September 28, 2009

UN declaration = flat-earth policy?

Flat-earth Aboriginal politics at the UN

By Joseph QuesnelSomething like this flat-earth assumption is facing leaders in Canada, the United States, and New Zealand when it comes to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—an issue which was recently raised again after Australia reversed course and signed the document. This impressive-sounding document was ratified by the United Nations in September 2007, with 143 votes in favour, 11 abstentions, and four states--Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand--voting against.

At the time, critics of the Conservative government’s position, including former Assembly of First Nations (AFN) chief Phil Fontaine, couched their criticisms in language intended to embarrass Canada. The game was simple: the consensus is assumed right and the four nations (now three) are supposed to feel embarrassed.

Not surprisingly, all states opposed to the UN declaration actually contain indigenous peoples. While some argue this demonstrates that “settler nations” are continuing their “oppression” of indigenous peoples, it is conceivable each “dissident” state has legitimate reservations about the Declaration: each realize matters are complicated when it comes to Aboriginal rights and they understand this one-size-fits-all Declaration is in potential violation with each country’s internal legal and constitutional order.

For example, New Zealand is concerned that Declaration provisions which require “full consent” of indigenous people over legislation that affect them will give one group in a country, Aboriginals, a stranglehold over legislation. In Canada, there are concerns provisions within the Declaration could open ratified land claim agreements. This would be lousy policy for all parties involved, including First Nations.

But pressure built on the remaining states to ratify the Declaration after Australia’s new government signed on this past spring. Canada, the U.S., New Zealand and the 11 abstentions, however, should hold their ground. Appearing “progressive”--which is all signing the Declaration would be--is no substitute for substantive action that would make a real difference in the lives of Aboriginals.

The reality is that this Declaration is unnecessary in Canada. Aboriginals already have entrenched constitutional and treaty rights under Section 35 of the Constitution Act. For instance, the Supreme Court and lower courts have ruled resource companies developing on traditional territories must consult and accommodate Native interests. Not signing it will not impact Aboriginal rights in Canada.

The latest target of this, “do it because everyone else is doing it” mentality is US President Barack Obama. Native American leaders are already demanding Obama ratify the UN Declaration, which his predecessor did not.

But why? Native American tribes in America enjoy a high level of tribal sovereignty. The U.S. Supreme Court long ago recognized that Native communities were “domestic dependent nations” and indigenous people in the U.S. have a level of independence from the government (independence that would make Canadian Aboriginals envious), including an impressive network of tribal courts.

If Obama was serious about “hope and change,” he should be encouraging Native Americans to enter into the mainstream, following his own inspiring story, one of the advancement for minority Americans within the system, not outside it.
Comment:  Actually, America's tribes "enjoy" a low and declining level of tribal sovereignty. This sovereignty is threatened by government and legal decisions almost every day.

You gotta love it when people go on and on about how a law is unnecessary. If it were really unnecessary, why would you care if it passed or not? Because you're a stickler for not having two duplicate items in our millions of lines of laws? Yeah, right.

Quesnel gives one reason why the declaration is necessary. It would require the "full consent" of indigenous people over legislation that affects them. In other words, the present Euro-American powers can impose legislation on supposedly sovereign tribes against their will. How exactly is that fair or just?

Indians spurn the mainstream?

But the stupidest thing in Quesnel's essay is how he confuses two separate issues. One is legitimate: establishing a firm basis for indigenous rights. The other is fictitious: Quesnel's belief that Indians want to remain separate, out of the mainstream. Presumably he thinks they want to live like simple hunter-gatherers from pre-Columbian times. That's why he labels their position "flat-earth politics."

Here's a clue, dummy. Indigenous people are already in the American mainstream. As readers learn in Newspaper Rock every day, they're using computers, rapping, starting businesses, writing operas, and serving in the White House. Most Indians live in urban areas; those on the rez are no more out of touch than any rural community.

What's the connection between protecting indigenous rights and living traditional lifestyles? Answer: There's no necessary connection. Did blacks stump for civil rights because they wanted to return to Africa or live in primitive villages? No.

A huge number of Natives believe in protecting indigenous rights. They range from little old ladies on reservations without electricity to million-dollar lawyers in the halls of Washington. One can believe the earth is round (i.e., join the mainstream) yet remain adamant in defense of indigenous rights.

Quesnel ignores history

Quesnel makes a lot of assumptions in this essay: that assimilation is best. That the American way is best. That the Great White Father knows best. All these assumptions are profoundly flawed. None of them is necessarily true.

How many times have Natives heard someone say the US or Canadian government knows best? Tens or hundreds of millions of times, probably. And how many times have the US and Canadian governments actually acted in the Indians' best interests? Only a tiny fraction of those millions of times.

So why should anyone believe these governments don't "need" the UN declaration to goad them into protecting indigenous rights? Believing and trusting the government is a sucker's bet. Quesnel may be stupid enough to believe his government will work for its indigenous population without prompting, but no one else is that naive. Natives have a long track record proving that Euro-American governments care mostly about protecting Euro-American people.

For more on the Canada's refusal to sign the UN declaration of indigenous rights, see Canada Blocks UN Declaration. For more on the larger issues, see Deconstructing Birdwatchers.

Below:  Another Great White Father tries to "help" Indians.


Stephen said...

Claiming that Indians aren't in the mainstream is a subtle way of claiming that they aren't 'real Americans' and it's part of the 'otherization' process.

Anonymous said...

Quesnel is an "anti-Indian" who works for a right-wing special interest group in Canada. They advocate assimilation and the trashing of treaty rights, Indigenous rights, and reserves (reservations in the U.S.) under the guise of "equal rights."

But you're right-on that he insinuates here - and in his other writings in the right-wing media in Canada - that Indians (and other Indigenous peoples in Canada such as M├ętis and Inuit) aren't 'real Native Americans.'

I'm surprised he hasn't suggested that we go back to where we came from. Yet, I'm confidant he'll get there eventually given his apparently skewed understanding of history. ;-)

Joseph Quesnel said...

This is the author of the column cited and I would like to clarify some comments made by your resident Shmohawl.
No Shmohawk, I am not an "anti-Indian" (whatever that means.. in reality, this means anyone who disagrees with your views or other radical indigenous activists).
We do not advocate assimilation, trashing of treaty rights, indigenous rights, or reserves. You should actually provide evidence from all of these false statements.
None of our policy proposals call for ending treaties, Indian status, or alter Aboriginal title (In Canadian law, the constitutionally-recognized right of indigenous people to occupy their traditiona lands).