Indigenous Climate Action Attendance at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) UNPFII
Going to the United Nations (UN) is always a challenge, from travel to hotel, to researching your interventions. This year, the UN changed how Indigenous peoples register to participate at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, utilizing a new program, confusing even some veterans who have been attending for years.
This year was a challenge to register as even seasoned advocates had a problem manoeuvering the new program used for this year’s registration. This meant, some people like me, missed one thing in registration: our letter of acceptance. And so I wasn’t allowed to register and had to wait almost 2 hours to have my registration accepted. Luckily a sympathetic worker at registration knew that my organization was already registered within the UN and granted me my pass.
But this was only one step towards being allowed to enter the Assembly room. All participants were also required to obtain another pass/ticket which was limited to 2 per organization. The new format of registration seemed a bit like gate keeping in order to participate, while making it difficult for participants is said to make it more efficient for the UN.
The process at the UNPFII provides everyone with 3 minutes to make their intervention, but this year, was one of the stricter times regarding allotted times to speakers that I have witnessed since attending in 2004. Past years had seen states give 10 or even 15 minutes of an intervention while Indigenous peoples had only 3 minutes. This year however, even states were monitored strictly to 3 minutes. This allowed more people to make interventions and allowed a greater number of Indigenous peoples to be heard. In many ways, this year’s process was more efficient, but I think everyone, especially states were taken by surprise at the preciseness regarding time by the Chairs.
Previous years have been frustrating with many Indigenous peoples unable to make interventions and have their voices heard. This causes me to realize that there must be by now, millions of rich stories and realities faced by Indigenous peoples which are lost opportunities for us to hear because of the UN’s strict bureaucratic process. With the adherence to time, this year’s changes in the PFII’s process, perhaps more stories and realities of Indigenous peoples throughout the different regions were given a greater opportunity to be known and acknowledged.
It is becoming more apparent that the UN, a state owned institution is careful in its critiques of its member states. In particular the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, (OHCHR) is provided the least amount of funding within the various UN agencies. The OHCHR monitors all the UN Treaty making bodies on states’ and their human rights obligations; including the work of the UNPFII and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP). Many UN member states barely uphold the minimum human rights standards of Conventions, Treaties and Declarations of the UN. Thus making the work of The Charter of the UN states in its second preamble sentence: “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small,; and in Article 103 of the Charter states that obligations to the United Nations prevail over all other treaty obligations.
Canada is legally bound to uphold the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, which include “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction …” (art. 1(3)).
These are some of the foundational ideals upon which the UN is founded upon but its important to note that the OHCHR is connected to all agencies of the UN and so Indigenous peoples are free to use other bodies of the UN to make complaints against the state they live in. Learning about how to use the UN is important as it is a big bureaucracy, but it is an important entity to remember so we can use it to help our communities and nations.
Thus, understanding the UN system is vital to bringing forth your story in a way that can be understood, utilizing UN reports, and UN international human rights laws.
Imagine traveling thousands of miles, without being able to have your voice heard; or only to be interrupted by a gavel and told to conclude. This is why before you leave for any UN meeting, it’s important for Indigenous peoples and their organizations to have access to workshops on how to condense and write your realities: it is worthwhile.
The questions to ask yourself is: what do I want to say? What do I want: and what UN human rights instruments can I use to support my recommendation.
There are obviously more questions to ask before heading to the UN, but really, it’s a matter of being capable of condensing what you have to say into 3 minutes. No easy task and not fair either but there are usually thousands of Indigenous peoples from different regions of the world who also want to speak. Hence the 3 minutes; not to say this is fair, this is the UN process of participation.
If you cannot say what you need to say in 3 minutes, you can always submit a report to the experts of the UNPFII, but the most important part is what you recommend to the PFII; this is what the experts are looking for as it strengthens their critique of whether states are upholding their obligations to the human family and human rights.
These experts are comprised of both Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous peoples who are aware of the constant violations of Indigenous peoples’ human rights. This will save you time in a sense as you are speaking to a well-educated and sensitized group of experts on what is happening to Indigenous Peoples.
I encourage participants to use the wealth and decades of UN reports that depict the submissions of Indigenous peoples and the studies conducted by the PFII and EMRIP, as well as the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNSR). Upon reading them, it is apparent that all our stories have been told. The UN is filled with strong recommendations to help IP, the challenge comes from the resistance of states like Canada. These reports can be referenced in any of your statements which strengthen what you have to say. UNPFII follows an international process which includes their Conventions and Treaties and which comprises the UNDRIP and some other Declarations, Conventions and Treaties may be used in your reports and recommendations.
After 10 years of the passing of the UNDRIP at the UN General Assembly, there is very little movement that clearly demonstrates that states are upholding the rule of law and respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples. Flowery words and good intentions do not constitute implementation nor good will; just good intentions. The conclusion is however, that UN member states do not uphold the highest standards of human rights. In fact, in the case of Indigenous peoples, they do not even uphold the minimum standards of human rights.
I was given two opportunities to make interventions regarding the land dispossession that continues in Canada against the community of Kanehsatà:ke. Here’s an excerpt of it:
Agenda Item 8: Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
1 - “The issue of self-determination encompasses all elements of Indigenous peoples’ collective human rights. These rights have endured hundreds of years of attacks by the colonization of settler states; Colonization continues still and the assimilation policies and legislations are now spun with a different yarn, using words that professes to respect human rights of Indigenous peoples yet maintains the status quo. The goal remains as it has since the beginning of contact – economic gain and land dispossession of the Indigenous peoples.
Canada continues to utilize a ‘divide and conquer’ game pitting the colonial created band councils against traditional governments that have survived colonization like the Hotinonshón:ni peoples of the Iroquois Confederacy.
The challenge of “guaranteeing” the collective rights of Indigenous peoples is not dependent upon Indigenous peoples themselves but colonial settler states like Canada, who consistently defy the rule of law; fail to implement any narrowly defined judgements from their own Supreme Court of Canada on what exactly “Aboriginal rights and title” constitutes a violation of its own laws.
It is the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island who are asserting their right to self-determination - grass roots organizers upholding their Indigenous rule of law which oblige them to protect the waters and lands, and all our relations. It is grass roots people of Indigenous nations that erect blockades, organize protests; refusing to leave threatened lands; who risk arrest and threats to their safety because Canada assumes sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and our homelands which were never ceded to Canada.
My second intervention was to request from the PFII and EMRIP to undertake a study on trauma, which all Indigenous peoples have experienced because of colonization. It was to provide the kind of evidence through trauma informed studies that will help the work on human rights to become more efficient. At the work of Maria Braveheart Yellowhorse of the Sioux nation who speaks on healing from historical traumas, that they are multi-generational. My motivation to propose this was to bring light upon the challenges we face from enjoying our human rights, amongst the on-going colonialism of settler states like Canada.
Canada’s Evening Side Event
The panelists included Minister Carolyn Bennett, Assistant Deputy Minister Joe Wild, lawyer Jean Tailleur, Chief Wilton Littlechild, and was chaired by Chief Ed John.
I attended this April 17th evening side event to hear what more Canada has to say and to speak to INAC Minister Carolyn Bennett. As the panel evolved, Joe Wild a deputy Minister of INAC revealed Canada’s plan to implement the UNDRIP. It is one that is worrisome and was happy to see that activist Russell Diabo also attended.
Canada stated it wants to help Indigenous peoples rebuild their nations from colonization. They expressed optimism that the 90 tables on self-government were doing well and the intention was for Canada to get rid of the Indian Act, by helping Indigenous communities build capacity. here are 10 points to look at on the INAC web site; the most telling that colonization continues is the semantics used to express the so-called good faith Canada has towards helping us decolonize.
Reading with a critical eye, one can see that nothing has changed. I have the same sense of concern as when I heard Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson Raybould in her statement at the UNPFII in 2016 that what is really happening, is that Canada’s version of “devolving” out of the Indian Act is to relinquish their fiduciary responsibilities (which is good if there were ideal conditions), and for communities to be the sole ‘service provider’ for their people. But this is done once a community has negotiated its “self-government” agreement and has a land management agreement in place.
What is not revealed is the burden of proof still required by Indigenous peoples to prove ‘occupancy’ of their homelands, meet the criteria of government and relinquish their Title of their lands to the Crown. This is something that the UN OHCHR human rights treaty bodies have criticized Canada to remove. But it has yet to eliminate in any land management acts and the so-called land ‘claims’ negotiations.
Once they finished their presentations and it was open to questions, I was given the opportunity to speak. My intervention was directed at Minister Carolyn Bennett and her lack of action on the land theft going on in my home community of Kanehsatà:ke, her silence on the issue and her refusal to meet with the Hotinonshonni of Kanehsatà:ke after countless letters to her and the Prime Minister. I asked her why I had to go to NY to have an opportunity to speak with her?
Her response was the usual scripted answer of how they are dealing with all people at their decolonization tables and meet with Hereditary Chiefs, but that ‘we should talk. Our discussion did not continue as I wanted others to have the chance to speak, but afterwards, I spoke to her and asked her when we were going to meet then? Her assistant responded instead while she quickly wisked Minister Bennett out of the room to say “Our office will be in touch with you next Monday.”
Also making an intervention was BC Chief Judy Wilson on the Kinder Morgan pipelines which Prime Minister Trudeau said will happen as it is in the public interest. Violating Indigenous peoples’ human rights is what Canada does best in a manner that is inflexible, disrespectful to our traditional customary laws, and threatens the safety of Indigenous front-lines land and water defenders.
Russell Diabo also intervened towards the end responding to the presentation by Joe Wild, saying that Canada still makes secret deals and that the “Recognition of Rights” and its 10 points listed on their web site was not agreed upon by any Indigenous peoples. Mr. Diabo has attended these meetings and commented that not even AFN had agreed to some of what the government has announced.
Minister Bennett responded in the scripted responses to once again say they are consulting with everyone and they are ‘helping’ Indigenous peoples ‘rebuild’ their nations in order to have ‘self-government’, in order to move out of the Indian Act.
I wonder if anyone in that room was fooled by Canada’s flowery words that the 90 tables discussing Canada’s version of “Recognition of Rights” will actually be reflective of the UN Declaration. That in spite of Minister Bennett and Joe Wild’s attempt to convince us that ‘reimagining” Canada will actually be rebuilding our nations and that it is instead, municipalisation of our communities and our nations, extinguish their rights to our homelands and our resources.
UNESCO (side event April 18th, 3 p.m.), On The International Year of Indigenous Languages
One of the more promising activities of the UN is the announcement last year that 2019 is going to be the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The UNPFII had written a paper entitled: “Action plan for organizing the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages”, note by the Secretariat”
Working in my language Kanien’kéha, I have presented several times at the PFII and EMRIP to highlight the threats to Indigenous languages revitalization and its maintenance. So I was pleased to the comprehensiveness of the report depicting the state of all Indigenous languages, all of whom the report states, are endangered and threatened by globalization and colonial languages. The UNPFII estimates that of the 6,700 languages spoken today, that 40% of those are in danger of disappearing. And "...the fact that many of these are indigenous languages, places at risk the indigenous cultures and knowledge systems to which those languages belong.”
Before leaving for NYC I had a chance to read the Action Plan and found it to be interesting in its portrait of the state of Indigenous languages. However, my concerns were on the activities to implement the Action Plan that has been placed upon UNESCO. Concerns that there is only one UN agency that has been mandated to work on the year of Indigenous languages, and concerns over the intellectual property of the traditional knowledge embedded in our ancient languages. As in most activities, the UN undertakes, and states for that matter, it requires the participation of institutions, other ‘stakeholders’ and Indigenous peoples. How are our knowledge keepers protected from institutions that profess to help us; how will our ancient languages be protected from violations of 3rd party institutions and government; our precious languages must remain in our domain of stewardship and as keepers of knowledge: as NAHO created a research model: OCAP – Ownership, Control, Access and Possession of any research partnerships that emerge from the activities of the UN agency, and other 3rd parties from holding any intellectual property rights.
It was revealed by the Chair at UNESCO’s side event, that they have had consultations with Indigenous peoples in previous meetings conducted last year at the UN in NYC and Geneva and that the Action Plan casts a broad net on issues and activities for 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL).
UNESCO’s side event included the chair and 3 panelists. The chair brought up several activities and questions to the participants which included approximately 40 people, (it was a small room). Some of the questions seemed more like surface issues like: UNESCO is searching for artists to be ambassadors for the 2019 IYIL, so who here is an artist? Indigenous peoples should nominate language champions for an award so who could we nominate? Do we know any funding agencies that can help ‘us’ implement the Action Plan? One person suggested Google and Facebook. It was an odd question since most Indigenous peoples attending the UNPFII are themselves looking for funding just to exist. So it is apparent that if we are to celebrate the year of Indigenous languages, we will be doing the bulk of this work.
And so the questions I raised were how they were implementing the UNDRIP? What is the role of other UN agencies (it should not be solely UNESCO) as language is part of our enjoyment of self-determination; how are they connecting climate change to the threats to our languages (since Indigenous languages are land based) and land dispossession continues; how will Free prior and informed consent be applied to the issue of ‘partnerships’ and protection of Indigenous peoples intellectual property rights?
The Chair did not answer any of my questions, validating a statement told to me afterwards, that their fear was that this may be another activity/year, in which the UN will pat itself on the back – but that the hope was that it will sensitize the public and our communities on the fact that all our languages are threatened and may disappear sooner than we realize.
While experts on human rights will agree that all human rights are universal, inter-related, inter-dependent, it has been my experience, that languages continue to be a last thought when Indigenous peoples themselves speak of self-determination. Assimilation and colonization continue to be practiced. And as most Indigenous peoples attempt to ‘decolonize’, attitudes about our ancient languages must change to keep them at the forefront of our discussion on self-determination. They are precious gifts from our ancestors, and we need to pass them on to the present and future generations.
Understanding the Universal Periodical Review (April 19th, 3 p.m.)
One of the more interesting discussions at the UN was this side event given by the Permanent Forum staff by Josh Cooper from the Hawaii Institute for Human Rights, however this was held simultaneously outside of the main discussions in the General Assembly room.
The UPR is an important evaluation tool used by the UN to assess whether or not a state is living up to its human rights obligations. It seems simpler than one would think, but does take time, research and must be based upon evidence. Indigenous peoples are invited to submit reports as well as members of civil society and Non-governmental organizations (NGO’s).
Canada is one of the 6 countries being reviewed this year and so participating in this review, by either sending a shadow report is how we can contribute to the realities we face, and not the version Canada submits.
There are 3 phases to the process that are easy to participate in if you have the resources, both human, technology wise and time. They are:
What is your issue? Be specific, and articulate it in a short concise manner
What is the question you want the Experts on the UPR to ask the state, in this case Canada
What is your recommendation? What is it that is wrong and what do you want?
The issues, questions and recommendations must all be linked to the UN Declaration (UNDRIP).
All these can be answered in your shadow report and it’s important to remember that the experts receive tons of reports for the UPR so to help them, answer those questions in a maximum of 2 pages. Many complaints by Indigenous peoples is that they need more time to depict their situation, but in reality, all the UN agencies have many good reports so in essence, you are speaking to people/experts who are sensitized and aware of the situation of Indigenous peoples.
All the information submitted for any UN agency, whether it is for this process, is submitted to a UN data base so your submission will be seen by an international audience.
There was another interesting way of submitting a report: a 2 minute video answering the 3 questions above. This is something that appeals to the youth but it open to anyone who cares to submit one. It can also be accompanied by a written report.
Canada’s UPR will be taking place in June. Colton Bushie’s family at the UN
At the end of the 3rd day, an unprecedented move was made by the Chair of the UNPFII to allow for one more intervention, after 6 p.m.
Chief Wilton Littlechild asked the Chair to allow the family of Colton Bushie to make an intervention they had been waiting all day to make but had not yet been called and they were leaving the following morning.
It was an emotional intervention, and one that many in the room, wondered what was happening. His sister and mother were present, to speak on the injustice which happened to their young family member. His sister explained the situation of his death; she mentioned the man who killed Colten was found not guilty. Her family’s intervention was to have the PFII recommend to Canada to have investigations into the Justice system in Canada as it is embedded with systemic racism.
As Satin Ferguson spoke, people rose to stand with the family, to show support and his mother Debbie Baptiste held up a photo of her son. It was the most powerful moment at the UN. At the end, people rose to give the family a standing ovation and it was the shame of Canada, that this kind of injustice continues, and it was important to have this exposed at the international level.
I would like to say Niawenkó:wa – a big thank you to Indigenous Climate Action and its steering committee for supporting me to attend the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Sixteenth Session.
I met some old friends and made new ones. While many community members do not place much worth on attending these meetings, we just need to remember that there is a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that would not have happened had not our elders, like Chief Deskahe and others since, attended and worked diligently to make sure the next generation will have the tools needed to bring a better quality of life to them. It is evident that settler states’ laws and attitudes require more changes, require a better understanding of their colonial history and that international laws have shaped domestic legislation and attitudes.
Many times we are frustrated by how slow the change we want, takes. Our ancestors and elders had more challenges and experienced more oppression that we have. It does not take away from our current experiences, but I say this, without their efforts, we would not have our languages, our cultures and ceremonies; and we would not have access to human rights tools as we do today.
Nothing is perfect but we must strive to do better, to come to the realization that all of the work we do today will, as our ancestors taught us, benefit seven generations from now.
Niawenkó:wa tánon Skén:nen (a big thank you and wishing you peace)
Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel
Wakeniénton (Turtle Clan)
Kanien’kehá:ka from Kanehsatà:ke
Chief Wilton Littlechild
UNPFII room with Indigenous delegates, April 18, 2018
UNPFII room with Chief Willie Littlechild doing an intervention
SR Vicky Tauli-Corpuz at the end of the day, April 19th:
She was given a standing ovation by all the assembly at the UNPFII after a statement defending herself from accusations by the Philippines government that she is part of a ‘terrorist’ organization.
The Philippines Human Rights Organization stated support for her at the UNPFII and that there is no basis for these accusations.
As Vicky Tauli-Corpuz stated that several times now she has denied publically the Philippines government’s accusations, and now the onus is on them to prove them.
The standing ovation inspired trust, and most likely a relief for the UNSR Tauli-Corpuz.
Catching up with some friends who worked on the UN Declaration (UNDRIP)
Jennifer Preston (Canadian Friends Service Committee)
Paul Joffe (international lawyer for the Eeyou Istchee of James Bay)
With Rachel Singleton-Polster, UBCIC who is working on the issue of violence against Indigenous women.
1.“OHCHR’s thematic priorities are strengthening international human rights mechanisms; enhancing equality and countering discrimination; combating impunity and strengthening accountability and the rule of law; integrating human rights in development and in the economic sphere; widening the democratic space; and early warning and protection of human rights in situations of conflict, violence and insecurity.”
2. Hereditary Chiefs and Hotinonshón:ni Chiefs are different and have different roles
3. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Seventeenth session New York, 16–27 April 2018 Item 3 of the provisional agenda* Follow-up to the recommendations of the Permanent Forum, Action plan for organizing the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, Note by the Secretariat, para,4 page 2
4. Ibid para,4 page 2