Canada will no longer be the lone objector among the world's countries to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
The move would lift the qualifications to this country's endorsement of the declaration. Those qualifications were officially registered by the previous Conservative government over concerns that the document's requirement for the "free, prior and informed consent" of indigenous people on issues that affect them could be interpreted as a veto over development and other decisions made in the broader public interest.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who are in New York this week to attend the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said they will officially announce on Tuesday Canada's decision to drop the qualifications to the declaration.
"We will be changing our position here at the UN and remove our status as permanent objector to become a full supporter," Dr. Bennett told reporters on Monday. The declaration, she said, tells governments, corporations and all Canadians that "one must begin by meaningful engagement with indigenous people, and be able to understand the rights that they hold, as they begin any thoughts of a project or policies that affect indigenous people."
Cathy McLeod, the Conservative critic for indigenous affairs, said her party is concerned by the move. "I think it's important [to have] reassurances that Canada is not going to give up its sovereignty or the ability to make final decisions in areas that are in the best interests of the country," she said.
The ramifications of dropping the objector status to the declaration are unclear, Ms. McLeod said. "They haven't told Canadians what it's going to mean in terms of what changes will need to be made and what the implications are."
The declaration, known as the UNDRIP, aims to protect the collective and individual rights of indigenous peoples that are not covered in other documents, with special emphasis on their right to practise their own cultures and customs and to develop their own economies along with their own social and political institutions.
Canada, under the previous Conservative government, and three other countries – the United States, Australia and New Zealand – voted against the declaration when it was first passed by the United Nations in 2007.
Three years later, this country softened its stance, saying it endorsed the declaration but with qualifications. The Conservatives called it "aspirational" and said it was a "non-legally binding document that does not reflect customary international law nor change Canadian laws."
By 2014, the other three dissenting countries had reversed their positions and Canada was singled out at a meeting of the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples as being the only country that continued to distance itself from some elements of the UNDRIP.
Last spring, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent years examining the abuses at Canada's former Indian residential schools, called upon all levels of government to endorse the UN declaration. The Liberals have promised to implement all of the commission's calls to action.
Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has spoken often about the importance of endorsing the document in its entirely and said he does not agree that it provides indigenous people with a veto. Mr. Bellegarde wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in April to urge that the UNDRIP receive the government's unqualified support.
Mr. Bellegarde said in that letter that the AFN believes a public expression of explicit, unqualified support for the declaration is an essential step "toward meeting the commitment to renewed nation-to-nation relationship based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership."
Merrell-Ann Phare, the executive director of CIER, a Winnipeg-based organization that promotes sustainable First Nations communities and a healthy environment, applauded the government's decision to drop its objections to the UN declaration.
"It's the first time in Canadian history of a government making such strong statements about the rights of indigenous people," said Ms. Phare, who is also a lawyer.
What the declaration does, she said, is make it clear that governments and indigenous peoples must negotiate mutually satisfactory resolutions to conflicts. "I think it does not give a veto," said Ms. Phare. "I think statements where people suggest that it is giving a veto are just engendering fear that does not need to be created."