Cree Statements to the United Nations

Presented to :
Commission on Human Rights
Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities
Working Group on Indigenous Populations
14th Session, 29 July-2 August 1996, Geneva

NOTE: Each summer, indigenous representatives meet at the United Nations in Geneva to discuss the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. The draft, written entirely by indigenous peoples, has been a decade in the making; its fate now rests with the UN's member states, many of whom are undermining and questioning its principles. The following statements to the chairperson of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, Dr. Erica Irene-Daes give an idea of the seriousness of the intent of the declaration, and the opposition it is encountering.

Item 4: Standard-Setting Activities: Evolution of Standards Concerning the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Statement by Ambassador Dr. Ted Moses, Grand Council of the Crees, Eeyou Astchee, Canada

On behalf of the Grand Council of the Crees I would like to offer a few brief comments on item 4 of the agenda: Standard-Setting.

Dr. Daes made particular note in her opening statement to the importance of the recognition and confirmation that the right of self-determination belongs to, and applies to indigenous peoples. I would like to direct your attention to document E/CN.4/Sub.2/AC.4/1995/3, a comprehensive note which was prepared by Dr. Daes for the previous sesson of this working group to discuss this question. The analysis offered in that document is very valuable and well-reasoned, and I commend it to everyone here, indigenous peoples and governments alike.

We indigenous peoples hear time and time again that governments refuse to recognize our right of self-determination because they fear that it would give rise to the justification in international law to a right of secession and independence for indigenous peoples in sovereign States.

I have yet to find an international jurist who supports this conclusion or really believes it to be true. We all know that there are many existing provisions and conditions in international law that prevent the abuse of the right of self-determination, and in particular which limit the use of this right to dismember States that respect the right of self-determination of peoples.

Nevertheless, this objection is raised over and over again by certain States without a convincing explanation, or any meaningful response to the arguments set out in the important note by [the] Chairman/Rapporteur of the working group.

I believe that the objection based on fear of secession is a ruse, an argument intended to conceal the real basis of governments' objections to our right of self-determination.

Article 1 of both international covenants states that by virtue of the right of self-determination, peoples have the right to own and benefit from their own natural resources. It also states that peoples may not be denied their own means of subsistence.

I am convinced that the real basis of the objection to the right of self-determination is the refusal by certain States to recognize our legitimate and internationally sanctioned right as peoples to own and enjoy our own resources; to benefit from our own resources, and to continue to practice without interference our own means of subsistence. This I submit is the political basis for the refusal of these States to recognize this right.

I would also point out that the States which object to the recognition of our right of self-determination, do so on the basis that the recognition of our status as "peoples" will lead to the recognition of the rights they refuse to recognize.

To deny status, in order to deny the rights which flow from that status is a prohibited form of discrimination under international laws. And such practice must be condemned as discrimination based on race. In this instance this argument is being put forward openly by States in the United Nations. That this should be permitted here is shameful.

Finally, allow me to comment on the question of a definition of "indigenous peoples". I endorse the analysis given by Dr. Daes in her opening statement: that a definition is neither desirable, useful, or necessary.

The principle put forward in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is that each people must define its own membership, just as each sovereign State has the right to determine its own citizenship.

When the Grand Council of the Crees signed its treaty with Canada in 1975, the Government of Canada accepted the principle of self-definition of our membership. We took the position that once a person was "Cree" they would always be Cree; if they were not Cree, thy would never become Cree. I certainly hope and expect that Canada will continue to endorse the principle of self-definition in its international law policy.

No State has the moral or legal authority to define our membership or to set arbitrary definitions that will limit the application of international law to indigenous peoples. Some States seek to agree on a definition which will clearly exclude the application of international law to peoples within their claimed jurisdictions. Others would like to insist on the most comprehensive and universal application of the Declaration in order to discourage support for the Declaration from States which do not want it to apply to them. These strategies are transparent and obvious. We should move on now to more substantive issues.

Item 5: Review of Developments Pertaining to the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples

Statement by Ambassador Dr. Ted Moses, Grand Council of the Crees, Eeyou Astchee, Canada

I will take this opportunity to report on developments in Canada which we perceive to be a serious threat to the protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Cree People.

On 30 October 1995 the provincial government of the Province of Quebec held a referendum on secession from Canada and an eventual unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) as a sovereign State.

Just a few days previous to this referendum, the Grand Council of the Crees held its own referendum. The Cree referendum, which was conducted under strict and predetermined formal rules of procedure, and involved sending ballot boxes by helicopter into camps on the remote Cree traplines, resulted in a massive participation in which the Crees voted 96% to stay, keeping our own territory in Canada if Quebec were to attempt to take the Crees and the Cree Territory out of Canada.

The provincial government which advocates separation, and UDI if necessary, ignored the results of our Cree referendum, insisting that the Quebec referendum would bind the Crees by its result. Unfortunately, the federal Government of Canada also failed to acknowledge our Cree referendum and a similar referendum conducted by our brothers and treaty partners, the Inuit, who also voted to keep their territory in Canada.

So once again, as in 1980, a referendum was conducted on Quebec separation, and once again separation was defeated, but this time by a narrow margin. This time, however, the Quebec referendum had been declared illegal by Quebec's own courts, although the court took no action to enforce its judgment.

Quebec leaders had declared prior to the referendum that Quebec has a right of self-determination, but that such a right does not belong to the Crees. To support his assertion, the provincial government pointed to the postitions that the Government of Canada has taken, and continues to take, at the meetings of this working group and in other United Nations meetings.

To further support its position that the right of self-determination could not apply to the Cree Peoples, the international affairs department of the Quebec Government tabled a Canadian Government Federal Privy Council policy paper which took the familiar position that the right of self-determination does not apply to indigenous peoples, and that the United Nations does not support the recognition of this right; and further, that it could never be invoked by the Crees against an independent Quebec State, no matter how "illegal" the creation of that State might be.

The Federal Privy Council authenticated the document leaked by Quebec, which was tabled the day the Cree referendum results were announced. As far as we have been able to determine, this remains Canada's position, and the Quebec authorities continue to circulate this Canadian Government document whenever they receive an enquiry regarding the Crees' right to remain in Canada.

When the narrow results of the Quebec referendum were announced, the then Premier of Quebec, Mr. [Jacques] Parizeau, blamed the referendum results on "big money and the ethnic vote", and there was rioting in the streets of Montreal and threats against the ethnic communities.

The Crees had previously said that Quebec nationalism was clearly ethnic nationalism, and had complained about threats by Quebec provincial ministers, who said [sic] repeatedly stated that force would be used against the Crees if we insisted on recognizing Canadian rather than Quebec law after a coup d'etat against Canada, followed by a UDI. The Premier's comments after the referendum vote proved that this was indeed ethnic nationalism with all that that implied.

Now a third Quebec referendum has been promised, but not yet scheduled. A new Quebec Premier has been installed who has said that he will continue to hold referendums until there is a "yes" vote for independence. After that there will be no further referendums. He has stated that this is a "democratic" way to proceed.

The Crees, he promises, will be treated at least as wel by an independent Quebec, as they are by Canada. This he says is also democratic. But he insists that we cannot choose to remain in Canada or to keep our traditional lands in Canada. This, he says is suported by international law.

Quebec officials have approached the Government of France, which has indicated that it would recognize an independent Quebec upon a referendum ressult of 50% plus one.

This situation, which I think all will acknowledge is a grave threat to our human rights and fundamental freedoms, forms the basis for our demand that the right of self-determination of indigenous peoples not be limited only to "internal" self-determination. We believe that these current and continuing developments in Quebec forcefully demonstrate the existence of a double-standard based on race with regard to the recognition of the right of self-determination.

Although the Minister of Indian Affairs, Mr. [Ron] Irwin, has verbally supported the right of the Crees to stay in Canada, our submissions on this issue to the federal Government of Canada seem to indicate that Canada considers the danger of a general recognition of the right of self-determination of indigenous peoples a far greater threat to the security of the State than the growing momentum and ever renewed threat of Quebec separation. Fellow Europeans, it would appear, have the right of self-determination, indigenous peoples do not.

The Crees voted to remain in Canada, yet the Federal Privy Council policy paper suggests that our real intent is to separate.

We ask the working group through you, Madame Chairman, to take note of these continuing developments as they affect our rights, and as they pertain to our work here. Thank you.