Canadian Friends Service Committee is among the 160 organizations which have come together to remind the Government of Canada of the critical importance of social assistance to many refugee claimants, and the damaging effects which sections 172 and 173 of the omnibus Budget Bill C-43 are likely to have. Our joint open letter is below. A petition has also been started which you may wish to sign.
The Honourable Joe Oliver, MP, PC
Minister of Finance
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6
Open Letter: Budget Bill Restricts Access to Social Assistance for Refugee Claimants
As organizations that have an interest in ensuring that everyone in Canada has equal access to income security, we are alarmed by the inclusion of sections 172 and 173 in your recently introduced omnibus Budget Bill C-43. These sections amend the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act and are essentially Private Members Bill C-585, which was introduced earlier this year.
Many of our organizations are health and social service agencies and legal and community advocates that work directly with refugee claimants and others with precarious immigration status. The change that would be made to the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act as a result of these provisions would allow provinces to restrict access to social assistance for refugee claimants and others who have not yet been granted permanent residence.
To receive social assistance in any province, one must already qualify through testing and demonstrate great need. To then deny social assistance based on immigration status is to cruelly deny the most vulnerable in our society the crucial lifeline that allows them to survive.
A Federal Court recently described your government’s denial of healthcare to refugee claimants as “cruel and unusual”. It is disturbing to see another initiative in Parliament that seems to be using legislation to threaten the well-being of migrants attempting to navigate Canada’s immigration system.
Fleeing persecution places tremendous stress and burden on families seeking refugee status in Canada. Some of these families suffer from post traumatic stress disorder that can make finding and holding a job difficult without appropriate health care. Work permits take time to be approved and issued, which leaves people with no source of income for months on end. In the interim, access to social assistance is vital to sustain and rebuild lives. Without that source of support, many will be unable to feed, house, or clothe themselves and their families, putting further pressure on already overburdened charities and shelters. We know that poverty leads to poor health outcomes including higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and depression. We also know that denying basic social benefits, particularly to refugees, contravenes the spirit and letter of numerous international human rights obligations that are binding on Canada, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. It is unacceptable for our government to implement policies that worsen people’s health and deny their fundamental human rights.
We are also concerned that such a significant legislative change is being included in an omnibus Budget Bill, after being introduced as a Private Members Bill. These are inappropriate processes to deal with such a critical issue as access to basic social benefits. This is particularly the case since these provisions will have far reaching negative consequences for the health, income security, stability, and successful settlement of very vulnerable people who have come to Canada seeking shelter from war and persecution.
Our organizations call on you to withdraw sections 172 and 173 from Bill C-43. We will be making this Open Letter public and will continue to raise this issue with you, your MP colleagues, and the general public.
Access Alliance Community Health Centre
Access Empowerment Council
Action Plus Brome Missisquoi
Action Réfugiés Montréal
Amnesty International Canada (English speaking)
Anglican Diocese of Niagara
ARCH Disability Law Centre
Arts and Science Students’ Union
Association of Ontario Health Centres, Adrianna Tetley, Chief Executive Officer
Association of Ontario Midwives
Association pour la défense des droits sociaux Québec métropolitain (ADDS QM)
Bathurst Street United Church, Toronto
BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre
Bridges Community Health Centre
Campaign 2000: end child and family poverty in Canada
Campaign for Adequate Welfare and Disability Benefits
Canadian Alliance of Community Health Centre Associations
Canadian Association of Muslim Women in Law
Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers
Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW)
Canadian Council for Refugees, Loly Rico, President
Canadian Council for Social Development (CCSD)
Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care
Canadian Federation of University Women
Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers)
Canadian Health Coalition
Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health (CPATH)
Canadian Romani Alliance
Carrefour d’aide aux nouveaux arrivants (CANA)
Central Toronto Community Health Centres
Centre d’Action socio-communautaire de Montréal (CASCM)
Centre de recherche d’emploi de l’est
Centre des femmes d’ici et d’ailleurs
Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples
Centre francophone de Toronto
Centre justice et foi
Champlain Community Health Centre Executive Directors’ Network, Jack McCarthy, Chair, ED of Somerset West CHC
Church of the Holy Trinity, Trinity Square, Toronto
Citizens for Public Justice
Coalition des organismes communautaires québécois de lutte contre le sida (COCQ-SIDA)
Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres of Ottawa
Colour of Poverty / Colour of Change Network
Comité d’aide aux réfugiés
Comité des Personnes Assisteés Sociales de Pointe-Saint-Charles Montréal
Committee for Accessible AIDS Treatment
Community Advocacy & Legal Centre
Community Legal Assistance Sarnia
Confédération des organismes de personnes handicapées du Québec (COPHAN), Richard Lavigne, directeur général
Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA)
Council of Canadians
Ernestine’s Women’s Shelter
FCJ Refugee Centre
Fédération des maisons d’hébergement pour femmes
Femmes du monde à Côte-des-Neiges
Flemingdon Community Legal Services
Front commun des personnes assistées sociales du Québec
Groupe-Ressource du Plateau Mont-Royal
Hamilton Community Legal Clinic
Health For All
Health Providers Against Poverty
HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO)
Immigrant and Refugee Support Centre
Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC)
Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario (IAVGO)
Injured Workers Action for Justice
Injured Workers’ Consultants (IWC)
Inner City Health Associates
In-School & Library Settlement Services
Inter-Clinic Immigration Working Group
Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC)
Interprofessional Medical and Allied Groups for Improving Neighbourhood Environment (IMAGINE Clinic)
Jesuit Refugee and Migrant Service
Jewish – Refugee Action Network (JRAN)
John Howard Society of Toronto
Kensington Bellwoods Community Legal Services
Kinbrace Community Society
Kingston Community Legal Clinic
Kinna-aweya Legal Clinic
La Clé sur la Porte
Latin American and Caribbean Solidarity Network
Le Centre Afrika
le Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU)
Le Regroupement des assistées sociales et assistés sociaux du Témiscouata (Rasst)
Legal Assistance of Windsor
Ligue des droits et libertés
L’R des centres de femmes du Québec, Carolle Mathieu, présidente
Matthew House, Toronto
Mennonite Central Committee Canada
Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support
Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic
Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto
Mississauga Community Legal Clinic
Multicultural Women and Seniors Services Association (MWSSA)
National Council of Women of Canada
Neighbourhood Legal Services – London
ODSP Action Coalition
Ontario Coalition of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI)
Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), James Ryan, President
Ottawa Sanctuary City Network
Parkdale Community Legal Services
Pathway to Potential, Adam Vasey, Director
Presbyterian Church in Canada, Life and Mission Agency, The Rev. Dr. Richard W. Fee, General Secretary
Project Genesis, Michael Chervin, Executive Director
Provincial Council of Women of Ontario
Public Health Students’ Association, Dalla Lana School of Public Health
Refugee Lawyers Association of Ontario
Refugee Support Group of Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church
Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO)
Regroupement des assistées sociales et assistés sociaux du Témiscouata
Regroupement des comités logement et associations de locataires du Québec
Regroupement des cuisines collectives du Québec (RCCQ)
Réseau d’intervention auprès des personnes ayant subi la violence organisée (RIVO)
Romero House, Joseph Schmidt, President of the Board of Directors
Scarborough Community Legal Services (SCLS)
SDG Legal Clinic
Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Office, Kingston, Ontario
Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada, Office for Systemic Justice, Sue Wilson, Director
Social Assistance Reform Network of Niagara (SARNN)
Social Planning Council of Kitchener-Waterloo
Social Planning Council of Sudbury, Janet Gasparini
Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, Edmonton Central Council
South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario
South Ottawa Community Legal Services
South Riverdale Community Health Centre
Student Christian Movement
Students Against Bill C-585
Students for Medicare
Sudbury Community Legal Clinic
Syndicat de la fonction publique et parapublique du Québec, Lucie Martineau, présidente générale
Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes (TCRI)
Toronto Christian Resource Centre
Toronto Public Health
United Church of Canada, Church in Mission Unit, Michael Blair, Executive Minister
United Church of Canada, Justice and Global Justice Team, Toronto Southeast Presbytery
University of Toronto Medical Society
University of Toronto Medical Students for Refugee Care
University of Toronto Students’ Union
Voices from the Street
Welcome Home Refugee Housing Community, Sharon Schmidt, Director
West End Legal Services of Ottawa
West Neighbourhood House
West Scarborough Community Legal Services
Woman Abuse Council of Toronto
Women Speak Out
Women’s Health in Women’s Hands Community Health Centre
Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)
Working for Change
An alarming number of US Iraq War resisters in Canada are threatened with deportation. Six have received negative decisions on various applications to stay in Canada this fall. Two have already received stays of removal (i.e. deportation) – which may not last past January (there will be court hearings then). Three C.O.s received decisions on November 20th; they receive their removal dates in January – all will likely be required to leave Canada by January 30th. Now more than ever your support is needed!
Please support the rights of these conscientious objectors by writing to Chris Alexander, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, and send a copy to your Member of Parliament.
Let the Minister know that:
- Under international law, military personnel can desert and expect protection from foreign governments, particularly when they “can show that the performance of military service would have required his participation in military action contrary to his genuine political, religious or moral convictions, or to valid reasons of conscience” (UNHCR Handbook, paragraph 170).
- There have been many court decisions critiquing how their cases have been assessed and noting what factors Canada must consider (and did not) in its adjudication of their cases. The war resisters ability to expect a fair hearing was compromised by the government calling them “bogus refugees”.
- The majority of Canadians want the war resisters to stay in Canada.
- All removal orders/deportations should cease – those who return (or are deported) to the US will be tried and imprisoned by the US military. Punishment for deserting or refusing to perform military service, when based on deeply held moral, religious or political convictions, is a form of persecution.
- Like the Vietnam war resisters before them, the US war resisters came to Canada because of their conscientious objection to an illegal and immoral war. They should be allowed to stay.
Chris Alexander, Minister of Citizenship & Immigration, House of Commons, Ottawa, ON, K1A 0A6 or
To find the contact info for your MP, visit this site and enter your postal code under “Find a Member of Parliament”.
Consider making a donation to the War Resisters Defence Fund (to support their legal cases). Send a cheque made out to “War Resisters Support Campaign” to WRSC, 427 Bloor Street West,Box 3, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 1X7.
Learn more about the issues – read the following “backgrounder” on conscientious objection and why the US war resisters should be allowed to stay, for legal and moral reasons.
Backgrounder: Conscientious objection – why should we “let them stay”?
September 23, 2014
Conscientious objection to military service, whether by draft resisters or deserters, is a widely recognized ground for granting refugee protection, both in Canada and internationally. Rights of conscience and religion hold a particular significance for Quakers and other churches as we seek to encourage people to live faithful lives. When people have followed their conscience in the decision they made to refuse to serve in war and to come to Canada, their circumstances warrant humanitarian and compassionate relief. Their beliefs are protected under domestic and international law, and Canada would be facilitating their punishment by returning them to the United States.
Conscientious objection to war is the most well known expression of conscience that brings the individual into potential conflict with the state. Canada has a long history of accommodating conscientious objectors, including the Militia Act of 1793, which exempted Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren in Christ from service. Notably, the Militia Act recognized “scruples of conscience” as a valid ground for conscientious objection, in addition to the validity of religious grounds.
Since 1868, Canada has passed laws or made provisions for conscientious objectors that reflected evolving interpretations of rights of conscience. Through the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada now recognizes the right of freedom of conscience. Significantly, the Canadian Forces recognizes that those who join the military can develop a conscientious objection to war and bearing arms at any time and can seek a discharge on this basis.
While this is laudable, it does not yet reach the current standard of interpretation in international law which clarifies that conscientious objection can be selective, such as to particular war when the person believes it contravenes international standards of law or human rights. This is the case for most of the US war resisters in Canada.
Disappointingly, on July 22, 2010, Citizenship and Immigration Canada sent a directive, Operational Bulletin 202, to all immigration officers in Canada, focusing on the processing of military deserters who claim refugee status in Canada. The first paragraph of the directive implies that military deserters from other countries who are seeking refugee protection in Canada may also be serious criminals and therefore inadmissible to Canada, as desertion is a serious crime in some countries. When this effort to discourage military personnel prevents them from exercising conscientious objection rights guaranteed in the UN Handbook for Refugees then this is not in accord with respect to Canada’s adherence to the norms of universal human rights.
We note with profound concern that OB202 may not just be the basis of refusing entry to potential conscientious objections, it may be the basis of rejection by the Ministry of Immigration and Citizenship of legitimate spousal sponsorship applications by US war resisters and their Canadian spouses (i.e. the US spouse is “criminally inadmissible” because they deserted the US military).
The UN High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) Handbook, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, all protect the fundamental right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This fundamental right includes the right to conscientiously object to military service based on religious, moral, ethical, humanitarian, or similar motives.
The US war resisters have been arguing their case forprotection as refugees since arriving in Canada. The UNHCR Handbook specifically addresses the question of principled objection to military service (paragraphs 167-174). At paragraph 170 the Handbook instructs that:
There are, however, cases where the necessity to perform military service may be the sole ground for a claim to refugee status, i.e. when a person can show that the performance of military service would have required his participation in military action contrary to his genuine political, religious or moral convictions, or to valid reasons of conscience.
The scope of interpretation of this right includes those who develop principled objections to military service after having volunteered to serve, and includes those who selectively object to only certain types of, or aspects of, military service.
Regarding whether protected conscientious objection to military service concerns only objection to war in general or also includes selective objection, or objection to a specific war, the UNHCR has instructed:
In line with the UNHCR Handbook and evolving human rights law, punishment for refusal to perform compulsory military service in the form of draft evasion or desertion may also be considered to be persecutory, if the reasons for refusal to serve are based on deeply held moral, religious or political convictions (conscientious objection). The question as to whether the objection is selective is irrelevant in this regard. UNHCR trusts that Member states will take this aspect into account. (emphasis added)
Conscience is not limited to a person’s religious beliefs – it prods us and leads us regardless of faith and is recognized not just philosophically but legally. Rights of conscience are recognized in Canadian and international law, which speaks to their prominence in the function of society. Such rights of conscience in Canadian and in international law are not dependent on a rootedness in religious belief.
In terms of conscientious objection, people serving in the military can (and do) develop sincerely held beliefs against war, a war (selective objection), or bearing arms, and have rights under international law to such status. If punished or imprisoned for their convictions – as the US war resisters who have returned to the US have consistently been – their punishment may amount to persecution –one of the grounds for seeking refugee status in the first place (well-founded fear of persecution).
The US war resisters are not criminals or bogus refugees – they are people of principle and of conscience who have already paid a high price for their beliefs and witness for peace: loss of country, loss of family and friends, insecurity of income, medical treatment, and home. What they have not lost is their courage to stand up for what is right – refusing to participate in an illegal and immoral war that the UN and Canada itself refused to participate in.
We continue to believein the legitimacy of the US war resisters’ claims for protection by the government of Canada and that they should be allowed to stay in Canada, be that as refugees, on humanitarian and compassionate grounds (which is at the Minister’s discretion), or as the legitimate spouses of Canadian citizens who seek to sponsor them (as is the case for some, and is a decision made by the Ministry of Immigration).
Additional learning resources:
“International Standards on Conscientious Objection to Military Service”, educational resource by Rachel Brett, Quaker UN Office Geneva (January 2014):
“Guidelines on International Protection No. 10: Claims to Refugee Status related to Military Service”, issued by UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) (December 2013): http://www.refworld.org/docid/529ee33b4.html
“Conscientious Objection to Military Service”, an educational publication by Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights) (2012): http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/ConscientiousObjection_en.pdf
Canadian Council of Churches’ letter in support of the US war resisters (May 2012): http://quakerservice.ca/news/cfsc-welcomes-churches-support-for-conscientious-objectors/
World Council of Churches minute in support of the right of conscientious objection (September 2009): http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/central-committee/2009/report-on-public-issues/minute-on-the-right-of-conscientious-objection-to-military-service
World Council of Churches’ study on the right of conscientious objection to military service (June 2009): http://www.overcomingviolence.org/fileadmin/dov/files/wcc_resources/dov_documents/Consc_Obj_Mil_Serv_Study.pdf
“A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it… Let us then try what Love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.”
~ William Penn, 1693
As global citizens, Friends are deeply concerned by the incredible violence and human suffering in Iraq and Syria. We urgently seek a response from the international community which will end horrific acts of violence like those perpetrated by ISIS against segments of the Iraqi population (CFSC has spoken out with Canadian church partners ) or the beheadings of internationals .
A small majority (54%) of Canadians support a limited military advisory intervention in Iraq . But is a violent response the only, or even the most effective, option which the international community has left, given the extreme and chilling realities of Syria and Iraq today?
Public discussion seems to centre around which forms of violent response will work best. But we need not feel that the only options are to support violent intervention or to stand back and do nothing. Through the roar of outraged and frightened voices which call for violence to subdue ISIS, there are those with opinions on how nonviolence can be part of a solution , .
To many, the idea of a nonviolent response to such a brutal group as ISIS sounds laughable. But let’s consider the evidence.
In addition to their terrible human, environmental, and economic costs, modern wars have simply proven ineffective. They consistently fail to achieve their stated goals, including bringing lasting stability . In this case, prolonged foreign military interventions in Iraq, and NATO’s support of violence in Syria, are direct causes of the current turmoil , . Based on what recent evidence would we expect that a renewed military campaign will lead to a positive outcome in Syria or Iraq? We can also look to Libya  and Egypt to see that military campaigns, and control, have not lead to stability or peace for those that matter – the people of these countries.
A great many studies have been produced in the past decade about how groups like al-Qaeda successfully recruit new members . The findings may differ from what you’ve heard. Those who become terrorists are not poorly educated and do not display signs of major mental health problems. Almost all, however, have actual or perceived grievances based on violence that they or a close relative or friend experienced and for which they seek revenge.
For every militant killed in the name of eradicating terrorism and making our world more secure, many non-combatant civilians are killed too, often with no consequence for those who killed them, nor reparations or reconciliation. This means that a great many family and friends develop grievances, and some may turn to violence. Therefore, far from reducing the numbers of militants, a violent response from nations like Canada may fuel recruitment. It has also been noted by social psychologists who’ve studied the recruitment process that, “Although exceptions exist, terrorists are usually males between 15 and 30 years of age — the same population most likely to commit violent crime in general, and the demographic group least likely to be deterred by the threat of physical force” .
Even if you do not believe, as Quakers do, that killing any human is inherently abhorrent as all have that of God in them, you should begin to see that a violent response is not likely to achieve the peace so dearly sought. A war on ISIS is not, and cannot be, a well-defined war against a well-defined enemy that can be subdued through violence – ISIS is not a state, is not a stable entity of actors, and is not limited to the boundaries of a country.
So far, Canada has committed to millions in humanitarian aid and, without parliamentary oversight, has sent 69 military advisers to Iraq to take part in a 30-day “non-combat mission”  (likely training the Iraqi military, which Human Rights Watch  has repeatedly documented committing gross human rights abuses). Not only is this mission expected to be extended, given the request for added support from the United States announced on September 24th, it is likely to expand .
Canada urgently needs to build its capacity for non-military interventions. Nonviolent strategies need to be funded and supported as fully as a military intervention would be if we want them to achieve their goals. When the world community does not pay attention to and support local nonviolent movements, we may encourage some people to give up on these attempts and embrace violent tactics instead, with the hope that they will be more effective .
For all of the attention placed on which military option will work best, did you know that there are hundreds of effective nonviolent techniques that can help to build peace? 
To take just one example, as described in our book, The Four Elements of Peacebuilding: How to Protect Nonviolently , nonviolent protective accompaniment has proven effective in brutally violent situations all over the world. It works best when teamed with adequate support for both human rights and human needs (safe drinking water, housing, education, etc.).
Human security is dependent on functional infrastructure and systems to uphold human rights and meet human needs. At best war weakens these. Thus by its very nature, war is a tool which undermines long-term security , .
Knowing the unacceptable costs of war, Canada should support local groups working to uphold human rights and meet human needs. Canada can also work to prevent ISIS from selling oil internationally to finance its operations. And Canada can support the enforcement of agreements like the Arms Trade Treaty – which regulates the international trade in conventional arms – which it has so far declined to sign and ratify .
We encourage you to speak up – explain to those you know that Canada’s options are not simply “send in the military or do nothing”. Our website has more information about how nonviolent techniques work to build peace. Visit: http://quakerservice.ca/our-work/peace/
Download this blog post in PDF.
 “Faith Leaders Statement on the situation in Mosul, Iraq”, August 1, 2014
 “ISIL Has Beheaded Journalist Steven Sotloff” by Shirley Li and Polly Mosendz, The Wire, Sep 2, 2014
 “Majority support Canadian troop deployment in Iraq, poll shows” by Marco Chown Oved, The Toronto Star, Sep 7, 2014
 “How Nonviolent Action Could Thwart ISIL’s Advance in Iraq” by Maria J. Stephan, Defense One, June 27, 2014
 “Six Steps Short of War to Beat ISIS” by Phyllis Bennis, Common Dreams, Sep 11, 2014
 This is one of the central points made in depth throughout the book “Preparing for Peace – by asking the experts to analyse war”, Westmorland General Meeting of Britain Yearly Meeting, 2005. The full text of the book is available online at http://www.preparingforpeace.org/book1.htm
 see for example “How America Made ISIS” by Tom Engelhardt, Tom Dispatch, Sep 2, 2014
 “Lessons Learned in the Bucca Camp” by Kathy Kelly, Telesur, Sep 16, 2014
 “Statement in opposition to the military intervention in Libya” by Canadian Friends Service Committee, April 15, 2011
 “How Social Science Can Reduce Terrorism” by Scott L. Plous and Philip G. Zimbardo, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sep 10, 2004
 “Opposition calls for vote, debate over Iraq deployment” by Lee Berthiaume & David Pugliese, The Vancouver Sun, Sep 6, 2014
 “US Missing the Boat on Halting Iraq Arms Sales” by Erin Evers, Feb 26, 2014
 “Stephen Harper considers U.S. request for further military help in ISIS fight” by Susana Mas, CBC News, Sep 24, 2014
 “Behind the Iraqi crisis: the crushing of the nonviolent Sunni uprising” by Milan Rai, Peace News, Aug 2014
 Global Nonviolent Action Database – a project of Swarthmore College
 The Four Elements of Peacebuilding: How to Protect Nonviolently by Gianne Broughton, 2013
 “Preparing for Peace – by asking the experts to analyse war”, Westmorland General Meeting of Britain Yearly Meeting, 2005
 “Achieving security in Sub-Saharan Africa: Cost effective alternatives to the military”, edited by Geoff Harris, p.6-7, Institute for Security Studies, 2004.
 “Ottawa approval bypassed in proposed Canadian arms exports to Iraq” by Kenneth Epps, Project Ploughshares, May 21, 2014
Indigenous peoples’ organizations and human rights groups are outraged that the federal government used a high level United Nations forum on Indigenous rights as an opportunity to continue its unprincipled attack on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
On Monday, the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples – a high level plenary of the UN General Assembly in New York – adopted a consensus statement reaffirming support for the UN Declaration.
Canada was the only member state to raise objections.
Chief Perry Bellegarde, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, said, “The World Conference was an opportunity for all states to reaffirm their commitment to working constructively with Indigenous peoples to uphold fundamental human rights standards. Alone among all the UN members, Canada instead chose to use this forum to make another unprincipled attack on those very standards.”
The Outcome Document, the product of many months of negotiations between states and Indigenous representatives prior to the World Conference, calls on member states to take “appropriate measures at the national level, including legislative, policy and administrative measures, to achieve the ends of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
The Outcome Document also affirms provisions in the UN Declaration that decisions potentially affecting the rights of Indigenous peoples should be undertaken only with their free, prior and informed consent.
After the Outcome Document was adopted, Canada filed a two page statement of objections, saying that it could not commit to uphold provisions in the UN Declaration that deal with free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) if these provisions were “interpreted as a veto.”
The notion that the Declaration could be interpreted as conferring an absolute and unilateral veto power has been repeatedly raised by Canada as a justification for its continued opposition to the Declaration. This claim, however, has no basis either in the UN Declaration or in the wider body of international law.
Like standards of accommodation and consent set out by the Supreme Court of Canada, FPIC in international law is applied in proportion to the potential for harm to the rights of Indigenous peoples and to the strength of these rights. The word “veto” does not appear in the UN Declaration.
“The right of free, prior and informed consent is crucial to us, as self-determining peoples,” said Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees. “The government has never explained what it means by ‘veto.’ Is a ‘veto’ absolute? If so, then a ‘veto’ isn’t the same thing as ‘consent.’”
In international law, human rights are generally relative and not absolute. The right to free, prior and informed consent in the UN Declaration is not absolute.
Grand Chief Ed John, First Nations Summit, said, “In the recent decision recognizing Tsilhqot’in title, the Supreme Court itself rejected Canada’s incomprehensible position.”
In its unanimous decision recognizing Tsilhqot’in ownership of a large part of their traditional lands, the Supreme Court stated in June, “Governments and individuals proposing to use or exploit land, whether before or after a declaration of Aboriginal title, can avoid a charge of infringement or failure to adequately consult by obtaining the consent of the interested Aboriginal group.”
National Chief Ghislain Picard, Assembly of First Nations, said, “Canada keeps insisting that Indigenous peoples don’t have a say in development on their lands. This position is not consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, decisions by its own courts, or the goal of reconciliation.”
Regional Chief Stan Beardy, Chiefs of Ontario, said, “Either through the social license to operate, which refers to the level of acceptance or approval that a local community provides to development, or a Notice of Assertions as provided by First Nations in Ontario this past summer, First Nations are already exercising a direct say about development on their lands – whether Canada objects internationally or not.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said, “The Outcome Document speaks directly to the pressing human rights concerns of Indigenous Peoples in Canada such as Indigenous Peoples’ participation in consent-based decisions regarding resource development, the need to close the gap in access to government services, and the dire need to address violence against Indigenous women. In light of the game-changing Supreme Court of Canada Tsilhqot’in Nation decision, Canada should have embraced the Outcome Document rather than be the only State in the United Nations to invent self-serving reasons to object.”
Canada’s objection to the World Conference Outcome Document contradicts Canada’s 2010 statement of endorsement of the UN Declaration in which the government said, “We are now confident that Canada can interpret the principles expressed in the Declaration in a manner that is consistent with our Constitution and legal framework.”
In contrast, Canada told the UN that FPIC provisions in the Declaration “run counter to Canada’s constitution” and would “negate” Supreme Court mandated policies on consultation and accommodation.
“It strains credibility to think Canadian officials could actually believe the ridiculous claims they presented to the United Nations,” said Michelle Audette, President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. “This kind of bad faith and dishonesty will only further tarnish Canada’s reputation and erode Canada’s influence on the world stage.”
On 1 May 2008, over 100 scholars and experts in Canadian constitutional and international law signed an Open Letter stating that the Declaration was “consistent with the Canadian Constitution and Charter … Government claims to the contrary do a grave disservice to the cause of human rights and to the promotion of harmonious and cooperative relations.”
The Outcome Document adopted by the UN General Assembly also calls for “equal access to high-quality education that recognizes the diversity of the culture of indigenous peoples, as well as health, housing, water, sanitation and other economic and social programmes to improve their well-being.” Specific measures are urged for Indigenous people with disabilities and to address HIV/AIDS.
In addition, the Outcome Document calls for “measures which will ensure the full and effective participation of indigenous women in decision making processes at all levels and in all areas,” as well as intensified efforts to stop violence against Indigenous women.
Statement endorsed by:
Amnesty International Canada
Assembly of First Nations
Canadian Friends Service Committee
Chiefs of Ontario
Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations
First Nations Summit
Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee)
Indigenous World Association
KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives
Native Women’s Association of Canada
Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs
Download this joint statement in PDF.
Learn more about the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.