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NDP MP Saganash tables bill to align federal laws with UN native declaration

NDP MP Romeo Saganash speaks with the media in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill Monday January 28, 2013 in Ottawa.


As first nations protesters gathered on Parliament Hill on Monday, a New Democrat MP introduced a private member's bill that would force the federal government to ensure that laws are compatible with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"The principles established in the UN declaration on indigenous rights recognize indigenous peoples' individual and collective rights," Romeo Saganash, the NDP MP for Abitibi-Baie James-Nunavik-Eeyou told reporters at a news conference on Monday morning.

The declaration says that indigenous peoples "are equal to all other peoples and must not be discriminated against," said Mr. Saganash.

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The UN declaration, which has been formally endorsed by the Conservative government, is a non-binding document.

It calls on governments to promote the full and effective participation of aboriginal people in all matters in that concern them and also says they have the right remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development.

Those are key issues that face Canada's first nations as they press forward with demands for greater sharing of resources revenues on their traditional lands – and for consultation when legislation crafted by Ottawa and the provinces will affect them.

Demonstrators with the Idle No More movement, which is staging protests in Canada and across the United States on Monday, have complained about federal bills that they say will negatively affect first-nations people but were drawn without native input.

When the Conservative government endorsed the declaration in 2010, it pointed out that it was an "aspirational document" – in other words, one that does not impose legal obligations on Canadian lawmakers.

But "this is an existing document that was signed on to by an overwhelming majority of countries around the world," Mr. Saganash said.

"Last I heard, our judges and our courts are impartial and they have the right to interpret domestic laws, to interpret domestic rights, or aboriginal rights in this case. They have the absolute right to consult the UN declaration in order to interpret domestic rights."

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Private member's bills, like the one introduced by Mr. Saganash, rarely get far in Parliament and, in this case, can easily be quashed by the Conservative majority.

Mr. Saganash was among those who helped draft another declaration of commitments last week that convinced Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to give up a hunger strike. Those commitments taken by first-nations leaders and opposition members included pressing the government to adhere to the UN declaration.

Bob Rae, the interim Liberal Leader, was also involved in writing those commitments to Ms. Spence.

On the face of it, Mr. Saganash's bill looks reasonable, Mr. Rae told reporters on Monday. "If we take the UN declaration serious, then we should take the commitments made in the UN declaration seriously."

Mr. Rae also said he has told Finance Minister Jim Flaherty that the looming federal budget must begin to address the real condition of first nations, Métis and Inuit people in Canada.

The opposition members did not end up signing the declaration of commitments to Ms. Spence, as first nations leaders did.

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But "we will certainly be talking about that issue this week," said Mr. Rae. "We will be raising it at Question Period and other opportunities."

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