1 May 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE BY CANADA’S MINISTER FOR INDIAN AFFAIRS AND NORTHERN DEVELOPMENT


Aboriginal rights in Canada were not ignored, but actually lauded and enshrined in the Constitution, the country’s Minister for Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, said today.


“We’re proud of that in Canada,” said Minister Chuck Strahl at a Headquarters press conference on the margins of the seventh session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.  If aboriginal groups looked at Canada’s track record, they would see that never before had the country taken such bold and unprecedented steps on everything from human rights to quality-of-life issues, in parallel with the constitutional protection afforded indigenous groups.


“You don’t have to have an aspirational document to do that,” he added, referring to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that the General Assembly adopted on 13 September 2007 by a vote of 143 in favour to 4 against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United States), with 11 abstentions. (For details of the voting, see Press Release GA/10612)


[The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets out the individual and collective rights of the world’s 370 million native people, calls for the maintenance and strengthening of their cultural identities and emphasizes their right to pursue development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations.]


Asked why Canada had not supported the Declaration in the General Assembly, he said that was “a bit of a two-edged sword”.  On the one hand, he had been told just to sign the document because it was only aspirational and had no legal obligations.  Yet, the moment the Declaration had been adopted, First Nation groups in Canada had begun tabling it in courts of law.  “So we took it very seriously.  It was not just a statement of intent.  It was something we wanted to make sure we could fulfil,” he explained.


Many countries had voted in favour of the Declaration, several had voted against it, but many others had abstained, he pointed out.  Still others had made statements clarifying how the document might affect them and how they were prepared to deal with that.  Canada had been up front with some of its concerns as negotiations were going on.  “When we sign on to something in Canada, we want to make sure we can carry it out.”  What had been a matter of concern was how the Declaration would work in the context of the Canadian “constitutional reality”, and the reality was that much of what was in the Declaration was already in the Constitution.


He encouraged correspondents to look at Canada’s Constitution, adding that the country “does not have it perfect”.  There were a range of problems facing aboriginal people, some of whom were common to all remote communities.  A fly-in community for example -– one that was only accessible by air when there was a problem -- was a complicated problem with no easy solution.


Last year, a fly-in community school had burned down in the middle of the school year, and the only thing to do was to rebuild it, he recalled.  However, everything had had to be flown in at an astronomical cost and in the face of serious complications.  Such problems were common to most isolated areas, but in general, Canada was attempting to work with willing partners among the First Nations to identify the top issues and see how best to deal with them.


He said correspondents must have heard from many national aboriginal organizations this week, and it was important to hear from the Canadian Government about some of the practical measures it was taking to address some of the issues in question.  The Government was moving ahead with legislation to extend the Canadian Human Rights Act to First Nations living on reserves.  That exemption had been in place for 30 years -– “far too long” -– and now all Canadians, on or off reserves, would be covered by the same human rights legislation.  Commitments had also been made to involve indigenous peoples as partners on the Arctic Council, and significant contributions were being made to their education, not just in dollars, but also in terms of systemic institutional changes.


The Government was also moving ahead with a clean drinking water programme, for which the latest budget had dedicated another $330 million, he said.  Property rights were being guaranteed for aboriginal women whose marriages had “broken down”, and there had been budgetary increases in the area of economic development overall.  Progress was also being made on the Indian residential school settlement agreement between the churches that had run the schools, the Federal Government and the Assembly of First Nations.  The settlement involved cash payments to former students in that system, and the establishment of a healing foundation to help them deal with their experiences.


In an important development, he said, the Prime Minister had committed to making an apology to those students on behalf of Canada for “all that went on”.  Finally, a truth and reconciliation commission had been established and an announcement had been made earlier this week that it would be chaired by Canada’s most senior aboriginal judge -- a big moment for First Nations and an important one for all Canadians.  “There is no doubting our resolve on these issues.  We think we have a very aggressive programme at the federal level, and provincial governments are also getting into the act.”


He said that, in another first, a specific claims act would give assurances to First Nations that, instead of waiting generations for specific claims to be settled, they would be settled by a tribunal, in three years if necessary.  Also for the first time, a new protocol was about to be enacted that would require departments across the “federal family” to consult and accommodate First Nations in matters involving their aboriginal rights.  That showed how seriously Canada regarded those issues.  “That’s a great, great step forward that’s not been there before.”


Responding to a question about Australia’s newly elected Prime Minister having apologized to the country’s indigenous population, he said much had been made of that apology, but Canada had committed to that earlier and did not consult with Australia on those issues.  However, there was a certain coming together of what was right and how to move forward on some issues.  At the same time, the two countries’ experiences, Constitutions and policies were different.  In practice, how the issues were handled was also different.  However, exchanges around the globe on how to deal with aboriginal issues were always useful.


Asked about the effects of climate change, he pointed to Canada’s participation in the Arctic Council, which involved Indian people and First Nation groups.  Canada was the single largest contributor to International Polar Year activities, which were global scientific and research projects.  Increasingly, those projects were funding not only basic research, but also the human component of adaptation for people living in the north.  Global warming, seemingly most accelerated in the north, most seriously affected the populations there.  The melting of the permafrost, for example, and shifting migratory patterns were huge concerns for the people of the north.  A large aboriginal population was assisting in those projects and, in many cases, Canada’s representatives to the Arctic Council were indigenous.  In the end, however, it was the Government that had to sign the documents.


[Established on 19 September 1996 in Ottawa, Canada, the Arctic Council is a high-level forum to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of the Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular questions of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.]


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For information media • not an official record