Interview with Grand Chief Edward John of the Tl’azt’en Nation

Grand Chief Edward John of the Tl’azt’en Nation, in northwestern British Columbia. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

9 August 2012 – The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, celebrated 9 August, shines a spotlight on the contributions and challenges of some 370 million people in culturally diverse communities around the world. 

This year’s theme for the Day, Indigenous Media, Empowering Indigenous Voices, highlights how media can allow indigenous perspectives to be heard and also can be used to counter stereotypes.

To celebrate the Day, Grand Chief Edward John of the Tl’azt’en Nation, in northwestern British Columbia, came to New York Headquarters in his role as Chairperson of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which gives an institutional voice to indigenous people in their effort to secure economic and social rights under the Declaration of the Rights of the Indigenous peoples, which all nations have now endorsed.

UN News Centre: Can you describe progress made since the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007?

Edward John: The adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, five years ago in September, was an important milestone for indigenous peoples, particularly in underscoring the nature of the rights of indigenous peoples and to insure that there is a degree of protection provided through that particular document for indigenous peoples to their lands, territories and resources, towards languages and so forth.

We see now thaThere are a lot of modern-day ongoing misconceptions that need to be challenged, that need to be corrected.t there are no States that oppose the Declaration; there were four initially who voted ‘no’ in the adoption process but have since endorsed it, so it becomes an international set of standards that indigenous people can rely on, and States as well, and in some cases now even the courts are relying on it and the commitments made. 

UN News Centre:  Have the issues changed significantly in those five years?

Edward John: I don’t think so. There are still a lot of really important challenges that indigenous peoples in their respective communities face on a day-to-day basis – quality of life issues, education, health, and so on. There is an implementation gap, for sure. Even where States have endorsed the Declaration, in many cases steps have not been taken to see how the provisions or the standards in it will be implemented on a State-by-State basis, with the involvement of indigenous peoples.

In other cases, we see the Declaration being fully embraced by States working toward the implementation of those standards. That is the exception rather than the rule. The rule seems to be still a lot of hesitation on the part of States to fully apply and implement the provisions of the Declaration. So it means continuously raising these issues, whether through the Permanent Forum sessions, held generally in May, or through the sessions held by the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  And also in the country visits of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

So we see the Declaration becoming the norm and it is being relied on heavily by indigenous peoples. It’s an important document for indigenous peoples, but also an important document for the United Nations as a whole as well.

Shavante Indian boys participate in a traditional fight, called 'oio,' which is done as part of the 'uaiwa' ceremony, the passage from boyhood to manhood. UN Photo/Joseane Daher

UN News Centre: Were there any major advances in the 11th session of the Permanent Forum held in May 2012?

Edward John: I wouldn’t call them advances. There are still really deep, important, underlying issues. For example, the Declaration has, as a standard, the free, prior and informed consent for resource development within the territories of indigenous peoples. There is some headway being made in that regard, but the legal, underlying material right – the title to the land – in many, if not all cases, is still a very important issue that has yet to be resolved. We see this, for example, in the western part of Canada where I come from.

The question of Indian title or indigenous title or aboriginal title is still an elusive title because governments are reluctant to embrace it and to recognize the existence of the title within the territories of indigenous peoples. Where they have had the opportunity to make decisions with regard to indigenous title, courts have been refraining from doing so. So it is an unsettled situation. Really, the important part of access to lands, territories and resources is understanding the nature of the legal right that is attached to that, so it’s still a work in progress. I assume that one day we will find a resolution and be able to reconcile state title with indigenous title. 

UN News Centre: What goals have you set for your term as Chairperson?

A Kirghiz family at the foot of the Kongur mountains in Xinjiang, China. The Kirghiz are a Mongol people living in central Asia. UN Photo/F. Charton

Edward John: Well, the goals I have are the goals of the other 15 members plus myself. We work as a team, we collaborate, we work together very hard. At the end of the day, when the Report [of the annual session] is completed and adopted by the Permanent Forum members, then that becomes a set of advice that is forwarded to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and then to the General Assembly.  How the General Assembly deals with it or how the UN implements it is an important indication of the degree and level of commitment that we see. But important as well is how States take those recommendations and work to implement them. Over the 11-year history of the Permanent Forum, we have some 950 recommendations on education, culture, health, in all of the areas of the mandate of the Permanent Forum. Some of them have been acted on and others are still languishing.

I’ll give you a specific example:  two years ago at the Permanent Forum’s 10th session, the Secretary-General acknowledged that every two weeks, an indigenous language dies. And we’ve recently seen this in reports that are public. National Geographic, in its July edition showed the number of languages that are in danger throughout the world, and it’s staggering to see how many of the languages will become extinct in one, two, maybe three generations.

UN News Centre: That brings us to the theme of this year’s International Day. What do you see as major issues in giving indigenous peoples a voice, countering stereotypes, and preserving languages?

Heiltsuk Elders and their grandchildren watch as canoes make their way to shore at the Qatuwas Festival, a gathering of maritime indigenous nations of the Pacific Rim, hosted by the Heiltsuk Nation in British Columbia, Canada. UN Photo/John Isaac

Edward John: There are a lot of stereotypes, a lot of misconceptions and misinformation about indigenous peoples. We saw recently in the telecast involving the Olympic Games a commentator referring to “Indian givers,” which is a common misperception but one that needs to be challenged. We have young singing sensation Justin Beiber talking about his affiliation as an Indian or an Inuit – he’s not sure which – but goes on to say because of this he’s entitled to free gas in Canada: another misconception. 

There are a lot of modern-day ongoing misconceptions that need to be challenged, that need to be corrected. We all have a responsibility. The role of the indigenous communicators, the indigenous broadcasters, writers, journalists, is an important one: to have communications in the languages of the indigenous peoples, to ensure that those languages continue to be working languages for all of us.

If you travel through Arizona in Navajo Nation territory, you will hear broadcast in Navajo language.  I am Dakelh [from the Tl’azt’en Nation]; it’s the same language family, same language root, and I’m from the northern part of Canada and they’re in the southwest of the United States. As you travel through that area you can hear the stories being presented in Navajo and I think it is important to ensure that continues and to expand to celebrate the survival of indigenous languages.

Edward John, Grand Chief of Canada’s Tl'azt'en Nation and Chair of the 11th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, speaks at the opening reception for an exhibit, 'Indigenous Peoples and Food Sovereignty.' UN Photo/Mark Garten

UN News Centre: Do you see any danger in indigenous peoples engaging in the kind of very quick modern media that doesn’t have a great attention span and tends to not pay attention to subtleties?

Edward John:  In media generally, unless a journalist spends a lot of time dealing with indigenous peoples and indigenous issues, the nuances are, in a lot of respects, forgotten. But the technology itself, whether radio or television or Twitter, Facebook, social media or other forms of communication, these are important tools that are out there and we should be able to rely on and be able to use. We should be able to use them to the maximum benefit for indigenous people. At Rio + 20 [the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in June 2012] I saw the tremendous amount of communications that came in and out around the substance and the process of the conference.

I think it’s not just print media now, or television. There’s social media out there that is moving faster than regular media on all issues, and generally if you’re on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll be able to know some of the issues well in advance. In fact, journalists are now looking to those media to find and locate stories. Journalists have been calling me on some of the issues I’ve raised on my Twitter account for example, and I’ve been able to raise the profile of certain issues in that way.

UN News Centre: Do you remember seeing how your people were depicted when you were younger? 

A Cakchiquel family in the hamlet of Patzutzun, Guatemala. UN Photo/F. Charton

Edward Johns: There is still a lot of misconception out there, and a lot may be politically driven. For example this notion of free gas that I referred to earlier. There are misconceptions that are rampant. People think that indigenous peoples get everything for free and that is not the case. I think it’s important to ensure that at least on those issues where there is misinformation or underlying misconceptions reflect an attitude, that they are challenged. I would suggest in many parts of the globe there is a degree of prejudice, discrimination and even racism towards indigenous people. We’ve seen that and yet it’s still there. The public education system in many countries is devoid of indigenous content. The curriculum is simply not able to provide the necessary teachings to young people to know about their neighbours, who may be indigenous, and that needs to be corrected as well.

UN News Centre: Have any encounters with media shaped your feelings about your place in the wider world?

Edward Johns:  I think it is really important to be as factual-based as possible, to ensure that you have solid evidence to present that substantiates the statements of fact that you make. The worse thing anyone can do is to talk in innuendo or talk on or about information that is not substantiated, because it can do more harm than good. It is really important for me as a lawyer to ensure that there is a substantive base for stories, there is a substantive base for information. There is a lot of information out there; sources are questionable, information is questionable or not very credible. And so you need to develop a degree of credibility based on solid information. With that, you are able to of course influence and inform the public generally, whether they are listening to stories whether on radio, television or other sources.

Read related news story:

UN highlights vital role of media in empowering world’s indigenous people