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editorial

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks during a news conference regarding a ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in Ottawa, Canada, January 26, 2016. REUTERS/Chris WattieCHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Last month, Romeo Saganash, the NDP MP for Abitibi-Baie James-Nunavik-Eeyou, upped the ante on the Liberal government. He tabled a private member's bill that would "affirm" the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples "as a universal international human rights instrument with application in Canadian law." If Mr. Saganash's Bill C-262 is passed, a UN declaration that appears to considerably expand the scope of aboriginal rights would have the force of law in Canada.

The federal Liberals had supported Mr. Saganash's similar previous bill. But that was before they came to power.

Last week, Perry Bellegarde, the head of the Assembly of First Nations, went to the UN. He said not only that Canadian law should be harmonized with UNDRIP, but also that it's "much more than a process of consultation." Indigenous peoples have "the right to say yes, and the right to say no" – potentially, about indefinitely large areas of Canada.

Under current constitutional law, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, Canada's native peoples do not have a "veto" over development on, or crossing, traditional lands. There's a duty to consult with affected native groups, but also the ability of the federal government to green-light projects if they have a public purpose.

The text of UNDRIP, however, suggests a veto, thanks to a clause that says indigenous peoples have a right to "free, prior and informed consent" over all development on traditional lands. Does the Liberal government see these as mere words, of no effect? Or would adopting these words profoundly change Canadian law?

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said last week at the UN that Canada "is now a full supporter, without qualification," of UNDRIP, and "it should not be scary." Unfortunately, it's hard to say how scary UNDRIP is or isn't, given how little the government has been willing to say about what it believes it means.

Do Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ms. Bennett and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould actually want UNDRIP to have the force of law in Canada? In Ms. Bennett's UN speech, she professed to be "excited" by the prospect of "breathing life into Section 35" of the Constitution Act. Section 35 says little more than, "The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed." Her excitement is apparently about deploying Section 35 as "a full box of rights for indigenous peoples in Canada." Maybe the Liberals want to use UNDRIP to fill up that "box"? Maybe they should let Canadians know.