Romeo Saganash pushes Liberal government to adopt UN Aboriginal rights standard

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The fight to get Canada to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been a long one, one that NDP MP Romeo Saganash has been in since he was a representative of the Grand Council of the Crees. The Conservative government refused to embrace the Declaration after the UN adopted it in 2007.

Now, it would appear to be in accord with the stated intentions of the new Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who sent mandate letters to Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett, and Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould, underlining that implementation of the UNDRIP is a top priority.

Yet, as Saganash points out, there’s a difference between implementing the Declaration and adopting it. And in their choices of language, the Liberal government has signalled to Saganash less enthusiasm about the Declaration than they let on.

“I sense a reluctance already,” he said. “So far, the prime minister has never used the word ‘adopt.’ He’s always spoken about ‘implementing the UN Declaration.’ Those were his words when he spoke to the chiefs in assembly at the AFN in December. The mandate letters talk about ‘moving forward urgently with implementing the principles of the UN Declaration.’ That word that’s so important, ‘adopt,’ is missing from the language they’re using right now. You adopt legislatively, and you implement through programs and policies. That’s the distinction the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) made, and it’s quite an important one.”

Romeo Saganash

Romeo Saganash

Trudeau has also indicated his intention to abide by all of the TRC’s Calls to Action. To Saganash, his bill is simply a gentle nudge to the Trudeau government to get moving with what it has always said it intends to do. He tabled the same bill under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose majority Conservatives defeated it.

In practice, were Saganash’s bill to become law, it would force all Canadian laws to respect the UN Declaration – something that could conceivably be very costly for the Canadian government. But Trudeau has placed himself in a position where it would be very difficult for him to back away from the UNDRIP.

“Courts can use the Declaration however they want,” Saganash observed. “That code has been reaffirmed in successive Supreme Court decisions, and quoted with approval. It does have application already in Canada. My private member’s bill would just confirm that it is the state of law in this country.”

Following the introduction of the bill in the House of Commons, Saganash asked in the next day’s question period whether the Liberals would support it as they had when they were in opposition.

To this, Carolyn Bennett replied, “The government is absolutely determined to implement the United Nations Declaration. We have to work with First Nations, the Inuit and the Métis Nation to examine all of the implementation mechanisms available, including legislation. The bill was just introduced, and we are examining it.”

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