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UN meetings press Indigenous solutions to international issues

BY Patrick Quinn Nov 13, 2023

The Cree Nation met with Volker Türk, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in mid-October. Türk visited Ottawa to discuss general issues ahead of an in-depth review of Canada’s human rights situation in November, an exercise applied to most countries every four years. 

Cree Nation Government Justice Director Donald Nicholls presented four points on behalf of the Coalition for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples and discussed specific Cree issues in a separate meeting. The Coalition emphasized the importance of implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), for which Canada passed national legislation in 2021. 

Nicholls called on all institutions to implement UNDRIP within their areas of influence. The Coalition wants Canada to complement UNDRIP by adopting the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Finally, it asserted that more resources must be provided to address the vulnerability of Indigenous women and children.

Other groups discussed the treatment of Indigenous peoples in prison, noting they are less frequently paroled, more often serve their full sentences and are disproportionately placed in solitary confinement, which is now considered cruel and unusual punishment. 

“I talked about how we’re hoping the tiny home community we’re building will take people out of detention sooner, to create an environment where people can grow and be safe,” explained Nicholls. “They weren’t receiving enough rehabilitation or reintegration programming within the system, but we could provide that within the context of our own communities, complemented with land-based programming.”

At a recent housing conference in Gatineau, Nicholls advocated for the construction of tiny homes. Earlier this year, federal funding was granted to the Astum Api Niikinaahk tiny homes project for Indigenous people experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg, which has been praised as a success in community consultation.

With a background in housing issues and refugee protection, Türk asserted that housing is a human right and said Canada has one of the world’s lowest contributions to social housing at 3%. As the pandemic exacerbated homelessness issues, Türk criticized “people making a lot of money at the expense of vulnerable populations.”

Türk expressed admiration for the resilience and courage that Indigenous peoples continue to draw from ancestral wisdom. While noting there are more violent conflicts today than any time since 1945, Türk maintained that the planetary crisis is our generation’s defining human rights threat with this summer’s fires warning us the dystopian future is already here.  

“These are all unnatural disasters,” said Türk. “I think that all of us feel a degree of unease, perhaps event panic, faced with the sense of a sharply narrowing horizon. But this is true above all of young people. These powerful trends will surely impact all your careers, and the trajectory of your lives, as well as those of generations to come.”

Despite these challenges, Türk asserted that the climate crisis can be confronted with partnerships grounded in dignity and equality. He urged a faster phasing out of fossil fuels and overcoming the continuing harm against Indigenous peoples.

“I talked about the forest fires in Eeyou Istchee and the impacts on health, culture and food security,” Nicholls told the Nation. “How big an impact it has on the Cree way of life has not been recognized elsewhere. Some of my staff were going out and trying to fight the fire, but they had no training or equipment.” 

At risk of more devastation next summer, Nicholls suggested now is the time to prepare, perhaps with new services dedicated to protecting Cree priorities in the bush. 

A UN report released in July stated forest fires account for 5% of land burned, but more than 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. Escalating effects of climate change and land use are estimated to increase wildfires 14% globally by 2030 and 30% by 2050. 

During last spring’s UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the world has too long ignored Indigenous warnings of climate dangers. While Indigenous peoples are on the frontlines of climate change, Nicholls said they’re never invited to the table where key decisions are made. 

“We promoted enhanced representation at the UN and other gatherings affecting Indigenous people,” said Nicholls. “That would mean we would be treated like nation states and have the ability to propose solutions and be part of the discussions. Decisions made there impact Indigenous peoples significantly.”

While the Cree Nation didn’t attend a historic meeting in August held in Brazil aiming to save the rainforest, Nicholls believes it’s the beginning of a larger conversation happening around the world, recognizing that environmental movements are connected with Indigenous self-determination.

Building on a panel at the Permanent Forum where Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty shared conservation perspectives with Sami in northern Norway, Nicholls plans to visit Sami territory in December with the UN. He looks forward to exchanging ideas about asserting Indigenous rights and learning from their humane approach to justice. 

While Canada has invested in Indigenous-led conservation efforts, a recent report from Francisco Calí Tzay, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, found that First Nations are often excluded from green financing or are unnecessarily burdened by a focus on limited projects with tight deadlines. 

Noting that the most biodiverse and best-preserved lands are stewarded by Indigenous peoples, Tzay stated Indigenous worldviews and realities are rarely accommodated. Brandy Mayes, land manager for the Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Yukon argued that this complicates planning for land management approaches that don’t focus on a single species or research question.

“There’s very narrow parameters for the Guardian program,” said Mayes. “It’s just caribou monitoring – very centred around what they want from you. When people who were born on the land look after it, we can all prepare for what’s coming.”

By Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.