Speech delivered at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, New York, May 10.


Speaking Notes for
The Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs
United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

May 10, 2016
New York City

As Delivered

Mr. Chairperson, members of the Permanent Forum, before I begin, I want to acknowledge that we are on the traditional territory of the Lenape people.  I would also like to acknowledge Elders Willy Littlechild, Sally Webster and Oliver Boulet, who are part of our delegation and who are here with us representing as Elders from Canada's three distinct indigenous peoples, First Nations, Inuit people and the Métis Nation. 

Distinguished guests and colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, it is an honour to gather with you this morning, and with our new Ambassador Blanchard. But first, I want to echo the sentiments of Chief Ed John.  Our hearts are with all those residents of Northern Alberta whose lives have been devastated by the beast of a forest fire.  We also thank the First Nations like Fort McKay that have provided shelter and comfort to those fleeing this devastating fire.  And our heartfelt thanks to the first responders still fighting hour by hour, to protect the land and the affected communities.

I'm so pleased to be here representing the Government of Canada at this forum, and we welcome the important dialogue that will happen over these next two weeks – No One Left Behind.  Yesterday, we were all inspired, as the Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada's first Indigenous Minister of Justice and Attorney General, spoke at the opening of this fifteenth session of the Permanent Forum. 

It was such an honour to be here with my colleague and friend.  She continues to inspire not only Canada, but the world.  She is truly a role model for so many, including women, indigenous youth and all people who strive for social justice. 

Canada has traditionally played a key role in the United Nations.  Indeed, Canada has a long history of multilateralism and respect for the values of internationalism and pluralism.  Canada recognizes that it is only when we come together as peoples and as nations that we can address issues of peace, conflict and resolution. 

Former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, embodied these principles.  The organizers of this session have chosen to focus on the themes of conflict, peace and resolution, the very themes for which Lester Pearson was awarded the Peace Prize. 

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is the result of long struggles of Indigenous peoples for the recognition of their rights.  I would like today to acknowledge their tireless efforts and resilience.  These efforts have resulted in a monumental shift in the global will to protect the rights, culture, language, dignity and well-being of Indigenous people worldwide. 

I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to these leaders.

Allow me to single out Grand Chief Edward John and his long fight for this Declaration.  He would be the first to say he was one amongst many.  He's right.  Last week, I had the chance to speak with some of the Canadians here today.  It was then that Chief Thompson of Akwesasne reminded us of Chief Deskaheh, who, against incredible odds, lobbied the League of Nations nearly 100 years ago for the international recognition of Six Nations. 

I was also reminded by Grand Chief John that the progress we are celebrating today also belongs to the member states who were early adopters of the Declaration. 

Grand Chief John also highlighted the contribution of the Honourable Louise Arbour.

Justice Arbour, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, pushed hard in Geneva to have the negotiations on UNDRIP completed and supported.  She shepherded its adoption at the UN Human Rights Council. 

Today, we honour all of their work as we continue the journey.  As the Minister of Justice indicated yesterday, our Prime Minister wrote to every Minister and indicated in their mandate letters, and I quote: "No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples.  It is time for a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples based on recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership."

All of these mandate letters were made public, and by doing so, the Prime Minister spoke to all Canadians.  Today, we are addressing Canada's position on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  I'm here to announce, on behalf of Canada, that we are now a full supporter of the Declaration without qualification. 

We intend nothing less than to adopt and implement the declaration in accordance with the Canadian Constitution.  Canada is in a unique position to move forward.

Canada is one of the only countries in the world that has already incorporated Indigenous rights in its Constitution.

In fact, through Section 35 of its Constitution, Canada has a robust framework for the protection of indigenous rights.  Section 35 of our Constitution states, “the existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of Aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.”  Indigenous people, including Grand Chief John, and so many others fought hard to include these rights in our Constitution. 

By adopting and implementing the Declaration, we are excited that we are breathing life into Section 35 and recognizing it now as a full box of rights for Indigenous peoples in Canada.  Canada believes that our constitutional obligations serve to fulfil all of the principles of the declaration, including “free, prior and informed consent.”  We see modern treaties and self-government agreements as the ultimate expression of free, prior and informed consent among partners. 

Support for these principles was reaffirmed in Articles 3 and 20 of the Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly at the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples.

What does this mean for Canada now?  It means nothing less than a full engagement and how to move forward with adoption and implementation done in full partnership with First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit peoples.  It will also include Canada's provinces and territories, whose cooperation and support is essential in this work, and I acknowledge now the presence with me today of the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs for our largest province of Ontario, David Zimmer. 

Canada has already begun making real the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.  Our government believes that a nation-to-nation and Inuit-to-Crown relationship with Indigenous peoples means partnership on the world stage.  Last year, Prime Minister Trudeau invited Indigenous leaders to Paris for the Conference on Climate Change. 

In March, we were proud as Minister Hajdu included Indigenous women in her delegation at the Status of Women Commission.  We were all inspired as our Prime Minister spoke to that Commission as a proud feminist. 

At home, we have launched a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.  We are investing in education and in the preservation of Indigenous languages and culture.

We are investing in housing, infrastructure, health and child welfare. 

While this is a good start, we know there is much more that needs to be done.  Let's be honest, implementing UNDRIP should not be scary.  Recognition of elements of the declaration began 250 years ago with the Royal Proclamation, which was about sharing the land fairly.  UNDRIP reflects the spirit and intent of our treaties. 

Friends, this is an exciting time.  This conversation has begun.  From coast to coast to coast, Canadians are embarking on a journey of reconciliation.  The calls to action of our Truth and Reconciliation Commission have helped shed light on a dark chapter of Canada's history of colonization and residential schools, and on the impact of its sad legacy. 

We believe the calls to action have also informed the path forward.  What is needed is fundamental and foundational change.  It's about righting historical wrongs.  It's about shedding our colonial past.  It's about writing the next chapter together as partners.  I firmly believe that once you know the truth, you cannot unknow the truth.  We now know the truth.  We know the reality of our shared reality with Indigenous people in Canada.  We now need all Canadians to embark on the journey of reconciliation. 

In closing, when speaking of the legacy of residential schools, hereditary Chief Ray Jones, told us of a Gitxsan phrase “Shed Dim Amma gauu dingu mel,” meaning the canoe must be uprighted.  With our commitment to full adoption and implementation to the declaration today, we are continuing the vital work of reconciliation and working to upright that canoe.  Thank you.  Merci beaucoup, Mahsi Cho, Qujannamiik, Meegwich, Marsee.

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