Published in Windspeaker newspaper | December 2013 | Circulation: 145,000
When hundreds of police raided a Mi’kmaq anti-fracking blockade near Elsipogtog First Nation only days after the United Nations Indigenous rights envoy left the country, many immediately appealed to James Anaya to speak out against the RCMP action.
Over the years, sustained–and successful–pressure was aimed at a recalcitrant Prime Minister Stephen Harper to sign onto the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which the Conservative leader finally did in 2007.
But the widespread push to hold Canada accountable to international rights norms when it comes to Aboriginal communities caused one University of Manitoba Native Studies professor to examine the celebrated document more closely.
The result: Peter Kulchyski’s provocatively titled new book, Aboriginal Rights are not Human Rights (Arbeiter Ring, 2013). He admits his conclusions about UNDRIP, outlined in one of the 173-page book’s chapters, might raise some eyebrows in Indian Country.
“I took a more serious look at the UN Declaration, and realized that really it confuses Aboriginal rights and human rights,” he told Windspeaker. “Aboriginal rights are distinct.
“Much of the struggle of Aboriginal people is oriented around trying to gain recognition and protection for Aboriginal and treaty rights … I found (UNDRIP) was deeply flawed. That’s not popular for me to be saying that!”
As he defines them, Aboriginal rights are communally held rights rooted in distinct cultures and practices enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The constitutional document also ensures that the human rights enjoyed by all individual Canadians cannot trump the inherent collective rights and culture of Aboriginal communities.
On the other hand, he argues that human rights are European concepts applying only to individuals, not to communities or cultures.
“There are good things about the UN Declaration,” he argued, “but structurally there’s a problem in that it doesn’t see the fact that human rights can be used to violate Aboriginal rights.”
Former Neskonlith First Nation chief Arthur Manuel, chairman of the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade, told Windspeaker that Kulchyski argues valid criticisms of UNDRIP, but that international human rights mechanisms are still important because “you need to use all the tools you can access.”
While Kulchyski agreed that both forms of rights can be useful as tactics, Manuel agreed that inherent Aboriginal rights under Charter Section 35 continue to form a backbone of many struggles.