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Signals mixed on Tory support for UN native rights declaration

OTTAWA – The Harper government’s response to a human rights challenge has called into question its throne speech commitment to ratify the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In its speech in March, the Tories delivered a surprise about-face on the declaration, pledging to give it qualified support.

Canada was one of four countries which refused to ratify the declaration in 2007, citing a conflict between the declaration and Canada’s Constitution.

This week, in a submission to a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal case on funding for First Nations child welfare, the government said the declaration is meaningless in Canada and shouldn’t be used to determine the human rights challenge.

"In its explanation of vote at the (United Nations General Assembly) Canada stated that it had significant concerns with the wording of the text, and underlined that it is non-binding, has no legal effect in Canada and that its provisions do not represent customary international law," reads the submission from the attorney general of Canada.

"Canada’s position on the declaration has not changed."

Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Todd Russell said that is a "shocking" statement which shows Canada is not living up to its throne speech commitment.

"They got a hell of a lot of credit for saying they were going to (adopt the declaration)," said Russell. "I’ve rarely seen such a two-faced approach."

The declaration sets out international standards for the treatment of indigenous peoples worldwide, including protection of culture, language and identity, and rights to access employment, health and education.

It is more symbolic than anything and is not legally binding.

However, aboriginal Canadians lobbied Ottawa hard to adopt the declaration – and the statement in the throne speech was seen as an act of good faith by the federal government.

"This commitment offers the potential for real, transformational change in the relationship between First Nations and Canada," Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo said at the time.

Atleo was unavailable to comment Thursday.

A spokeswoman for Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said the government still plans to give the declaration qualified approval.

"I can tell you that our government is committed to endorsing the (declaration) in a manner that is fully consistent with Canada’s Constitution and laws," said Michelle Yao in an e-mail. "We will continue to dialogue with Canada’s Aboriginal people and our international partners, in order to recognize this document within the context of our own legal framework and the Canadian Constitution."

She could give no explanation for the submission to the Human Rights Tribunal, saying she can’t comment because it is a matter currently before the courts.

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