Last Nov. 12 was an important day for human rights in Canada. On that day Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the Government of Canada was endorsing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
When the declaration was approved by an overwhelming majority in the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2007, Canada was one of only four nations to vote no. The UN General Assembly ratification of the declaration was seen as an important step forward in recognizing and affirming the human rights of the world's 370 million indigenous people.
The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the declaration "provides a momentous opportunity for states and indigenous peoples to strengthen their relationships, promote reconciliation and ensure that the past is not repeated."
This ratification was the result of nearly 25 years of discussions and debates in various UN committees and working groups. Canadian indigenous leaders, including Chief Wilton Littlechild from Alberta, played important leadership roles in these international discussions. Oblate Father Danny Leblanc, a Newman Theological College graduate, was part of a Catholic NGO delegation at the UN supporting the approval of the declaration.
The Vatican delegation at the UN expressed its support for the declaration. Over the last three years since Canada's "no" vote in 2007 at the United Nations, the KAIROS Ecumenical Justice Coalition has spearheaded a national campaign in Canadian churches urging the Canadian government to reverse its position of opposition to the declaration.
As members of KAIROS, Catholic leaders from the Canadian bishops, religious orders, and Development and Peace (CCODP) joined with leaders from other churches last July to write a letter to Prime Minister Harper requesting that the Canadian government move quickly to endorse the declaration.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets a basic international standard. The declaration states the rights it contains "constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of the indigenous peoples around the world."
The declaration strongly affirms the right of self-determination for indigenous peoples. It speaks of the need for states to consult and cooperate with indigenous communities in decisions that affect the lives of people in these communities. Rights to indigenous lands and resources are affirmed.
Also included in the declaration is the right to maintain and revitalize indigenous cultures, languages and spiritual practices.
This language of affirming indigenous rights should be familiar to Canadian Catholics. There has been a series of Catholic and ecumenical statements signed by Canadian bishops going back to Northern Development at What Cost in 1975. Pope John Paul II specifically supported the rights of indigenous peoples in his visits to Canada in the 1980s.
Affirming a human rights declaration does not make respect for human rights a lived reality. KAIROS is urging that the priority now needs to focus on implementation. Implementation is a responsibility of government. However, it also involves all of us in our business, community, family and personal lives.
One part of implementation is to recognize past human rights abuses. Over the last 20 years, Canadian Church and government leaders have made statements of formal apology to indigenous peoples for the times in history when the human rights of indigenous peoples were abused and not respected. The human rights abuses associated with the Indian Residential Schools have been a major part of these apologies.
Five years ago, government, church and indigenous leaders came together and signed the historic Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. This agreement made provisions for financial compensation and healing for former students of the residential schools, and established a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is now part way into its five year mandate. There will be a major national Truth and Reconciliation event held in Alberta in the next three years. It is important for Church members to become active participants in this Truth and Reconciliation process.
Of course, implementation of the declaration requires a renewed commitment by indigenous and non-indigenous peoples to address directly the human rights issues of 2011. This includes respect for treaty rights, just settlement of land claims, and respect for indigenous culture and spirituality.
This also means addressing issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness and poor health which are experienced disproportionately by indigenous peoples in Canada.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)