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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Cree Nation plays leading role at UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

BY Patrick Quinn May 30, 2024

At the world’s largest annual gathering of Indigenous leaders and policymakers in New York City, the Cree Nation had a leading role in discussions about working collaboratively with state governments to advance self-determination.

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) is a high-level advisory body that has focused on raising awareness and gathering expert recommendations since 2002. Several side events examine pressing issues that help develop policies upholding Indigenous rights. 

Cree justice director Donald Nicholls moderated a side event April 18 – “Paving the Way for Future Generations: Reclaiming Indigenous Rights and Collaborating with State Governments for Sustainable Development and Sustainable Relations.” Grand Chiefs from the Cree, Algonquin-Anishinabeg and Atikamekw Nations were joined by Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Ghislain Picard.

“This panel was unique because it’s representing Indigenous people in Quebec saying don’t treat us like the enemy,” Nicholls told the Nation. “We’re here to build those relationships. It shouldn’t be adversarial. Voicing our concerns and proposing solutions is very important if we’re really going to have participation.”

Atikamekw Grand Chief Constant Awashish explained that just as he wants a strong Canada and Quebec, it’s in their best interests to have strong First Nations. While there has been slow progress toward this mutual empowerment, he said his people still don’t feel a sense of belonging. 

“Our biggest enemy is the status quo,” Picard asserted. “Staying idle on key issues is helping the agendas of governments. Despite the geopolitics, our nations are creating those spaces for themselves.”

Picard referenced the Cree-Innu sharing agreement for harvesting caribou as an example of First Nations creating solutions independently of federal and provincial governments. Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty said the Cree Nation continues to leverage the JBNQA for enhance the rights of Cree and neighbouring nations.

“We used this position to our advantage and continue to build on our land claim,” said Gull-Masty. “I don’t think this is the only governance system we should adhere to – my neighbouring nations across Canada are united in the position we take although we come from different histories.”

The conversation connected this advocacy with participation in decision-making that impacts Indigenous rights and lands. Still, Indigenous peoples remain largely on the periphery of key discussions.

“It’s the illusion of inclusion without us being there,” said Algonquin Grand Chief Savanna McGregor. “I see that hunger to finally be treated as equal and not a second thought. It’s important to show we’re not complacent.” 

Nicholls noted that when UN members came together to design the first charter of human rights in 1948, Canada applied it to everyone except Indigenous peoples. As the Cree Nation achieved greater recognition through the legal system, in the 1980s it advocated for Indigenous rights in the Canadian constitution. 

While Canada voted against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) when it was adopted in 2007, it has since not only reversed its position but in 2021 became the first country to adopt it into domestic law. 

The Supreme Court’s unanimous affirmation of Indigenous jurisdiction over child and family services in Bill C-92 this February was also the first time that UNDRIP was clearly shown to be enforceable in Canadian law. Speakers at the UN event commended Canada for developing an UNDRIP action plan but said the process hasn’t been inclusive enough. 

“We want to see a national mechanism that ensures compliance without having to go to court to have resolution,” said Nicholls. “Why not make an Indigenous rights tribunal that respects and affirms Indigenous rights? We want a domestic framework that’s accessible to Indigenous peoples.”

Although UNDRIP consists of minimum standards endorsed by Canada and 146 other countries, there are concerns that parts of the domestic law differ from the declaration. First Nations leaders worry that without Indigenous input, the principles could be compromised. 

British Columbia became Canada’s first jurisdiction to implement UNDRIP in 2019, creating a deputy minister position that works to ensure it’s consistent with provincial laws. While only the Northwest Territories is close to following BC’s lead, Nicholls shared that Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette told him he is open to adopting it.

Last year, the UN honoured the centennial of Haudenosaunee Deskaheh Levi General’s unsuccessful attempt to speak to its predecessor, the League of Nations. While there are now three UN bodies dealing specifically with Indigenous issues, the struggle continues for high-level participation.

“The majority of comments about Canada’s human rights record were about Indigenous peoples’ rights but Indigenous peoples were not allowed to attend or make submissions,” lamented Nicholls. “The conversation changes when we’re not there.”

Gull-Masty believes Canada has much to gain by creating space for Indigenous voices to supplement positions they share. She said accepting accountability for UNDRIP could allow Canada to influence member states with less-developed Indigenous relations.

“We as Canadians have to be the example and we as First Nations have to guide Canada in being that example,” asserted Gull-Masty. “As a progressive country, Canada could add so much to their position in the international forum.”

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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.