In many ways, Donald Nicholls had been preparing to attend this human rights workshop in Geneva, Switzerland all his life.
After getting law degrees from the University of Toronto and McGill University, Nicholls received a Master of Laws from the University of Arizona, where he would later become a professor. There he ended up working with Indigenous nations from across North America and the world, including work in Australia, Mexico and Nicaragua.
His first trip to Geneva was in the 1990s, when he attended negotiations under the Working Group on Indigenous Populations which would eventually become the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). He was in New York when it was eventually passed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 2007 (without Canada’s support).
After turning down an offer from the Harvard School of Management while still at the University of Arizona, Nicholls decided to return home to be closer to his parents and accepted an offer to work with the Cree Nation Government in 2005. His job as a political attaché would eventually lead to him becoming the Director of the Department of Justice and Correctional Services in 2009.
“I stepped from the political office and took over as Director of Justice and started building the Justice Department. It’s now the largest department within the Cree Nation Government structure,” Nicholls told the Nation.
“The Grand Chief requested I take an active role in the international file,” he said. So when the Justice Department was informed that the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights was hosting a special “Expert Workshop” on Indigenous participation through the Human Rights Council, it was clear that Nicholls was perfectly suited to attend and represent the Cree Nation.
Nicholls is quick to point out that the Cree Nation has always been involved with advocating for Indigenous rights, domestically and internationally, going back decades. “As a nation, we have rights to lands, territories, communities, and the safety of our families,” he explained. “When you look at the international system, you understand what international law is – it’s about respecting people and respecting life and freedom.”
“I went to Geneva because our legal counsel that works on the international file said it would be good if we had a representative there, so the Grand Chief asked me to be that representative,” he said. Nicholls and legal counsel Paul Joffe attended the meetings held November 21-24 at the UN’s main offices in Europe.
The meeting focused on the fact that while Indigenous Peoples are allowed to participate in many UN negotiations, they are only granted the same access as many non-governmental organizations, but not the same status as nations.
Nicholls pointed to Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh, who travelled to the League of Nations, which predated the UN, in 1923. Ultimately, he wasn’t recognized nor allowed to speak. “Indigenous Peoples are saying, when we go to the UN, why are we not being accepted as other nations?” Nicholls asked.
While there are bodies within the UN that prioritize Indigenous participation, including the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, other bodies like the Human Rights Council or the climate change negotiations don’t prioritize Indigenous engagement, even through they discuss items that impact Indigenous rights.
At these meetings in Geneva, however, the UN tried a new format, allowing Indigenous Peoples to speak with equal footing as states. “The whole idea with advance representation is let’s make a system that’s more inclusive, that honours commitments made in the declaration, and that should be more open to Indigenous participation,” Nicolls explained.
He said the outcome ended up being “very productive”, with everyone being allowed to speak. Nicholls also said he proposed to allow some seats to be guaranteed for Indigenous Peoples at UN meetings, potentially with one for each of the seven major socio-cultural regions recognized by the UN. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re likely on the menu,” he added.
The meeting will generate a report that will go to the Human Rights Council this summer, which could then see it go to a resolution for the UN General Assembly in September, potentially enmeshing it in law by this year or 2024. Nicholls said that around 80 people attended the workshop, including 10 Indigenous delegates from Canada and three or four from the Canadian government.
Nicholls said he’ll continue to work on the file, which may see him attending the 100th anniversary of Deskaheh’s trip to Geneva this summer, which the UN will celebrate by hosting Indigenous events and changing some of the flags to Indigenous flags. He said Indigenous groups also proposed a follow-up meeting on this workshop but that hasn’t been set yet.