Reflecting on his experience at the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald said that in spite of the reservations expressed by the Canadian government about the document that renewed the international commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, there was much to be celebrated and heartened by.
Coinciding with the UN Summit on Climate Change held in New York in late September, the conference brought together more than 1,000 delegates from indigenous groups and governments from around the world, including some heads of state, UN officials and human rights organizations.
UN member states adopted an outcome document in which they renewed their commitment to the objectives of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The declaration includes a commitment to consult and co-operate with indigenous peoples in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.
MacDonald attended the meeting in his capacity as North American regional president for the World Council of Churches (WCC). “This tries to put the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People into motion, to make them a reality and to translate them from beautiful sounding rhetoric into specific, strategic policy initiatives,” he told the Anglican Journal. “It was very good, but even at that point, it wasn’t quite as exciting as hearing a number of world leaders describe the well-being of indigenous peoples as integral to the well-being of the planet.”
Although the outcome document passed by unanimous consent, the Canadian government issued a statement saying that the commitment to obtaining free, prior and informed consent from indigenous people “could be interpreted as providing a veto to Aboriginal groups” that could not be reconciled with Canadian law.
“Essentially, Canada spit in the soup of the world community,” said MacDonald, who described the statement as rude and embarrassing. Although other countries’ records on the issue may be as bad or worse, he said, “Canada seems to have the one government with the audacity to criticize what is clearly the will of the nations.”
But the negative response from Canada shouldn’t be the primary narrative, MacDonald said. One of the most exciting aspects of the meeting, he added, was leaders’ recognition “that the wisdom and approach of indigenous peoples, and their front line presence in much of the threatened parts of the world, make them essential to any livable future for the planet.”