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Editorial: Aboriginals can’t veto everything, despite best intentions

United Nations pipeline report goes too far

United Nations special rapporteur James Anaya crossed a line recently between promoting the cause of Aboriginals in this country and unhelpfully interfering in Canadian politics.

Anaya, the rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, a law professor at the University of Arizona specializing in human rights, is one of 37 unpaid UN rapporteurs who regularly examine and publicly report on human rights problems around the world.

With so many civil wars, terror activities and natural disasters rampant around the globe, it is hard to believe human rights conditions in highly developed, democratic countries would be a priority for the United Nations.

Canada already is so aware of the Aboriginals’ plight, and the courts so attentive to their aspirations.

This country is taking measures to address past wrongs, with financial redress and a truth-and-reconciliation process. The federal government is advancing legislation aimed at improving on-reserve governance and education for Aboriginal youth. It also is taking measures to improve water quality on reserves.

Anaya’s declaration, suggesting Ottawa mothball the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline through B.C. because some Aboriginal groups oppose it, was ill considered.

This is not the first time a UN official has offended. UN special rapporteur for food Olivier de Schutter visited this country in 2012 and warned that millions of Canadians “are unacceptably too poor to feed themselves decently.”

Then-immigration minister Jason Kenney responded that his comments were “a discredit to the UN” when Canada sends billions of dollars in food aid to developing countries around the world where people are starving.

Anaya, discussing Northern Gateway, said to reporters that in the absence of Aboriginal agreement, “the government probably shouldn’t go forward” with Northern Gateway.

“The way it’s supposed to work is that whenever (Aboriginal) rights are affected, there needs to be consultation and agreement about any decision that would limit those rights . . . .”

But not proceeding in the absence of such agreement would be tantamount to handing Aboriginals veto power over all economic development decisions affecting land claimed by them.

The courts, while mandating a duty of governments to consult, have given no such power to native people, asserts Rhodes Scholar Dwight Newman, who teaches law at the University of Saskatchewan and is Canada research chair in indigenous rights in constitutional and international law.

Moreover, Newman argues governments, in the interest of public welfare, must occasionally make decisions on vital transportation infrastructure — such as pipelines — that could affect several native groups who may differ in their views.

Accommodating concerns of native people, says Newman, does not necessarily mean rejecting a development outright. It could mean making revisions to the plan, or paying compensation to Aboriginals opposing it.

It is important to note that about 32,000 First Nations people are employed by Canada’s resource sector.

Former diplomat Colin Robertson wrote recently that new pipelines being proposed would help Canada become “an energy superpower, shipping our oil and gas across the Pacific and Atlantic. In Europe, our energy can be a strategic alternative to dependence on Russia and the Middle East.”

Anaya’s focus, along with his suggestion that pipelines that don’t win Aboriginal favour be scotched, is likely to be rejected by Ottawa as being unjustifiably narrow and overly doctrinaire.