At UN, Inuit leader praises Canada for support of Indigenous declaration

By Jane George, Nunatsiaq News - April 26, 2017

Speaking at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on Tuesday, Okalik Eegeesiak, the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, heaped big praise on Canada for its “unequivocal” support of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Eegeesiak followed Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, at an event to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the UN declaration, known as UNDRIP, which outlines the rights of Indigenous peoples, including their rights to self-determination, traditional lands, territories and resources, education, culture, health, and development.

UNDRIP is a “major achievement to protect and promote the rights of Indigenous peoples,” said Eegeesiak, speaking in Inuktitut and English, and wearing ulu-shaped earrings, a white sealskin-trimmed top and a baleen and ivory bracelet.

Eegeesiak, who represented the Arctic Caucus, comprised of Inuit, Saami and Arctic Indigenous youth non-governmental organizations, said her caucus members continue to urge their respective governments to implement UNDRIP.

“Unfortunately, we are not in not in a position to report any major national level progress in that regard, with one exception—Canada,” Eegeesiak said.

Eegeesiak said the Arctic Caucus welcomed the commitment by the Government of Canada to accept UNDRIP without qualifications.

“This is an important step towards real change,” Eegeesiak said.

Her praise followed remarks by Canada’s Indigenous and northern affairs minister Carolyn Bennett at the April 24 opening of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

There, Bennett said Canada was removing its objections to two parts of UNDRIP on the right to free, prior and informed consent. Bennett first signalled that commitment in May 2016.

In 2014, at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, Inuit and Indigenous delegates from around the world had reaffirmed support for UNDRIP including the right to free, prior and informed consent.

But Canada then objected to paragraphs in the document asserting that principle—that Indigenous peoples must give free, prior and informed consent to any development that could potentially impact their lands.

“Free, prior and informed consent… could be interpreted as providing a veto to Aboriginal groups and in that regard, cannot be reconciled with Canadian law, as it exists,” a statement from previous Harper government said.

Bennett said she is “formally” retracting Canada’s concerns.

Also at the UN, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed repeated his organization’s call that Canada move to implement the UNDRIP through “comprehensive national legislation.”

ITK wants to see development of an independent Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Commission in Canada, which would look after UNDRIP implementation and consider Indigenous human rights complaints.

“We have now publicly identified specific paths we wish to take on implementing the UN Declaration, and we stand ready to engage with Canada on how to ensure Inuit rights are recognized, affirmed and enforced,” Obed said, in an April 25 release of a discussion paper on UNDRIP.

UNDRIP is the main focus of UN permanent forum’s session which continues until May 5.

An advisory body of the UN’s economic and social council, the forum is tasked to discuss indigenous issues relating to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.

Globally, indigenous peoples make up less than five per cent of the world’s population, the UN says, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest. They live across 90 countries, represent 5,000 different cultures and speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages.