by Anna Vogt
In a letter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in January of 1985, MCC Chairman Ross Nigh wrote a letter encouraging the government “not to allow any major industrial projects without prior settlement of the land claims. We would also want these settlements to proceed by negotiation rather than imposition, without requiring the extinguishment of claims to aboriginal rights.”
In 1999, in a letter to Jane Stewart, then Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, concerning hydro-electric developments on the lands of the Pimickimak Cree Nation, MCC Canada wrote, “We are concerned that the hydro-electricity we have used to power our homes and offices for the past 22 years has been and continues to be obtained by exploitative and unjust means. The PCN people pay the immense and unaccounted human costs of the power we use daily, through poverty, mass unemployment, ill health and social despair.”
In 2019, MCC joined in with thousands across Canada to support NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s private member’s bill, C-262, An Act to Ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. When the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration in September 2007, it established an obligation for all states to fully implement this crucial instrument as the minimum global standard to protect the human rights of Indigenous peoples. C-262 set out a framework for the Canadian government to use to ensure that all Canadian legislation is in harmony with the UN Declaration, under this international obligation.
On June 21, 2019, Indigenous People’s Day, C-262 died in the Senate. A handful of unelected Conservative Senators used procedural tactics to stop the bill from reaching a final vote at Third Reading. This opposition took place despite the support of much of the Senate for the bill, a House of Commons motion affirmed by all parties, and the massive outpouring of support from communities and churches across the country.
At the heart of the bill’s death lies the same issue Indigenous communities have asked MCC to advocate for throughout several decades: free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) over what happens on Indigenous lands. The Senators, and others who also opposed the bill, were concerned that the inclusion of FPIC in C-262 would grant Indigenous peoples veto power over development projects and create uncertainty for especially Canada’s extractive industries.
As the bill moved through the Senate, experts were asked to appear before the Aboriginal Affairs Senate committee. Expert after expert reassured Senators that while the bill sets up mechanisms for consultation, it does not provide a veto. It was a revealing moment when Senator Lovelace Nicolas, a member of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, asked witness John Borrows if it would be advisable to therefore amend the bill to include an Indigenous veto over development projects.
The moment caused me to pause.
As advocates for the passing of this bill, we were so busy trying to convince a small group of people with power that establishing Indigenous peoples’ human rights in Canadian law wasn’t going to impact their businesses that I had forgotten why I was in the room in the first place. Senator Lovelace’s question jolted me back to reality. It is of course vitally important to carefully consider all of the possible implications of legislation. Many organizations have done excellent work on analyzing and explaining the role of FPIC in Bill C-262. Yet our reasons for advocating must be because Indigenous people have asked us to uphold their ability to control their lives and the things that matter to their communities, in a way that sustains our shared humanity.
We are not advocating for a veto, but as MCC’s letter from 1999 states, we are required to examine the human costs of the benefits we enjoy, as well as the historic patterns at play.
Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, a leading advocate in the creation of the UN Declaration, outlined some of the struggle Indigenous people have gone through to be recognized as human beings as part of his testimony before the Senate committee:
“Since 1923 and 1925 to 1977, we had no voice at the UN. Indeed, in 1948, when the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was adopted under the leadership of a lawyer from Edmonton, we were left out. Indigenous peoples were left out of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. For many years, we had to argue that we were, in fact, human beings. I remember one of the elders saying, “What are we, then, if we’re not human beings? Are we a herd of elk or moose?” He said, “I know why they don’t want to recognize us as human beings. It’s because if they do, then they have to admit that we have human rights.”
Unfortunately, discussions around C-262 as well as the recent release of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls reveals remind us that questions of humanity continue to be debated. For too long, legislation has been used as a tool to block justice, rather than allow it to flourish. We still too often consider Indigenous ways of living, Indigenous economies, Indigenous land use, and the bodies of Indigenous peoples themselves to be of lesser value.
Yet the response to C-262 demonstrates that we can change!
People across the country, often with no prior advocacy experience, sent letters, made phone calls, and attended rallies to encourage the bill to pass, first in the House of Commons and then the Senate. Faith leaders travelled to Ottawa to meet with Senators. Creativity and passion fueled the support for the bill. A local bakery in Saskatoon for example even sold bread stenciled in support of C-262. Together, we flooded inboxes, filled voice messages, and sent a clear, strong message: now is the time to pass C-262!
Bill C-262 didn’t pass. But that doesn’t mean that advocacy ends or that change is not possible. As Romeo Saganash reminds us, “I do know that we have made tremendous advances in human rights by getting this far in the legislative process….This is an indication of how important bill C-262 is, of how much has changed, and of the general willingness of everyone to move towards a new future together. We cannot go back to how things were before. New understandings of human rights and what they mean and who they include means that society can only get better because of the work that we have done.”
As we go into the upcoming election season, let us encourage the candidates in our ridings to make a commitment to create a legislative framework for the UN Declaration implementation, no matter the political party. Let’s make this advocacy a continued part of our faith tradition, as a part of being human together.
Anna Vogt is Director of the MCC Ottawa Office