United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Bill

Second Reading—Debate Continued

November 29, 2018


The Honourable Senator Peter M. Boehm :

Honourable senators, I rise today to provide my support for Bill C-262, An Act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

I had planned on this bill being the first matter on which I would speak in this chamber, but as I have learned in my career in the public service and in my short time as a senator, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try hard sometimes, you might get what you need.

Before I make my arguments on the importance of Bill C-262, though, I would like to introduce myself a little better to you, my colleagues.

It is my humble honour to rise to speak in this chamber today. Having spent my whole life as a keen observer of Canadian politics, first as a student, and later as a public servant, I never imagined I would be here today. About two years ago, I was intrigued by the idea of a new open selection process, so I decided to apply.

So here I stand, fellow senators, like all of you who have come from across our great nation, with a deep sense of purpose, duty and desire to serve Canadians. I join an institution whose members, past and present, have served with distinction, with many having made lasting contributions to Canadian society.

A common thread among all who have served, and who sit here today, is the unshakeable belief that the Senate can make a difference in the lives of all Canadians. At its best, this house plays a vital role in enhancing our country’s good governance, prosperity and freedom.

It is that last point that has driven so much of my life. Like many of you, colleagues, my roots are in the ethnic fabric of our country. My parents, Michael and Anna, came to Canada as Transylvanian-Saxon refugees from what is now Romania.

They bore witness to the horrors of World War II and suffered the loss of all their family property and possessions. Over the course of just one day in September 1944, my parents and ancestors were forced to flee the place, people and things they held dear for eight centuries.

My parents met in Kitchener, Ontario, where I was born. After 65 years of marriage, they still live there to this day, in the house my father built. Knowing all that my parents had taken from them has made me that much more appreciative and protective of the freedoms we are so very fortunate to have and often take for granted as Canadians.

Colleagues, like some of you, my first language was neither English nor French. As is the case with many people from Kitchener, the first words I spoke were auf Deutsch. I attended German school on Saturdays where I learned to read and write in the language of Goethe and Schiller, although not nearly as well.

Perhaps it was my interest in foreign languages and in the world my parents left behind, and in Canada’s place in the world, that all came together to shape my academic studies and my wish to enter the foreign service of our great country.

I spent half of my diplomatic career abroad, working in Havana, San José, twice in Washington, and Berlin. I had the opportunity to work under and alongside some passionate, talented individuals and earned more and more responsibility over time. Most notably, I twice had the honour of being an ambassador. Between assignments, there was always an interval of a few years in Ottawa. Some would call this time precious, a way to keep your head on straight and your feet on the ground.

Following on Senator’s Dean’s earlier comment, I am convinced the men and women who work to advance Canada’s diplomatic, commercial, international development and consular interests abroad are among the best, if not the best, in the world. They serve their country and fellow Canadians every single day with no expectation of glory or praise, often in dangerous places. I intend to defend and promote their interests in this chamber.

This service is not without sacrifice, and it is not just our government officials but also their spouses, partners and families who adapt to changing surroundings, displacement, health and mental health issues, as well as having to confront safety and security challenges. In addition, there are the pressures placed on extended family relationships and friendships occasioned by regular moves.

I am sure all senators would agree, given the amount of time that parliamentarians must spend away from home and loved ones, that our families provide our greatest source of support.

Of the four children my spouse Julia and I have, two were born abroad. Our son Nikolas was born during our posting in Costa Rica. His autism has been one of the great challenges of our lives and has spurred my interest in mental health issues.

I applaud the work of Senators Munson, Bernard and Housakos, as well as that of former Senator Kirby, in drawing attention to mental health and to autism in particular. I, too, intend to carry this torch and stand with them.

But I also spent time in Ottawa where, as one of the nameless but ubiquitous senior officials, I was afforded even greater policy perspective, inevitably working more directly with ministers and indeed prime ministers. This work included bilateral and multilateral negotiations, and, of course, international summits such as the G7.

In my view, there is no greater honour for a public servant than being the personal representative, or Sherpa, of your country’s leader. I was often the only Canadian in the room other than the Prime Minister in meetings with other world leaders. I proudly served our last three prime ministers in this way.

Since summit agendas are, to put it mildly, comprehensive, I learned much about the intersection of domestic public policy with our global interests. I took great pride in witnessing how our prime ministers, both Liberal and Conservative, applied their talents and served Canadians on the world stage.

I believe that such exposure has served me well in my former lives as a deputy minister, both in foreign and trade policy, and in my most recent work on international development, which included conducting a policy review.

Regarding the latter, I applaud the emphasis our colleague Senator Coyle has placed on the importance of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

My interests are varied and have evolved over the course of my career, with international security being one of them. I personally lived through the events of September 11, 2001, while I was posted to Washington, and I helped develop the first action plan for our border with the United States.

I also have a keen interest in global trade, international development, gender equality, the environment and climate change, inspiring youth to public service, and reconciliation with our Indigenous people, to name just a few.

It is that last subject area I wish to address now. Bill C-262 urges us to ensure that our domestic laws are in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It was adopted in 2007 by 143 UN member states. Canada was one of only four countries against, but finally adopted it in 2016 after endorsing it, but not signing, in 2010. Of course, the aim of Bill C-262 is to go somewhat further than that.

The declaration is a comprehensive international human rights instrument. It covers and affirms a collective range of political, economic, social, cultural, environmental and spiritual rights for Indigenous peoples.

While not legally binding on states as would be an international treaty, it goes beyond the aspirational to reflect legal commitments in the UN Charter, various treaty obligations and customary international law.

The declaration’s articles affirm a principled framework for justice, reconciliation, healing and peace. The declaration follows the living tree doctrine, evergreen as it was. It is meant to be interpreted in pace with conditions and developments in all parts of the world that Indigenous peoples call home.

Let me be clear: The declaration is not a treaty. It is not a convention. It is not a compact. It does not require ratification by Parliament as a treaty or a convention would.

For Canada, as a nation of the Americas, the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the Organization of American States — the OAS — two years ago, is particularly relevant for me. It was my great honour, in my capacity as ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the OAS, to arrange for an invitation to then National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine to address the OAS Permanent Council in Washington in December 1998. That’s almost 20 years ago. I was very young at the time. This event was historic, as no Indigenous leader had ever addressed this body, despite the fact that several countries in our hemisphere have majority Indigenous populations.

Chief Fontaine provided an impetus for enhanced discussion of an American declaration, a hemispheric one, if you will, though it took another 18 years to get it done.

So, too, went the story of the UN declaration, where the AFN, the Métis National Council, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and other groups were consequential in their tireless advocacy for the declaration.

Honourable colleagues, the issue of the rights of our Indigenous peoples has shaped Canada’s history. It is a part of who we are, from the arrival of the first Europeans, whether Vikings in Vinland — today’s Newfoundland and Labrador — the French in old Acadia and Quebec and in their movement west, or the English on the Pacific coast and their colonization of Eastern and Central Canada.

Reconciliation, as a result of historical mistreatment, has shaped public policy discourse in recent years, with a few steps forward, some sideways and a few back.

That too has affected me personally. I played a peripheral role in Canada’s negotiations at the UN and a more important role with the OAS, and during my time as Ambassador to Germany, I was often asked to explain our shared history, the wrongs of the past, and the path to reconciliation. It wasn’t easy.

More recently, during Canada’s G7 presidency, I met with Indigenous leaders from the Charlevoix region to discuss their connection to the land, its riches and the great St. Lawrence River, their concerns about the future, and the aspirations of their peoples.

I was asked why, as a former deputy minister of international development, I could work so hard to ensure funding for access to potable water in developing countries, but not to similar access for Indigenous communities in my own country. Again, not easy to answer. This reality was brought home to me recently in a round table with Indigenous youth organized by our colleague Senator Sinclair.

Honourable senators, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is our sentinel as we move forward toward greater, and hopefully complete, reconciliation. It should serve to guide our policy work at all levels of government and will provide that normative legal framework to achieving reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples around the world. The discussion just now in our Question Period I think was particularly relevant, and the committee work will be as well as we proceed.

In my international experience, there are only a few countries where the expectation for demonstrable results is exceptionally high, and where government actions are closely watched and even emulated by other states. Canada is one such country. Our level of moral authority is high, regardless of which political party forms our government; however, we cannot rest on our laurels, as a nation long-known around the world for being open and just.

As a representative of our great country for much of my adult life, as a senator and as a Canadian, our positive reputation is something of which I am immensely proud and which I do not take lightly. We must not take how we are seen beyond our borders for granted, honourable senators.

I therefore wish to underscore my personal support for the passage of Bill C-262 and my appreciation to its sponsor, Senator Sinclair. This is a piece of legislation which will go a long way toward setting the path for the future. Honourable colleagues, I urge you all to support this bill. Thank you. Meegwetch.