A heated debate over Canada’s failure to ratify the UN aboriginal rights treaty ensued at a meeting last Thursday.
Present were Minister of Northern Affairs Chuck Strahl and multiple members of the Kahnawake community, including the Grand Chief.
The initial purpose of the meeting was to discuss the donation being given to Kahnawake by Harper’s government to help construct the new Kahnawake Survival School. However, it became evident that local journalists wanted only to explore Canada’s recent failure to ratify the United Nations treaty on aboriginal rights.
“Our local media went right for the throat,” says Joedelaronde, a spokesperson for the Mohawk Council, “they didn’t even ask about the donation. To their credit, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”
In addition to being disappointed, many locals were shocked that Canada once again refused to sign the treaty.
“I was surprised that Canada didn’t ratify the treaty,” proclaimed Tewenhnitatshon, Principal of the Kahnawake Survival School, “after all the troubles of nineties and all the politicians saying that they want to move towards a better dialogue with our people, it’s a step backwards in terms of cooperation.”
The 2007 UN treaty was opposed by Canada because it allegedly interfered with the Canadian constitution. “It was unfortunate that we felt we couldn’t support that UN declaration,” said Minister Strahl, who claims the government expressed their concerns over the aboriginal treaty earlier and were hoping to convene a public meeting.
“We wanted to discuss how we could make the declaration work for Canada and our special circumstances with our constitutional obligations.”
While Minister Strahl appeared sensitive to the issues at hand, locals made sure their point was understood. As explained by Joedelaronde, “he’s a politician and he explained that he needs to support his government; he said all the things you’d expect him to say, but there was no doubt, he knew that we were not impressed.”
This opinion was shared by the majority of community members attending the press conference. Louie John Diabo, Project Manager for the Kahnawake Education Center feels as though Canada’s refusal to ratify the UN treaty is a statement about the importance, or lack thereof, of aboriginal rights in this country.
“The fact that [the Harper government] contributed money to the construction of the new high school was a good thing, but at the same time, one week ago they voted ‘no’ to our proposed rights document, and unfortunately it’s a sign that native rights are just not at the forefront for this government.”
Minister Strahl attempted to reassure locals by reiterating the government’s stance on aboriginal rights. “It was unfortunate that we could not support the treaty,” said Strahl.
“It was a problem for other western democracies with large indigenous populations as well. But we are going to continue with advancing human rights issues in Canada including the inclusion of first nations people under the Canadian Human Rights Act, property rights, and issues important to aboriginal women,” said Strahl.
Many in the native community cite the change of government as the beginning of a decrease in communication between Parliament and native peoples.
According to Diabo, “there were a lot of promises made during the election campaign, I followed it very closely. The history of the Conservative government and Kahnawake hasn’t always been great; if you recall 1990 was a [Conservative] government. I don’t want to say that we’re pessimistic, I mean we had some hopes that maybe it would be different, but it just hasn’t happened.” This opinion was shared by Tewenhnitatshon, who believes that the current problems tie into the Conservative regime: “It’s Harper’s government, its not Canada’s general attitude towards aboriginals. When the Liberals are in there’s more of a dialogue.”
What this means for future relations between native peoples and Harper’s government remains to be seen. “Negotiations will still continue I’m sure,” said Tewenhnitatshon, “but the will of the native people will not change in terms of us wanting to protect our rights and the things that have been passed down to us by our ancestors.”
Diabo agrees by stating that “they are fulfilling their fiduciary duty by donating money to the school, but at the same time to not support a political document is a bad omen as far as the relationship goes, we really hope it improves.”
Nevertheless, according to Joedelaronde, both sides are hopeful. “[Strahl] was actually very respectful, I think his people did a good job of briefing him before hand. This is actually one of the better meetings we’ve had; he accepted the criticisms gracefully and tactfully. If we can see some movement forward soon, then we’ll know that he’s a man of his word.”