colonialism still prevail today.

“The white paper, the Indian Act, is still alive and kicking… there are more [Indigenous] children in [government care] today than there were ever in residential schools,” said Doolittle.

Despite all the challenges facing Indigenous communities, all the panelists maintained a sense of hope and optimism while emphasizing the importance of supporting each other.

“We are native people of Turtle Island, we support each other. We also support people with the good, not only with the angst and having to defend ourselves but we are also there to support each other for the good too,” said Doolittle.

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